https://cdn.theatlantic.com/assets/media/img/mt/2016/07/RTX2BXAB/lead_960.jpgThe media is nothing if it can’t hold a presidential candidates accountable—if newsrooms and editorialists can’t force a White House aspirant to keep a promise, uphold precedent, and address suspicions that he’s a tool of Moscow.Journalism is a joke if we let Donald Trump slide.And so I have an idea for CNN, MSNBC, FOX News and the three broadcast networks:
Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks in Youngstown, Ohio, Monday, Aug. 15, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Stop interviewing Trump, and stop paying his surrogates, until he releases his tax records.
I don’t make this proposal lightly. I understand as well as anybody that interviewing presidential candidates is an important way to inform the public, especially when the questioning is objective, tough, and revealing of the candidate’s character and policies.While there are far too many patty-cake interviews aired on networks run by executives who see Trump both as a candidate and a cash cow, the process has revealed his racism, authoritarianism, extremism, and anti-intellectualism.
Considering the stakes, I’m happy to temporarily cede that part of media’s role to newspapers, magazines, and news websites while the TV executives in Washington and New York use their leverage for a common good.Trump must be made to release his tax records because he repeatedly promised to do so; because every major presidential candidate in the modern era has done so; because Richard Nixon released his tax returns while being audited, which is Trump’s latest excuse for reneging; because voters have a right to know how much he pays in taxes and to charities; because there are credible and concerning links between Trump and the Russian government, which is suspected of hacking the Democratic National Committee computers and leaking embarrassing bits.It is within the realm possibility that emails deleted from Hillary Clinton’s private server would be detrimental to her campaign and are in the hands of Vladimir Putin, the Russian dictator openly admired by Trump.This December, 2015, Morning Joe interview with Trump should be on the desks of every U.S. news executive:
Donald Trump: When people call you “brilliant” it’s always good, especially when the person heads up Russia.
Joe Scarborough: Well, I mean, also is a person who kills journalists, political opponents and …
Willie Geist: Invades countries.
Scarborough: … and invades countries, obviously that would be a concern, would it not?
Trump: He’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country.
Scarborough: But, again: He kills journalists that don’t agree with him.
Trump: Well, I think that our country does plenty of killing, too, Joe.
A TV embargo would starve Trump’s ego, feed his vast insecurities, and rob him of the biggest crutch in his campaign—free media.
It would bend him to the public’s will.
This modest proposal is part of a broader pitch I’ve been making to journalists to “flip the script.” In the White House press corps, especially, I wrote, “journalists are ceding control when they should be seizing it, accepting canned news rather than breaking it.”
The destruction of journalism’s 20th-century business model, the rise of social media, and the professionalism of politics has eroded accountability journalism. There is less traction for the traditional ways of ferreting out wrongdoing, mobilizing public outrage, and forcing change.
So journalism must adapt.
Trump dodges questions about his tax returns. He ignores editorials demanding transparency. He laughs off suggestions that he’s got something to hide.
So political journalism must adapt.
If the mission is to hold Trump accountable—if that job is more important than ratings and clicks—then it’s not good enough to just ask questions and make demands. That’s not working.
Television networks should flip the script. They should withhold certain coverage until Trump comes clean about his finances. Yes, of course: They should consider strong-arming other politicians, including Hillary Clinton (“Want a prime-time hit on my network? Bring your Wall Street transcripts”). But this column is about Trump, his Russian backer, and the possibility that a foreign government is trying to pick the next U.S. president.
If the networks take his ego hostage, he’ll pay the ransom.