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Monday, May 11, 2020
MEDIA MONDAY / WHY IS TRUMP STILL IN OFFICE?????????????????
Jim Morin, Miami Herald
Why aren't editorial
boards screaming: Trump has to go?
BLOG / By Joe Lockhart, former White House press secretary/Clinton
published by CNN.
By the height of the
Watergate scandal in 1974, virtually every major newspaper in America had
called for President Richard Nixon's resignation. During the investigation and
impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998, more than 100 newspapers called for him to
President Donald J. Trump? He could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and
shoot somebody... and not a single major daily newspaper would call for his
resignation. I admit that -- just like the original Trump quote it references
-- that Fifth Avenue statement is a bit hyperbolic, but think about it:
three years of political and actual carnage under Trump, including Robert
Mueller's description of acts that amounted to, he told Congress, obstruction
of justice; Trump's "fine people on both sides" reaction to a white
supremacist rally in Charlottesville where a counter-protester was killed; his
rampant conflicts of interest and credible accusations of his violations of the
emoluments clause of the Constitution; his close to 17,000 false statements; a
travel ban that primarily targets mostly Muslim-majority countries; impeachment
for alleged extortion of a foreign government (he was acquitted in the
Republican Senate), and the gross mishandling of a deadly pandemic, you'd think
somebody on an editorial board might say it's time for the President to leave.
this has not happened. Why not?
knowing the answer, I set out to talk to a lot of smart people to find out why.
did this because history would lead you to believe that most of the editorial
boards of America's newspapers/digital sites would have stepped up to that
plate already. To be clear, editorial boards are the group of writers and
editors behind the daily editorials on the news -- appearing in the editorial
pages -- that reflect the newspaper's values. These are separate from the
"op-eds" commissioned by opinion editors from outside writers that
reflect a range of views -- often at odds with those of the editorial board.
Pulling no punches on
Nixon and Clinton
According to United Press
International, by August of 1974, almost every major daily newspaper had called
for President Richard Nixon's resignation over the Watergate scandal. The most
prominent exception was the New York Times, which argued that it was the
impeachment process that should determine the fate of the President.
Wall Street Journal wrote "resignation to insure the orderly transfer of
power is fitting, we emphasize only because impeachment and conviction would
otherwise be certain." The Chicago Tribune argued, "We are appalled.
We saw the public man in his first Administration and we were impressed. We now
see a man who, in the words of his old friend and defender, Senator Hugh Scott,
is 'shabby, immoral and disgusting.' The key word here is immoral."
House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment for Nixon and
sent them to the House; he resigned before they could vote on them.
Hillary Clinton defends
Bill not resigning
years later, in 1998, more than 100 newspapers called for the resignation of
President Bill Clinton, both during the Kenneth Starr investigation and the
subsequent impeachment trial for obstruction of justice and perjury, over his
affair with a White House intern.
editorial page editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Jane Eisner, told the New
York Times that her paper debated the issue fiercely: "Ms. Eisner said she
was not expecting the feelings of profound exhaustion and 'nausea' she
experienced when finally, after two and a half hours of anguished arguments,
Chris Satullo, the deputy editorial page editor, went to write the Sunday
editorial that began with the words 'Bill Clinton should resign.' "
R. Bronson, then-editorial page editor of the Cincinnati Enquirer, told the
Times, "'As soon as we saw the Starr report and got knee deep, we said,
'This really smells, we've seen enough, the evidence is compelling and
damning,''' Mr. Bronson said.
The ground shifts
what changed between 1998 and 2020? Both John Dean, Nixon's White House counsel
and Carl Bernstein, the famed reporter who with Bob Woodward broke news in the
Washington Post of the Watergate coverup, have called Trump's Ukraine scandal
far worse than anything in Watergate.
Trump's offenses were much more far reaching than Clinton's: he used American
foreign policy to leverage a political favor, and he's also certainly had a
fair share of tawdry scandals
What has changed?
about everything, it seems, beginning with the media: the explosion of 24/7
news networks and the endless horizon of internet-on-demand caused some
newspapers to fold or shrink and lose relevance. The lucky few left standing
wobbled through a decade trying to claw their way back into news dominance.
Papers lost advertisers, lost readers and increasingly lost influence with the
public, particularly the editorial pages: so much opinion journalism was
readily available from so many other new online sources.
there also was a shifting of standards post-Clinton that held politicians to a
different moral standing than in the past. Even given the multitude of Trump's
scandals and failings, only two mid-sized dailies, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
and the Connecticut Post have been willing to call for President Donald Trump's
resignation (as far as I could find in an exhaustive search).
while a handful of large-newspaper editorial boards called for his impeachment,
I could find only one -- the LA Times -- that called for his removal (and with
a headline that covered all the bases: "Convict and remove President Trump
-- and disqualify him from ever holding office again").
have so many editorial pages railed -- over and over -- against Trump's
behavior in the most vehement terms, through scandal, impeachment, botched
pandemic response and much more, and yet they won't call for him to go?
Editorial boards' new
put this question to more than a dozen experts, media columnists, editorial
writers, academics and White House reporters. What emerged was not one simple
explanation, as journalism professor Jay Rosen of New York University explained
it, but a number of factors that have discouraged editorial pages around the
country from taking this bold step.
to these, according to John Avlon, a senior political analyst at CNN and the
former editor in chief of the Daily Beast, is that "the reality of the
hardened partisanship is beyond reason. We've become really unmoored from our
best civic traditions." And one of our best civic traditions used to be
holding political leaders to account -- demanding, in extreme situations, that
everyone I talked to mentioned timing: editorial boards' reluctance to urge
Trump to resign so close to the election. One editor (who preferred to remain
anonymous) at a major daily said his editorial board came close to calling for
Trump's ouster during his impeachment, but added "my question is why now,
when the election will be decided in six months."
one level that argument makes sense: the voters should have the final say on
the President's future. But it misses the mark, given that many editorial pages
have already excoriated, for example, the President's handling of the pandemic,
a tragedy that has cost more than 78,000 American lives so far, without
addressing his fitness to continue to serve. Any CEO who was deemed responsible
for allowing a massive tragedy to unfold would be immediately called upon to
resign or be fired, even if he or she were six months from retirement.
I asked my question of Margaret Sullivan, the media columnist for the
Washington Post and former public editor of the New York Times, she responded
by speculating, or spit-balling, as she called it: "It may have something
to do with the knowledge that such a call would not be effective but would also
deepen the rampant polarizations among citizens. And for some, it would
exacerbate the resentment of the traditional press, if that's even possible at
Loss of relevance in new
Sullivan's speculation captured the consensus of everyone I talked to. Jonathan
Karl, the chief White House correspondent for ABC News, was one of them. He
told me "perhaps it's the fact that there is zero percent [chance] he
(Trump) would do it [resign] or that any in his party would ask him to do
it." He compared the situation to Clinton, where many in the press thought
he might resign and many editorial pages chimed in with their own calls.
makes an important point: although there was no chance Clinton was going to
resign (I know that because I was there), there was a chance that members of
his own party might demand it, something I also know from my personal
futility argument resonates, in part due to the polarization Sullivan
referenced above. The only problem with his theory is that editorial pages take
positions every day knowing that they will fail to persuade politicians -- or
the public -- most of the time.
defense of editorial pages' recent reticence, many believe their editorials
have less impact anyway in the diffuse new-media environment of today and may
want to avoid highlighting that by taking a public stand -- and being shown as
ineffectual or out of touch. In the 2016 campaign, the overwhelming majority of
newspapers endorsed Hillary Clinton, or chose not to endorse at all. We know
how that turned out. That has led, in part, to a trend among many newspapers to
discontinue endorsing candidates in elections.
changing nature and business models of local papers also play a role. Jay Rosen
from NYU again: "Local newspapers are weaker institutions, they have declined
a lot in quality, reach and authority. This gives some of them less confidence
in their voice, especially in regions where they know they will get
push-back." Both Rosen and Brian Stelter, CNN's chief media correspondent,
pointed to the budget cuts often hitting editorial pages even before they hit
reporters. What's more, the internet, which if nothing else is full of opinion,
has diluted the impact of major news organizations' editorial pages, making
them less relevant.
the answer to my questions goes beyond the news media's effectiveness or its
business models. It has a lot to do with Trump himself -- and the tactics of
the right wing of American politics.
The power of the right
Bardella, a former Republican who served as the spokesman for the House
Oversight and Government Reform Committee, put it this way: "Donald Trump
and his right wing allies have invested so much time in creating the false
narrative that the mainstream media is fake and the enemy of the people. I
think the media falls into their trap of not wanting to go down a certain path
because they're worried about being labeled biased or partisan."
Rosen has a similar take, saying the right wing's "working the refs"
strategy works. But he goes further: "You cannot overlook the level of
flak, push-back and general hatred that newspaper editors get from Trump
supporters for anything like this... editors defy these attacks every day, but
it can make you think twice."
all the editors and columnists I talked to echoed a certain empathy for
editorial page editors and a resignation that nothing was likely to change
Brian Karem, columnist for Playboy, was less charitable. "Major newspapers
are shaky -- not on the solid financial ground they were even 10 years
ago," he told me in an email. "They are fearful of losing any more
advertisers or readers... they see no need to buck the tide or even join it...
We are unlikely to find a Katharine Graham in the age of Donald Trump -- though
we desperately need one."
was referring to the Washington Post publisher who weathered tremendous
blow-back when she presided over the paper during the reporting on Watergate
that led to Nixon's resignation.
So, where does this
Have the nation's editorial boards -- with so many of them clearly and
frequently expressing no confidence in this President's ability to do his job
-- abdicated their duty?
agree with Professor Rosen's admonition that there is no simple explanation...
and I think my friend Brian Karem is being a bit harsh.
my view, there is a simple solution to this problem. They should go down
fighting. If the President is unfit to lead the country, then say it. And if
lives are at risk and our Constitution is being attacked on a regular basis,
then it is the duty of our great editorial pages to seek the ultimate remedy --
a call for resignation.
the election is only six months away and voters usually should have the last
word. But if the President's policies are a clear and present danger to
Americans, or his behavior -- like Clinton's and Nixon's -- so outside of the
agreed upon norms, why aren't the guardians of truth at the nation's top
editorial pages screaming: He has to go?