September 3, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
The blood on reporters’ hands
The press corps must recognize, and accept, its moral obligation.
I’ve been telling my Wesleyan students to prepare. The weeks between Election Day and Inauguration Day will be the tenderest, scariest period of their lifetimes. When they look back, decades from now, when they are settling as I am into middle age, they will either be relieved knowing things have gotten much better or distressed knowing things have gotten much worse. No one knows what’s going to happen. The only thing we do know with any confidence, as Rosa Brooks said today, is there will be blood. Short of a massive win for the Democrat, we can expect to see violence in the streets.
The president, of course, is the reason. For weeks now, Donald Trump has been laying the rhetorical groundwork for declaring Joe Biden’s victory, should that happen, to be the result of a dark-shadow “deep state” conspiracy to depose him. (It might even be the result of an international attack led by the Chinese.) Fake votes, fake news, fake majority. Everything’s fake, he will say, unless he says it isn’t. We can be certain of violence, as Brooks said. We can be certain of constitutional crises. We can also be certain, I’d add, that our president is incapable of admitting defeat. This is a man, after all, who spent vast fortunes over a prodigal lifetime shielding a shattered-glass ego.
When the president yells, “VOTER FRAUD,” it should be reported immediately as bullshit, in so many words.
Let me be more precise. There is potential for violence and anarchy and bloodshed not so much because of the president’s lies, but because so many Americans take his word as true. I could be wrong. I could be giving the Washington press corps more credit than I should. (I could be giving Trump’s followers more credit than I should.) I think it’s worth asserting, however, that more of them would be more skeptical if more reporters and editors acted morally, and did more to discredit him categorically. When he yells, “VOTER FRAUD,” it should be reported as bullshit, in so many words. There will be blood, and it will be on the hands of reporters who deny a moral obligation.
The president was in North Carolina Wednesday where he was asked whether he had faith in the state’s voting system, which permits mail-in balloting. He said Republicans should vote by mail as well as in-person, as a means of testing the system’s integrity, according to the Times. It’s totally legit to report he’s recommending fraud while railing against it. It’s also legit to come to a conclusion—double voting is a crime; he encouraged double voting; ergo, he encouraged the commission of a crime. Then ask: Why are you encouraging criminal conduct? Is fraud important to your campaign? Why are you recommending it while also accusing your opponent of doing the same?
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I have zero doubt Trump would give bullshit answers, but a) they’d make news; b) reporters love making news; and c) they’d be meaningful, I’m going to presume, to some of the 40 percent of Americans who currently approve of the president’s job performance. Indeed, many of them would dismiss the outcome as fake news, as the president prefers. But others would understand the moral conclusion implicit in the question. When I ask why you’re encouraging criming, what I’m saying first is you’re encouraging criming. A person encouraging criming should be the last person to credibly accuse others of criming. I think this would have an appreciable effect.
Some Republicans won’t care. Are they reachable? They say they care about social order, respect for authority, and taking care of people who put themselves in harm’s way to serve and protect. This is certainly the angle Trump and others are taking. In reaction to the rise of Black Lives Matters, which some have called a “terrorist” organization (it’s not, obviously), they say Blue Lives Matter. Well, if Blue Lives Matter, what is the president going to do about the No. 1 cop killer? It’s not gangs, mobs, or “Antifa.” It’s not anything fitting into Trump’s campaign narrative about the dangers posed by “anarchist cities.” The leading cause of death among police is Covid-19.
To my knowledge, Biden was the first to report this Monday during a speech in which, as I said Tuesday, he destroyed Trump’s “law and order” message. The Post confirmed the fact last night. According to the Officer Down Memorial Page and the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, the Post reported, the new coronavirus has killed more cops this year than all other factors combined. More than vehicular accidents, more than gunfire. So Biden was right. The best way of securing public safety is ending the pandemic. The best way of maintaining law and order is ending the pandemic. So the question reporters must ask: “Mr. President, you’ve said Blue Lives Matter. Covid-19 is the No. 1 cop killer. Your administration has pushed most of the pandemic response to the states. Why aren’t you doing more to save blue lives?”
Lots of Republicans are lost. Not all of them. Some really believe the president really believes Blue Lives Matter. They don’t understand they will not matter as soon as they are a liability. They don’t understand Trump will cut them off, as he has cut everyone off in his prodigal life, the moment they are no longer useful. These people can be reached. These people, I’d argue, are most likely to mitigate threats of violence. To reach them, however, the press corps must recognize, and accept, its moral obligation.
Alas, I’m not hopeful.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.