• 03:05
  • Tuesday ,12 May 2020

Why aren t editorial boards screaming Trump has to go?

by CNN



Tuesday ,12 May 2020

Why aren t editorial boards screaming Trump has to go?

 By the height of the Watergate scandal in 1974, virtually every major newspaper in America had called for President Richard Nixon s resignation. During the investigation and impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998, more than 100 newspapers called for him to resign.

But President Donald J. Trump? He could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody... and not a single major daily newspaper would call for his resignation. I admit that -- just like the original Trump quote it references -- that Fifth Avenue statement is a bit hyperbolic, but think about it:
After three years of political and actual carnage under Trump, including Robert Mueller s description of acts that amounted to, he told Congress, obstruction of justice; Trump s "fine people on both sides" reaction to a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville where a counter-protester was killed; his rampant conflicts of interest and credible accusations of his violations of the emoluments clause of the Constitution; his close to 17,000 false statements; a travel ban that primarily targets mostly Muslim-majority countries; impeachment for alleged extortion of a foreign government (he was acquitted in the Republican Senate), and the gross mishandling of a deadly pandemic, you d think somebody on an editorial board might say it s time for the President to leave.
But this has not happened. Why not?
Not knowing the answer, I set out to talk to a lot of smart people to find out why.
I did this because history would lead you to believe that most of the editorial boards of America s newspapers/digital sites would have stepped up to that plate already. To be clear, editorial boards are the group of writers and editors behind the daily editorials on the news -- appearing in the editorial pages -- that reflect the newspaper s values. These are separate from the "op-eds" commissioned by opinion editors from outside writers that reflect a range of views -- often at odds with those of the editorial board.
But this has not happened. Why not?
Not knowing the answer, I set out to talk to a lot of smart people to find out why.
I did this because history would lead you to believe that most of the editorial boards of America s newspapers/digital sites would have stepped up to that plate already. To be clear, editorial boards are the group of writers and editors behind the daily editorials on the news -- appearing in the editorial pages -- that reflect the newspaper s values. These are separate from the "op-eds" commissioned by opinion editors from outside writers that reflect a range of views -- often at odds with those of the editorial board.
Pulling no punches on Nixon and Clinton
According to United Press International, by August of 1974, almost every major daily newspaper had called for President Richard Nixon s resignation over the Watergate scandal. The most prominent exception was the New York Times, which argued that it was the impeachment process that should determine the fate of the President.
The Wall Street Journal wrote "resignation to insure the orderly transfer of power is fitting, we emphasize only because impeachment and conviction would otherwise be certain." The Chicago Tribune argued, "We are appalled. We saw the public man in his first Administration and we were impressed. We now see a man who, in the words of his old friend and defender, Senator Hugh Scott, is  shabby, immoral and disgusting.  The key word here is immoral."
The House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment for Nixon and sent them to the House; he resigned before they could vote on them.
Twenty-four years later, in 1998, more than 100 newspapers called for the resignation of President Bill Clinton, both during the Kenneth Starr investigation and the subsequent impeachment trial for obstruction of justice and perjury, over his affair with a White House intern.
The editorial page editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Jane Eisner, told the New York Times that her paper debated the issue fiercely: "Ms. Eisner said she was not expecting the feelings of profound exhaustion and  nausea  she experienced when finally, after two and a half hours of anguished arguments, Chris Satullo, the deputy editorial page editor, went to write the Sunday editorial that began with the words  Bill Clinton should resign.  "
Peter R. Bronson, then-editorial page editor of the Cincinnati Enquirer, told the Times, " As soon as we saw the Starr report and got knee deep, we said,  This really smells, we ve seen enough, the evidence is compelling and damning,    Mr. Bronson said.
The ground shifts
So, what changed between 1998 and 2020? Both John Dean, Nixon s White House counsel and Carl Bernstein, the famed reporter who with Bob Woodward broke news in the Washington Post of the Watergate coverup, have called Trump s Ukraine scandal far worse than anything in Watergate.
And Trump s offenses were much more far reaching than Clinton s: he used American foreign policy to leverage a political favor, and he s also certainly had a fair share of tawdry scandals
What has changed?
Just about everything, it seems, beginning with the media: the explosion of 24/7 news networks and the endless horizon of internet-on-demand caused some newspapers to fold or shrink and lose relevance. The lucky few left standing wobbled through a decade trying to claw their way back into news dominance. Papers lost advertisers, lost readers and increasingly lost influence with the public, particularly the editorial pages: so much opinion journalism was readily available from so many other new online sources.
And there also was a shifting of standards post-Clinton that held politicians to a different moral standing than in the past. Even given the multitude of Trump s scandals and failings, only two mid-sized dailies, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Connecticut Post have been willing to call for President Donald Trump s resignation (as far as I could find in an exhaustive search).
And while a handful of large-newspaper editorial boards called for his impeachment, I could find only one -- the LA Times -- that called for his removal (and with a headline that covered all the bases: "Convict and remove President Trump -- and disqualify him from ever holding office again").
Why have so many editorial pages railed -- over and over -- against Trump s behavior in the most vehement terms, through scandal, impeachment, botched pandemic response and much more, and yet they won t call for him to go?
Editorial boards  new reluctance
I put this question to more than a dozen experts, media columnists, editorial writers, academics and White House reporters. What emerged was not one simple explanation, as journalism professor Jay Rosen of New York University explained it, but a number of factors that have discouraged editorial pages around the country from taking this bold step.
Central to these, according to John Avlon, a senior political analyst at CNN and the former editor in chief of the Daily Beast, is that "the reality of the hardened partisanship is beyond reason. We ve become really unmoored from our best civic traditions." And one of our best civic traditions used to be holding political leaders to account -- demanding, in extreme situations, that they resign.
Almost everyone I talked to mentioned timing: editorial boards  reluctance to urge Trump to resign so close to the election. One editor (who preferred to remain anonymous) at a major daily said his editorial board came close to calling for Trump s ouster during his impeachment, but added "my question is why now, when the election will be decided in six months."
On one level that argument makes sense: the voters should have the final say on the President s future. But it misses the mark, given that many editorial pages have already excoriated, for example, the President s handling of the pandemic, a tragedy that has cost more than 78,000 American lives so far, without addressing his fitness to continue to serve. Any CEO who was deemed responsible for allowing a massive tragedy to unfold would be immediately called upon to resign or be fired, even if he or she were six months from retirement.
When I asked my question of Margaret Sullivan, the media columnist for the Washington Post and former public editor of the New York Times, she responded by speculating, or spit-balling, as she called it: "It may have something to do with the knowledge that such a call would not be effective but would also deepen the rampant polarizations among citizens. And for some, it would exacerbate the resentment of the traditional press, if that s even possible at this point."
Loss of relevance in new media landscape?
Indeed, Sullivan s speculation captured the consensus of everyone I talked to. Jonathan Karl, the chief White House correspondent for ABC News, was one of them. He told me "perhaps it s the fact that there is zero percent [chance] he (Trump) would do it [resign] or that any in his party would ask him to do it." He compared the situation to Clinton, where many in the press thought he might resign and many editorial pages chimed in with their own calls.
Karl makes an important point: although there was no chance Clinton was going to resign (I know that because I was there), there was a chance that members of his own party might demand it, something I also know from my personal experience then.
Karl s futility argument resonates, in part due to the polarization Sullivan referenced above. The only problem with his theory is that editorial pages take positions every day knowing that they will fail to persuade politicians -- or the public -- most of the time.
In defense of editorial pages  recent reticence, many believe their editorials have less impact anyway in the diffuse new-media environment of today and may want to avoid highlighting that by taking a public stand -- and being shown as ineffectual or out of touch. In the 2016 campaign, the overwhelming majority of newspapers endorsed Hillary Clinton, or chose not to endorse at all. We know how that turned out. That has led, in part, to a trend among many newspapers to discontinue endorsing candidates in elections.
The changing nature and business models of local papers also play a role. Jay Rosen from NYU again: "Local newspapers are weaker institutions, they have declined a lot in quality, reach and authority. This gives some of them less confidence in their voice, especially in regions where they know they will get push-back." Both Rosen and Brian Stelter, CNN s chief media correspondent, pointed to the budget cuts often hitting editorial pages even before they hit reporters. What s more, the internet, which if nothing else is full of opinion, has diluted the impact of major news organizations  editorial pages, making them less relevant.
But the answer to my questions goes beyond the news media s effectiveness or its business models. It has a lot to do with Trump himself -- and the tactics of the right wing of American politics.
The power of the right
Kurt Bardella, a former Republican who served as the spokesman for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, put it this way: "Donald Trump and his right wing allies have invested so much time in creating the false narrative that the mainstream media is fake and the enemy of the people. I think the media falls into their trap of not wanting to go down a certain path because they re worried about being labeled biased or partisan."
Jay Rosen has a similar take, saying the right wing s "working the refs" strategy works. But he goes further: "You cannot overlook the level of flak, push-back and general hatred that newspaper editors get from Trump supporters for anything like this... editors defy these attacks every day, but it can make you think twice."
Nearly all the editors and columnists I talked to echoed a certain empathy for editorial page editors and a resignation that nothing was likely to change soon.
But Brian Karem, columnist for Playboy, was less charitable. "Major newspapers are shaky -- not on the solid financial ground they were even 10 years ago," he told me in an email. "They are fearful of losing any more advertisers or readers... they see no need to buck the tide or even join it... We are unlikely to find a Katharine Graham in the age of Donald Trump -- though we desperately need one."
He was referring to the Washington Post publisher who weathered tremendous blow-back when she presided over the paper during the reporting on Watergate that led to Nixon s resignation.
So, where does this leave us? Have the nation s editorial boards -- with so many of them clearly and frequently expressing no confidence in this President s ability to do his job -- abdicated their duty?
I agree with Professor Rosen s admonition that there is no simple explanation... and I think my friend Brian Karem is being a bit harsh.
In my view, there is a simple solution to this problem. They should go down fighting. If the President is unfit to lead the country, then say it. And if lives are at risk and our Constitution is being attacked on a regular basis, then it is the duty of our great editorial pages to seek the ultimate remedy -- a call for resignation.
Yes, the election is only six months away and voters usually should have the last word. But if the President s policies are a clear and present danger to Americans, or his behavior -- like Clinton s and Nixon s -- so outside of the agreed upon norms, why aren t the guardians of truth at the nation s top editorial pages screaming: He has to go?