An Open Mind: Trumping the Times
November 29, 2016
The question is not, does Donald Trump feel shame. We know he never has.
The question is, are the journalists who have covered this campaign capable of feeling it?
We have plunged into an emergency, and one reason is that journalists who are supposed to supply a picture of the world failed to do so. Not the only reason, but one reason, which is enough to prompt serious rumination.
I wrote last week about journalists searching their souls, trying to figure out what they did wrong in this appalling campaign. Like the rest of us — nobody deserves a free pass in an endangered world — they’re obliged to think deeply about what to do better. Is it too impossibly high-minded and do-goody to insist that their reason for being is to offer the American people what they need to know in order to better choose their course? If that is in fact their mission, they have failed abjectly.
Almost half of the voters have just chosen to be led by a profoundly disturbed ignoramus who refuses to understand he has obligations to Americans who are not members of his family. For journalists who persist in believing their leaders are chosen intelligently, the crisis is apparent and urgent. But the so-called learning curve is getting an appallingly sluggish start. Journalists who should know better are busy complaining about their lack of access to the bullshitter-in-chief, as if access were the golden road to truth and not, often at least, a shortcut over a cliff.
According to the conventions of journalism, access is fundamental. But access runs two ways. Access to “newsmakers” can be purchased with what is known in professional parlance as “beat sweeteners” — softball stories and non-threatening meetings that allow sources access to the journalists who cover them, and by extension, to the public. But these are not ordinary times. While journalists persist in playing by old rules, the president-elect has a different plan. Nor is Donald Trump an unknown quantity. By now it should be painfully evident how he rewards sycophants — with a slap across the face.
For evidence, reader, please peruse the transcript of Trump’s on-again, off-again, back-on again meeting in a New York Times conference room last week. Read the whole thing. It’s not that long. Then consider the Times headline the next day: “Trump, in Interview, Moderates Views but Defies Conventions.” The lede: “President-elect Donald J. Trump on Tuesday tempered some of his most extreme campaign promises, dropping his vow to jail Hillary Clinton, expressing doubt about the value of torturing terrorism suspects and pledging to have an open mind about climate change.”
Nothing to worry about, then.
White House chief of staff may be “the second most powerful job in government,” according to James A. Baker III, who had the job under both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
So it matters that the man Trump named his chief of staff, Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus, embraces Trump’s hard-core climate denial.
Priebus appeared on the latest Fox News Sunday to explain Trump’s apparent “major flips on policy this week in an interview with the New York Times,” as host Chris Wallace put it — including the apostasy of possibly having “an open mind” about “pulling out of the Paris climate agreement.
Trump is appointing countless climate science deniers to key positions, which tells you vastly more about what he believes and what he’ll do than his latest semi-coherent ramblings. As I wrote last week, Trump’s repetition of the phrase “open mind” during his Times interview was meant to distract from his constant repetition of long-debunked denier talking points (and it worked).
Priebus confirmed Trump wasn’t being forthright with the Times, telling Wallace, “As far as this issue on climate change — the only thing he [Trump] was saying after being asked a few questions about it is, look, he’ll have an open mind about it but he has his default position, which most of it is a bunch of bunk, but he’ll have an open mind and listen to people.”
You can’t you have an “open mind” on climate if your default position is “most of it is a bunch of bunk.” What is there to “listen to” if you believe the decades of research by thousands of scientists embraced by every nation in the world is mostly bunk? That’s the definition of epistemic closure of the mind. No surprise, then, that FoxNews — a major promoter of denial — didn’t call Priebus out on this absurd statement.
It was Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet who asked Trump about the “alt-right” (read: neo-Nazi) “Hail Trump” rally that had just taken place in Washington. “First of all,” Trump said, “I don’t want to energize [racists.] I’m not looking to energize them. I don’t want to energize the group, and I disavow the group.” And now the whiplash again: “Then, again, I don’t know if it’s reporting or whatever.” What the last sentence appears to mean is that Trump reserves the right to withdraw his vague “disavowal” if he and his lying legions later maintain that the reporting of Nazi salutes, etc., was a distortion perpetrated by the “liberal media.” Trump added: “If they are energized I want to look into it and find out why.” This is supposed to be reassuring. The Timesmen and -women did nothing to break the spell. Among the follow-up questions they did not ask: “You’re not sure they’re energized? Have you heard of the hate crimes? When will you report to us on what your researchers turn up?”
Trump practices the dark art of the perfunctory reassurance and gets rewarded with passing grades: He “moderates” and is “tempered.” He teases one executive (“is he a tough boss?”) and compliments another (“very powerful man”). The article, as opposed to the transcript, gives the strongman an unearned gift: a veneer of coherence. Is this a moment to break into laughter or screaming or crying — this spectacle of bad cop Trump sending good cop Trump out to meet with journalists whom he has described as “sleaze,” and presto! emerging as a moderate who solicits the good opinion of Thomas Friedman.
When journalists sit down at a table with a man so fundamentally ignorant, self-seeking, unscrupulous and unreliable, a man who, when he doesn’t lie, characteristically emits bullshit — the now academically canonized term for propositions whose truth or falsity he doesn’t know or care to know — is it not evident that they must gird themselves at the first sign of flattery, to realize that his mission is to play them, to keep them off-balance?
Here were his first words to the Times group: “Well, I just appreciate the meeting and I have great respect for The New York Times. Tremendous respect. It’s very special. Always has been very special.” And then the lightning, bipolar pivot: “I think I’ve been treated very rough….”
“Failed” is one of Trump’s favorite adjectives for The Times. In his wholly amoral universe, “failed” is tantamount to “evil.”