“A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.”
This sentence is usually attributed to the legendary CBS news anchor Edward Murrow, best known in Brazil because of the movie Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) directed by George Clooney. In 1954, Murrow was in charge of the team responsible for the 30-minute television broadcast that dealt a decisive blow against anticommunist Sen. Joseph McCarthy, whose last name became a byword for the witch-hunt of that decade.
In recent days, the sheep metaphor has distressed American journalists in several ways. Once again, journalists find themselves gasping to jump into an already moving train. Nine months since Donald Trump descended the escalators of his skyscraper to announce his candidacy and accuse Mexicans of being rapists, we have seen a succession of deaths that are proving premature, as Nancy Gibbs, managing editor for Time magazine, put well.
Afterward, the steamroller Trump would be held up by his repulsion of Latinos, then for mocking the heroism of Sen. John McCain, who was tortured in Vietnam, and for accusing a Fox News anchor of having her period. Children usually say “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” as they pick up popcorn from the floor. Fueled by criticism of his scatological behavior, Trump has gained even more strength by gathering filth and tossing it at rallies. There is a collective anesthesia for his daily unethical behavior, for disregarding any impact his words may cause, whether among the audience or among the concerned allied leaders of the United States. Vladimir Putin is as happy as he can be with his candidate’s performance.
The political journalists’ distress was exaggerated by Nicholas Kristof, who wrote a mea culpa column in the New York Times. In the piece titled “My Shared Shame: The Media Helped Make Trump,” Kristof expresses a contrition that, predictably, was received with some mockery by influential colleagues. As I have already stated in this column, one cannot disagree that Trump easily finds space within a hesitant media that is under financial pressure. Or as a former anchor cited by Kristof dramatically put, “the media has needed Trump like a crack addict needs a hit.”
However, the mass media that decided to give Donald Trump about $1.9 billion in free publicity, according to an analysis by The New York Times, is no Cracolândia.* Just as the Republican Party has been saying in code for decades what Trump is saying out loud today, editors and reporters were not under the influence of such a powerful substance. Cynicism prevailed.
I agree with Kristof on one thing about his regret: If Trump was a sham, he would not repeatedly win primaries. The dread of his success does not exempt the political elite from understanding the context of dissatisfaction from those who carry him to the finish line.
Mixing journalism with entertainment is another sign of insecurity from the media. Trump was humanized by being represented as the buffoon, including by this very own columnist, and not as the danger he actually represents. Nowadays, a whistleblower show produced by a new Edward Murrow would hardly tickle Trump’s candidacy. When a journalist asked a Trump supporter if the fact that Trump has not presented a foreign policy plan was disturbing, he heard the reply: “He has a plan, for sure, but he doesn’t disclose it so competitors won’t steal it.”**
With the collapse of the debate of ideas, which was reduced into swearing and axioms, I have noticed in Brazil the frustration reflected in the often cited quote by the late New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” In response, Trump supporters would say: That’s what you think.
*Editor’s note: Cracolândia is the nickname of a district in São Paulo known for rampant drug abuse.
**Editor’s note: Correctly translated, this quote could not be verified.