In search of the media's "narrative:" Last Thursday morning, the gang on CNN's This Morning were discussing the Trump campaign's strategy for the campaign's final days.
Alisyn Camerota played videotape of Trump on the stump. He was telling himself to "stay on point."
In response, Chris Cuomo and David Gregory chuckled about it a while. As they did, Cuomo seemed to apologize for the pundit laughter:
CAMEROTA (11/3/16): We have a window into Donald Trump's strategy, because he is speaking to himself out loud. In fact, this is like his inner monologue on a hot mike. So let me play for you. I mean, he's just putting it all out there, what he's telling himself to do in these last days. Listen to this.The pundits were chuckling at Trump. Over the past sixteen months, major pundits have done that a lot, all over the cable dial.
TRUMP (videotape): We are going to win the White House. Going to win it. It's feeling like it already, isn't it. Just— we've got to be nice and cool. Nice and cool. Right. Stay on point, Donald. Stay on point. No side tracks, Donald. Nice and easy. Nice—
Because I've been watching Hillary the last few days. She's totally unhinged. We don't want any of that. She has become unhinged.
(end of videotape)
CUOMO (chuckling): He's not even letting people see his eyes. He's got his hat all the way down.
CAMEROTA: David, who's he channeling?
GREGORY: Imagine how strange that is. That he is such an erratic person, and that he has to talk out loud about resisting his impulsiveness.
CUOMO: He's not joking. He's not joking. We're laughing, but I'm laughing at the ridiculousness of it. He has to say to himself, "Don't put my foot in my mouth or attack anyone."
GREGORY: Right. This is real input that he's getting that he's got to kind of stay on track.
We thought of that moment, and of many others, when we read Digby's discussion of the press corps' "narratives" for this appalling campaign. Digby's headlines asked a sensible question. Here's what her headlines said:
In the media narrative, Hillary Clinton is corrupt—so what the hell is Donald Trump?On face, Digby was asking a perfectly sensible question. The press corps had a prevailing "narrative" in which Hillary Clinton was presumed to be corrupt and dishonest, she said. Given Trump's lifetime of grifting; given his endless misstatements on the trail; what was their "narrative" for him?
If Hillary Clinton's so-called scandal endangers her presidency, what about Donald Trump's massive corruption?
Eventually, Digby answered the question as shown below. We think this answer was wrong:
DIGBY (11/1/16): All of this raises a question The Washington Post’s Paul Waldman raised two months ago: How is it possible that Clinton’s email brouhaha has marked her as thoroughly corrupt and dishonest, while Trump’s monumentally nefarious past, present and future are overlooked? Waldman’s assumption is probably the correct one: The narratives were set early in the campaign cycle, with Trump being the bigoted, crazy one and Clinton being the corrupt one. That’s just how the media frames the contest.In Digby's view, the press had two competing narratives for the candidates: Clinton is corrupt and dishonest, Trump is crazy and bigoted.
They got it wrong. Yes, Trump is the crazy, bigoted one. He’s also a misogynist and worse. But he’s also the corrupt one, perhaps even more than most of us who had already understood that ever imagined. Considering that partial list of conflicts, misdeeds and legal entanglements I just laid out, a President Trump is unimaginable.
We think that assessment is wrong.
Digby seems to start with an assumption. She seems to assume that the press corps will automatically have a powerful, controlling "narrative," or story-line, for every major candidate.
That really isn't the case. In Campaign 2000, the press corps had a controlling narrative about what a big liar Candidate Gore was. They didn't have anything like an equal "narrative" concerning Candidate Bush.
(Near the end of that campaign, Cokie Roberts said they had equal-but-opposite narratives in which Gore was dishonest and Bush was stupid. It was odd that she would make such an unflattering claim about her own guild, but her claim plainly was false.)
Question: In the course of this campaign, did the mainstream press corps ever develop a controlling narrative for Trump? We'd be inclined to say that they didn't. But if they did, we'd be inclined to say it was this:
Candidate Trump is an amusing reality TV star.
Was there anything like a controlling "narrative" which "defined" Candidate Trump? We don't think there was.
(It's also true that, as a general rule, the press corps shouldn't adopt a story-line which controls what gets said about a candidate.)
Candidate Trump confronted the press with some very unusual behavior. His misstatements were endless, egregious, undisguised, on a scale which has never been seen in a White House campaign. But over and over, major journalists went out of their way to avoid confronting this trait.
(Sixteen years ago, they invented a series of lies to turn Gore into a big crazy liar. Sixteen years later, journalists frequently broke their backs to avoid confronting Trump's endless misstatements. Did he lie about sending investigators to Hawaii? Incredibly, astonishingly, no one ever asked!)
Digby says the press corps created a narrative in which Trump was crazy and bigoted. We can't really say they did that. Once again, the press corps generally went out of its way to avoid questions about mental health. In part, this was done in deference to the so-called "Goldwater rule," a proscription on psychiatric speculations which may have stopped serving the public interest in the face of Trump's strange behavior.
(Sixteen years ago, many pundits speculated about possible mental health issues which might explain why Gore kept telling those crazy lies when "the truth would have served just as well.")
Our view? We don't think the press corps ever really developed a controlling narrative about Candidate Trump. We're not saying they should have done so. But we can't really say they did.
In the case of Candidate Clinton, assumptions of corruption and dishonesty were prevalent default positions. In truth, this "narrative" about Clinton / Gore / Clinton has been around forever. Pundits have it memorized. They defer to this set of assumptions pretty much in their sleep.
That said, what was the most common framework surrounding the press corps' approach to Trump? We'd be inclined to say it involved the way they found him amusing. Day after day, we marveled at the way TV pundits would chuckle about the very strange things Trump had said. Even when they were confronted with massive misstatements by Trump, pundit reaction tended to default into chuckling and laughter.
No matter how crazy Trump's misstatements became, our pundits couldn't seem to take offense or treat his false claims as a major journalistic problem. We offer an obvious possible reason:
Their own press culture has run on bogus claims and flat misstatements for a very long time.
In Campaign 2000, these ridiculous people earned their keep by dreaming up bogus claims about Candidate Gore. Why would such people take offense, or even notice, when someone else took the same route?