n the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks American East Coast media spiraled into anaphylactic shock. Desperately seeking villains but hopelessly under-informed, it embraced the Bush Administration’s ominous interpretation of what had happened and what was to come. Terrorism was just beginning, and aside from Osama Bin Laden — a kind of murky, gangland figure — its most brazen architect was Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, whose regime was secretly amassing exterminating weapons it intended to unleash on the world. Papered over was Saddam’s role as a secular dictator with no love for Islamic extremism atop a half-ruined country burdened by two decades of economic sanctions.
A bad guy was necessary and a bad guy was found, and rousted. The Saddam myth would later be debunked, but not before so-called newspapers of record acquiescence and all but encouraged a foolish war with enduring consequences. For example, had Iraq’s army and police not been disbanded, the country’s jails also emptied, corporals and criminals would have been less likely to find purposeful “employment” amid crudely cobbled together Sunni militant groups that eventually coalesced into the likes of ISIS.
American mainstream reporters and editors, otherwise vigilant, stood pat for a duping they would come to regret too late. Partisanship is admittedly exciting, all the more so when spangled with emotionally patriotic stars. It was only in 2005, two years after the Iraq invasion, that unsettling questions about the motivations of the war finally began making regular big-media rounds.
The historical footnote bears mention when it comes to East Coast coverage of Donald Trump’s now waning bid for the presidency. Trump is — and has been since his 1980s ascent — a self-involved and often loutish carnival barker, rich, coarse, vain, sentimental, and inclined to say the first thing that comes into his head. He’s likes the sound of his own voice and is disagreeable when challenged or vexed. This should no longer be news — not after three months of tedious vulgarity.
What is worth pointing out is how East Coast news bastions have allowed their coverage of Trump to fit the tycoon’s vision of them, namely biased, ironic and determined, Saddam-style, to portray him as a threat to American politics and culture.
Very much in the post-9/11 spirit, the Washington Post and New York Times, twin pillars in print and online, have played into the hands of those that suggest East Coast media, read liberal media, grinds a brazen axe against candidates it dislikes. The Times endorsed Hillary Clinton nearly two months ago. Its coverage of Trump since then has been as condescending as Trump can be vile. Though Trump’s bombast makes scoffing easier, it doesn’t excuse a deeper, Iraq-like bias (of Trump’s presence at a New York City charity dinner, the Times began: “Donald J. Trump began this quadrennial exercise in campaign humility and self-deprecation on Thursday by comparing himself to the son of God…”)
Since sexual impropriety charges entered the mix, Trump has been savaged by the both newspapers in dead-or-alive terms once reserved for, yes, Saddam. The “Stop Trump” crescendo has taken on the contemptuous tone of Fox News, which, working from the right, pioneered the confusing of vitriol with news (once called propaganda), and has tirelessly attempted to discredit liberal Democrats, in particular Hillary Clinton, while also helping to darn some of the conspiracy theories Trump now champions.
Concepts of objectivity that took a long time to build — the American press made major inroads away from Yellow Journalism after World War II — have been all but abandoned in less than 20 years. Even the most respected news organizations have largely strayed from the hard ethics of detachment toward the easier ones of preference, making Trump and his supporters easier to lampoon. That he’s also gruffly anti-intellectual makes the task all that much more appetizing.
Neutral reporting intended to explain why Trump’s thrashing and raging might elicit applause, and not just from middle-aged white men, has been in short supply. A word coined by Clinton to describe his more extreme supporters, “the contemptibles,” has become the East Coast media gold standard.
In all likelihood Trump will soon recede from center stage — morphing from presidential candidate to high-profile establishment basher, perhaps taking a walk down Murdoch Boulevard by adding a network to his list of holdings. Men who crave the limelight never leave it.
But the next time you hear Trump railing about plots to ruin or discredit him, or about media bias, don’t be too quick to laugh. There’s no plot — plots are too messy to concoct, let alone hatch. But dispassion has vanished. And dispassion was a trait intelligent news people once proudly stuck to, no matter what. The alternative was to allow metaphorical gun slinging to rule front pages, which the easily insulted Trump has coaxed into a self-fulfilling prophecy that ditched Saddam would be proud of.