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Sunday, November 13, 2016

That Murrow Moment

 -- By Tom Phillips

Last summer, journalists great and small were questioning whether 2016 was a "Murrow Moment"  -- whether they should cast off their  professional neutrality and warn the nation about the dangers of Donald Trump.  The New York Times, after a brief struggle, went all in -- calling out his falsehoods in every news story, while thundering daily denunciations from the editorial and Op-ed pages.

The Huffington Post huffed and posted -- and tagged every story with a disclaimer, complete with otiose adjectives:  "Trump is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist etc etc.."

On election night, Rachel Maddow melted down, blaming his win on the hapless Libertarian candidate who siphoned votes from who knows who?  MSNBC punctuated its coverage with sighs of grief and an audible "Jeez.."

Even the supposed right-wing nuts who led Fox News's coverage were in denial: long after midnight, Shepard Smith was looking grimly away from the handwriting on the wall, murmuring  "it's not over, it's not over."

But it is.   The "Murrow Moment" has come and gone.  Those who tried to turn the tide found the power of the press was zero, or less. 

Looking for some journalism amid the wreckage, I turned on Wednesday to my old familiar CBS Evening News, and saw the story at last, elegantly written and presented without hand-wringing or hyperventilation.  The first sound-bite was Trump, surrounded by family, praising the woman he'd threatened to jail, acknowledging those who hadn't voted for him, promising to unify the country.   It was an ugly campaign, but it was ending up much like most.

The polls weren't all that wrong.  They calculated what "likely voters" would do, but couldn't measure how likely they were to vote.   His were more angry, more committed.  Such are the limits of quantitative journalism.

Mainstream media lost its way in numbers, nit-picking and moralizing.  They forgot, if they ever knew, that people read and watch not for political or moral guidance, but for narrative sense, for pleasure.  They want a story, not a sermon.  Most of the media were blind to the story, determined to lead instead of following the zigzag plot. 

Don't get me wrong, I missed it too.  I thought it was the conventional tale of the first woman president, overcoming hatred and ignorance etc.  Instead it was the tale of two Americas, urban and rural, one ascendant, the other written off as irrelevant.

We missed it in plain view this summer, driving in the countryside through a gauntlet of Trump lawn signs, past crumbling factories and boarded-up stores on Main Street.  On the outskirts of one town we stopped at something like a Dairy Queen and were served by an angelic-looking 19-year-old, wearing a red baseball cap that said Make American Great Again.  He gave us a glass of free water and the key to the rest room, and made sure we were happy with our ice cream.  We were dying to talk to him, but couldn't bring ourselves to ask how such a nice young man could be wearing such a hat.  Now the answer seems obvious.  He doesn't want a career at the Dairy Queen.

What's next?  Donald Trump can't pull a Herbert Hoover and sign a tariff that plunges the world into depression.  But he can hand the kid a shovel.  Given that the president-elect's only relevant experience is as a builder, the story line should be:  Building boom, spending spree, borrowing binge, hangover.  Not much long-term help for Main Street; benign neglect for women and minorities; Mother Nature on the run.  The left will galvanize to fight for the earth, against hate crimes and police brutality.  Hillary will retire; Elizabeth Warren will rise.  And so on, and on and on until the end of the world, better later than sooner.

-- Copyright 2016 by Tom Phillips

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