viernes, 14 de octubre de 2016

Is the Press Treating Trump Worse Than It Did Bill Clinton?

Donald Trump bellowed yesterday that he is the victim of “the single greatest pile-on in history” this week, complaining as the press has reported the charges of nearly a dozen named women that he’s forcibly kissed them, groped them under their skirts or grabbed them by the ass. The press has also excavated his history of making provocative observations about women, and of course his views on seduction, which include specific descriptions (“grab them by the pussy”) of exactly the behavior he’s now being accused of. Additionally, heavy coverage has gone this week to the beauty pageant contestants who have publicly stated that Trump—owner of the pageants in which they competed—seems to have made a practice of entering their dressings rooms uninvited while they were undressed.

Trump is right, of course, that there’s been a pile-on. As I started to write this column, there were seven new accusers; by the time I filed it, there were 11. But that’s how the press works when you’ve done something wrong: Somebody breaks a big story, the competition joins the scrum, and soon an Everest of copy is amassed like a modern wonder of the world. The Podesta emails? Pile-on. The Snowden files? Pile-on. Ebola? Pile-on. The Sony hack? Pile-on. The Clinton emails? Pile-on. The Clinton Foundation? Pile-on. The WikiLeaks diplomatic cables? Pile-on. The legal chicanery of the Trump Foundation? A one-man pile-on by David Fahrenthold! To run for president is almost to beg the press to Pile-on. Just ask Mitt “47 Percent” Romney or Barack “Rev. Wright” Obama or any other presidential candidate over the past 50 years. It goes with the territory.

Of course it’s hard to compare a pattern of predatory behavior like Trump’s with the Romney or Obama “scandals,” which turned on a dubious associate or inopportune phrase. But the one place that Trump might claim a genuine grievance—and is certainly trying to—is in the comparison with Bill Clinton. (Trump hasn’t made the direct comparison, but it’s implied in his madcap decision to exonerate himself of masher charges by campaigning against Bill Clinton’s wild past.) We know that the former president had consensual sex with Flowers, Monica Lewinsky, Dolly Kyle Browning, Elizabeth Ward Gracen and Myra Belle “Sally” Miller. We also know that Paula Jones, Sandra Allen James, Cristy Zercher, Eileen Wellstone and Kathleen Willey have accused Clinton of having made unwanted Trump-style advances on them. And we know all about Juanita Broaddrick’s claims that Clinton raped her, an allegation that Katie J.M. Baker recently re-documented in BuzzFeed.

How do we know this? It’s not because they’ve been ignored. Coverage of Clinton’s sexual adventures and excesses have been steady press provender since he first ran for president, and the Clinton pile-on lasted for years. Today, the charges against Trump have poured Jumbo-Gro all over the Clinton sex stories, creating its own new mini-pile. The Clinton coverage illustrates one of my iron rules of journalism that states, “Given the proper news hook, journalists love to resurrect similar pile-on stories from the past.” These acts of resurrection are performed because 1) it’s easy to plunder the archives and write a new story based on them (see Shafer’s First Law of Journalism, “Copy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only change form”; 2) the resurrected stories provide needed context for whatever pile-on story is currently dominating Page One.

If we return to a more directly analogous period—the January-February 1998 period during which Bill Clinton was accused of having an affair with a White House intern and vociferously denied it, we don’t find a press feeding frenzy. No, it was more like a bloody bacchanalia, as reporters filed their teeth down to dagger points and tore through Clinton’s lies and obfuscations until he wearily conceded the affair that August.

Why didn’t the press just take Clinton at his word that he didn’t consort with the young intern? Why did reporters pile on? For one thing, his denial was not consistent with the available evidence pointing to an affair, and if there’s one thing reporters can’t stand it’s being lied to. It’s my anecdotal observation that the press relented somewhat after Clinton confessed to the affair. They didn’t give him a bye, as the heavy coverage continued, but they stopped shooting phosphorous rounds directly at him.

It’s a lesson that Donald Trump, who is hypersensitive to any negative coverage, might heed. He bears some responsibility for the pile-on coverage for issuing an unequivocal denial during the second presidential debate that he “actually [kissed] women without consent or grope[d] women without consent?” “No, I have not,” Trump said. (As he complains about the media response, he should remember what happened when Bill Clinton baldly lied about such a question: He was impeached.) This categorical comment incited reporters to quote women who would put their names to the accusations and emboldened women who had been mauled by Trump to come forward. It also inspired the archive aces to dig deeper for more nasty talk by Trump. His current campaign of saying, “Yeah, but look at Bill Clinton’s history of abusing women,” isn’t really helping his case as much as it is encouraging reporters to be skeptical and work harder to find his victims. This New York magazine piece helps explain why the trickle of accusers has turned into a flood. Paradoxically, Trump’s media management is only feeding the very frenzy he’s griping about. Just as Bill Clinton’s lies about his Flowers affair made reporters expand their search, so has Trump’s fishy denials.

There are things Trump could do to minimize the damage. Compare his media strategy over the past few weeks—do your best to incite the press and encourage new sources to surface—with that of the Clinton campaign. Since WikiLeaks dropped the first batch of the Podesta emails, the campaign has distanced themselves from them. The most aggressive move by the Clinton forces so far has not been to deny their contents but to delegitimize them as the product of Russian espionage and meddling. By refusing to confirm or deny the authenticity of the email dump, they’ve accepted the hard lumps of one- or two-day coverage, controlling the blaze by not fanning its flames with crazed disavowals. By not directly denying the contents of the emails, they’ve avoided motivating the press.

Could Trump really have gotten away with ignoring the Billy Bush tape, snubbing the line-up of accusers and disregarding the pageant contestants who describe him as an unsubtle peeping tom? What if he had taken a page out of Hillary Clinton’s book and called the furor a distraction and an “old story,” and just continued his campaign? Would the cloud now hanging over his head have thinned by Election Day instead of growing darker, as it has ever since his mouth almighty got going on the topic? I think so. Trump has the luxury—like Bill Clinton—of having a base of supporters who can’t be moved by any evidence that their man is a creep. And it’s not just the Trump base he can count on. Quisling Republican are already turning back in his direction after a few days of outrage on their part. The popular memory, alas, is very short. But with every passing day, Trump reinforces his creep reputation by keeping the story in the news with his lies and counterattacks against his accusers, all but daring the press to keep piling on. And they’re obliging him.

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