In 1992, legendary journalist Carl Bernstein blasted the media for its obsession with celebrity, manufactured controversy, gossip, and sensationalism in his article “The Idiot Culture” for the New Republic.
At the time, the front pages of newspapers across the country were more focused on Donald and Ivana Trump’s divorce than they were on Nelson Mandela’s return to Soweto or the allies of World War II agreeing to the unification of Germany, Bernstein said. Good journalists, such as Diane Sawyer, were asking Trump’s lover Marla Maples if he was “really the best sex you ever had?”
“To me that was as low a point in our journalistic evolution in the last part of the 20th century as could be imagined,” Bernstein said. “And I think I recognized that it was only going to get worse.
“In retrospect the piece looks pretty prophetic,” Bernstein said.
More than two decades later, Donald Trump is once again on the front pages of newspapers around the country, this time for being elected President of the United States in an election that featured, “two incredible celebrities,” Bernstein said.
Trump’s election is an “incredibly dangerous moment” for America, said Bernstein, whose reporting was instrumental in uncovering the Watergate scandal that forced President Richard Nixon’s resignation. Though Clinton has “difficult relationship with the truth” that “sunk her campaign,” he called Trump “more dangerous than McCarthy” because never before “did a demagogue reach the presidency.”
Trump is not only a product of the celebrity culture Bernstein wrote about, but he’s also a master of it. He’s a “con man” whose “identification as a business person has been about his use, manipulation and draw of media,” Bernstein said. “He is both a self creation and a media creation. But he’s the one who’s been a genius at using the media, and [that’s] partly because he’s shameless.”
Throughout his campaign, Trump was able to generate media attention by calling illegal Mexican immigrants rapists, saying he would ban Muslims from entering the country and saying he would not accept the results of the election unless he won.
In September, Bernstein lamented on CNN that Trump was getting the big TV and cable networks to “focus on his outrageous statements” instead of reporting each candidate’s “real existing record repeatedly.”
“Trump, during the early primaries, was given far too much free airtime because of the provocations that he was pronouncing and how good for ratings it was,” Bernstein said.
Shortly after the Republican primaries, Bernstein said that Trump had “made monkeys out of all of us.”
Clinton has never been comfortable with the press, even though Bernstein calls her “the most famous person in the world.”
In Bernstein’s biography of Clinton, “A Woman in Charge,” he wrote that Clinton has “a fierce desire for privacy and secrecy” which seem to “cast a larger and larger shadow over who she really is.”
What she serves up for public consumption, Bernstein wrote, “is usually elaborately prepared and relatively soulless. That is the true shame,” Bernstein said.
It was that fierce desire for privacy that led Clinton to use a private email server while she was secretary of state, which Bernstein called “indefensible” and said “did endanger national security.”
The server was also “emblematic of those questions about trust and openness that have dogged her for years,” Bernstein said. “She couldn’t get past that.”
It also didn’t help that Bill Clinton got on an airplane with the attorney general of the United States while Hillary was under investigation by the Justice Department, Bernstein said.
“[It] was unthinkable what he did,” Bernstein said
Despite Trump’s media mastery, Bernstein said it’s not fair to “blame” the media for the outcome of the election.
“I don’t think that Donald Trump was elected because the media did a bad job,” Bernstein said. “I don’t buy it for a minute.
There was “great reporting” that was done during the campaign, specifically on Trump and his businesness, Bernstein said. Especially by The Washington Post, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal.
“What’s really interesting is that a lot of the great reporting in the campaign was done by a lot of the old traditional, mainstream news organizations,” Bernstein said. “Those three in particular.”
That doesn’t mean the mainstream media was perfect, Bernstein said.
“Television was very late to do investigative biographies or even documentaries on any of the candidates in the primaries.
“Even though they were well known, even though Hillary Clinton and many of the 17 on the Republican side were well known, we should have been given real documentaries about their lives,” Bernstein said. “We did great in terms of having on camera debates with analysts and talking heads, myself included, but not enough early on in the formative stages of the campaign.”
Still, the TV networks were able to pick up and amplify the reach of stories that were initially reported by national newspapers.
“Television did pretty well in reporting those aspects that were developed primarily from The Times, The Post and The Journal, and building on those accounts and giving them prominence in their broadcasts,” Bernstein said.
The real issue was with social media, the alt-right media and websites such as The Drudge Report, which defined Hillary Clinton “in grotesque terms that have almost nothing to do with the reality of who she was,” Bernstein said.
Those types of sources “had a lot to do with how this campaign evolved,” Bernstein said.
“The power of the old configuration of media with a few television networks and a half dozen newspaper organizations, now online, hardly defines the coverage and the media equation,” Bernstein said.
Those looking to place blame on the media for Trump’s election should “go to the voters,” Bernstein said,
“I think there’s much too much focus on how the media performed as opposed to how citizens, over the last 25 or 30 years, and especially in this campaign, have taken and processed information,” Bernstein said. “It’s very easy to blame the media and let the citizens off the hook.
“Increasingly, people in this period have become more interested in processing information and looking for information to uphold their point of view and reinforce what they already believe and buttress their already held prejudices and political beliefs [and] religious beliefs,” Bernstein said. “So that we don’t have a citizenry interested in the best obtainable version of the truth.”
While Bernstein said he felt that “we’re letting the citizenry off the hook,” he also cautioned against making overgeneralizations about the outcome of the election.
“All of these questions are very complex, and you can’t attribute them to one element or another,” Bernstein said.
“But when you look at the picture and all of its complexity, and if you look for explanations based on the best obtainable versions of the truth then you begin to understand how all of these things play together in a kind of matrix that give you a much clearer picture of, not only what happened in this election, but who we are as a country and what our problems are and what our weaknesses are and what our strengths are,” Bernstein said.
“So I think this election in many regards is perhaps a pretty good indication of where we are as a country in all kinds of complex ways,” Bernstein said.
Despite running a campaign “appealing to the worst instincts of Americans in terms of racism, xenophobia, nativism and sexism,” Bernstein said Trump, like Bernie Sanders, was able to connect with millions of white working- and middle-class voters who have not been able to keep pace because of the changing economic market place and have become increasingly alienated and ignored by too much of our political system.
There were also large numbers of voters who didn’t fit those economic and social demographics but still saw legitimacy in needing to address the concerns of those Americans, as well as minorities and those of color, Bernstein said.
Clinton was “very, very slow to recognize” the needs to these voters, Bernstein said.
“I think that her campaign, in this regard, was too much based on a strategy of mobilizing Latinos, African Americans, women, and not remembering and stressing enough that the Democratic Party, historically, has been the party of the working class,” Bernstein said.
“She misread, and those around her misread, the electorate, and also, she was not an inspiring candidate,” Bernstein said. “Had she won, it really would have been because President Obama … had dragged her across the finish line with constituencies that needed to turn out, but also as a great character witness for her.
“But it wasn’t sufficient in the end,” Bernstein said.
President Juan Perón. Now that he’s been elected, Bernstein said he’s not sure which of his campaign promises he’ll follow through with.
“His campaign promises are a mix of the horrific and [the] ugly and undemocratic,” Bernstein said. “But also there are some campaign promises, such as his call for huge infrastructure spending, that address questions long overdue that the Republicans particularly have been keeping from happening.
“But his election is an incredibly dangerous moment because of what he promised to do,” Bernstein said.
Trump also showed “an ignorance about our history in this country, what real existing conditions are, such as his characterization of black America with any sort of recognition whatsoever of the huge black middle class in this country,” Bernstein said. “[That] black communities were exclusively impoverished, crime infested, not just enclaves, but blanketed in that way, which is not the case.”
Though Bernstein said that Trump is a demagogue, he noted that “in terms of the really ugly side of [Trump’s] campaign, that it’s not far from [where] much of the Republican party and its politicians and office holders have been, but with perhaps nicer language.
“I don’t want to draw with too broad a brush here, and at the same time, many, many of the substantive aspects of what Trump has been talking about, but with some more polite language, have been a staple of Republican politics increasingly over the past 25 years,” Bernstein said.
One of the staples of Republican politics that emerged in this election, Bernstein said, was voter suppression.
“One of the two parties has taken the incredible position of trying to limit voter participation based on a false narrative of fraud,” Bernstein said.
It is “demonstrably” the case that voter fraud is virtually non-existent, Bernstein said. Instead of encouraging more voting, Republicans have made it more difficult for likely Democratic voters to vote, particularly blacks and Latinos, by inhibiting polling hours, increasing the distances between polling places and requiring identification.
“This is a terrible scourge,” Bernstein said. “It needs to be condemned and become a primary aspect of the media’s attention, as well as a test of whether the Republican Party is going to stand for decent things.”