[T]he Donald Trump candidacy is providing the kind of stress that highlights flaws in our journalistic system.Last summer and fall we were still in phase 1 -- pre-nomination -- which was focused about one third on opposition and two thirds on denial. Now, with the possible exception of Bill Kristol, everyone has accepted the obvious. The question is how the press will deal with it.
On the right, we have seen a blatant alliance of the Republican Party and right-wing media in an attempt to force out a popular but embarrassing candidate. On the center/left, we have seen newspapers like the New York Times loudly point out that the emperor has no clothes while carefully avoiding the fact that he is standing in the middle of a nudist colony. (The bizarre alliance between Fox News and the New York Times on derailing the Donald Trump candidacy is a fascinating topic that will have to wait for another post.)
On the analytic side, where we are supposed to be above this sort of thing, more and more of the coverage is sliding into drunkard's light post territory: using data for support but not illumination.
The primary problem journalists face in this phase comes from various bad habits the profession has fallen into. These habits relied heavily on symbiotic relationships with their subjects, particularly on the right. Reporters developed various methods for avoiding confrontation while their subjects found ways to help them avoid responsibility.
Now journalists or screwed on both sides . They obviously need to confront Trump but have lost the tools to do so. This would look bad under any circumstances, but since Trump refuses to give them any cover whatsoever, they are completely left out in the cold.
There were a handful in the press who emerged from phase 1 with their reputations not only intact but enhanced. Perhaps the most notable of these was Josh Marshall, whose phase 2 work is turning out to be every bit as good.
Today while taking questions after announcing belated donations to veterans groups, CNN's Jim Acosta pressed Trump on his criticisms of Judge Curiel. Toward the end of the exchange, in which Trump repeated his claims about bias and unfairness, Acosta asked Trump: "Why mention that the judge is Mexican?" Trump answered: "Because I'm a man of principle. Most of the people who took those courses have letters saying they thought it was great, essentially."
In other words, Trump didn't answer the question and Acosta seemed not to have a chance to follow up or chose not to.
As we've noted, quite apart from the policies he's embraced, Trump has shown himself over the course of the campaign to be an emotionally needy, pathological liar. Here we see that he also not only happily launches defamatory racist attacks on a federal judge but impugns the patriotism of an entire ethnic community in the United States.
As I write, the issue is being discussed on the cable nets in terms of why Trump thinks it's a good idea to attack a judge hearing his case, whether there's any evidence that Curiel is "biased" or "unfair." (It's worth noting that Curiel did Trump the inestimably valuable favor of acceding to his lawyers' request to push the trial back until after the November election - this despite the fact that 'elder abuse' infractions put a premium on conducting an expeditious trial.) But handicapping the wisdom of Trump's attack or analyzing them in substantive terms is an immense dereliction of journalistic duty.
The press routinely goes into paroxysms - often rightly so - about innuendos or phrasings that might in some way be racist or suggest racial animus. Here we have it in the open, repeated and showing itself as basically Trump's first line of attack when he is in anyway threatened. That's infinitely more dangerous than most things that routinely focus all the media's attention. Any reporter who gets a chance to ask Trump to justify his actions and doesn't is not doing his or her job. Few cases show more vividly how dangerous a person Trump is.