Saturday, January 27, 2018

Time to dial back the anti-Trump vitriol?

(First published in The Dominion Post, January 26.)

The late country singer Waylon Jennings once wrote and recorded a song with the splendid title Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand.

It was a wry comment on the consequences of being identified as a key figure in country music’s outlaw movement, so named because it rebelled against the white-bread conservatism of the country music mainstream.

A magazine article about Jennings had referred to his cocaine use, which resulted in federal drug agents raiding the studio where he was recording. That was the genesis of the song, which included the lines: “Someone called us outlaws in some old magazine/And New York sent a posse down like I ain’t never seen.”

It wasn’t exactly Jennings’ most memorable song, but its title sprang into my head a few days ago while I was reading the latest frenzied denunciations of Donald Trump. 

I loathe Trump, as does virtually everyone I know. But things have got to the point where it’s fair to ask: Don’t you think this Donald Trump bit’s done got out of hand?

The unceasing barrage of anti-Trump vitriol in the media has reached fever pitch, but you have to wonder what it’s achieving. The polls show virtually no decline in the number of American voters who approve of him, while the number who strongly approve of him remains steady at 28-30 per cent.

Meanwhile, inconveniently for Trump despisers like me, economists are talking about the “Trump bump”. The American economy is humming along merrily and there has been a rise in consumer confidence.

Some anti-Trump comment is right on the nail. An example was Tom Scott’s cartoon three days ago which had Trump saying: “Fake news says that I am a narcissist, which I am not. But if I was, I would be the best narcissist ever, period, no question!”

It perfectly encapsulated the US president’s combination of vanity and oafishness and might even have coaxed a grudging smile from Trump fans.

But mostly the condemnation directed at Trump is preaching to the converted. After all, the people who are appalled by him made up their minds long before he got to the White House. Constantly disparaging and ridiculing him may reinforce their sense of moral certitude, but there’s no evidence that it will change anything.

In fact it may be counter-productive, because those who support Trump look at the outpouring of loathing in the media and take it as proof that he’s the victim of a conspiracy by elitist journalists who are overwhelmingly biased against him and interested only in publishing material that reflects badly on him.

Some American journalists are wise enough to see this. On America’s National Public Radio last week I heard Michael Woolf say that the US press was behaving hysterically and making a fool of itself. “As we go after his [Trump’s] credibility, our credibility equally becomes a problem,” he said.

Woolf is no cheerleader for Trump. He’s the author of the recent best-seller Fire and Fury, an exposé of the president’s bizarre behaviour in the White House. 

It was also on National Public Radio (which, incidentally, wrings it hands in anguish over Trump 24/7) that I heard an even more damning condemnation of the US media from another journalist, Glenn Greenwald.

This might seem surprising, since Greenwald is a hero of the Left. He collaborated with National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden and came to New Zealand for Kim Dotcom’s much-vaunted “Moment of Truth” event, which was supposed to turn the tide against John Key’s government immediately before the 2014 election.

I can’t imagine Greenwald is a fan of Trump any more than Woolf is. But to his credit he exposed the fact that several major American media outlets, including CNN and CBS, published a false story implicating the Trump camp in a Russian hacking operation.

The media outlets portrayed the story as a smoking gun and claimed it had been verified by multiple sources. But a crucial date proved to be wrong, which completely nullified their account – and when it became obvious they had got it wrong, they tried to wriggle out by broadcasting a grudging, half-hearted correction.

According to Greenwald, it was the latest in a series of serious mistakes made by journalists reporting Trump’s suspected links with Russia. He says the US media are in such a frenzy to “get the goods” on Trump that they are willing to violate the principles of good journalism, thereby confirming public suspicions that they cannot be trusted and inviting Trump’s taunts about “fake news”.

If Waylon Jennings were still around, it would make a great song.  I’ve got just the title for it.

FOOTNOTE: An anonymous commenter took a whack at me on Stuff yesterday for making the supposedly “obligatory declaration for media types” of disclosing my loathing for Trump. Well, I do loathe Trump. Would this person have preferred that I was dishonest about admitting it? Didn’t the rest of my column serve as a warning that “media types” – that includes me – risk having their journalistic judgment distorted by their aversion to him? And didn't I acknowledge that the US economy was thriving, as this commenter was anxious to point out? Sigh. You just can’t win. 

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