2016 Conventions, Blog See all Articles

The media get the treatment they deserve

Dr. Steven J. Allen author image /

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA — It’s hot in Philly—95 degrees yesterday but it felt like 107, per my Dark Skies weather app, and it’s supposed to be 93 or higher today. (Yesterday, on the asphalt outside the Wells Fargo Center, I got woozy from the heat. And I grew up on a chicken farm in Alabama.)

The AP reported at 8:15 p.m. Monday that, according to city officials, 41 people had been treated for heat-related problems or other injuries during protests related to the Democratic convention. They say 17 of those treated have been taken to hospitals to be evaluated. One security measure made it tougher for protesters: Officials blocked anyone without a credential for the Democratic convention from traveling to the subway stop next to the arena.

Thousands of protesters were scattered when the area was hit by a thunderstorm and flash flood. (An estimated 5,500 people protested here at some point Monday, with about 50 arrests.) The Wall Street Journal noted the case of a protester, John Puello, who “trekked from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y., to the designated protest area near the Wells Fargo Center in South Philadelphia, to show his support for Mr. Sanders. But lightning and rain rolled in about 20 minutes after he got there. ‘The rain was like Raid roach spray and we all dispersed,’ Mr. Puello, a 22-year-old freelance video editor, said as he rode a subway back to Center City.”

Many news media people are headquartered in reinforced tents just outside the arena, and were told to evacuate, but some refused. The tents shook. Water came down on electrical equipment.

For the media, it’s a mile-long walk along pavement once you get inside the barriers. Uber cars are funneled to an area outside the arena, where you can get lukewarm bottled water while you wait for an Uber—an hour’s wait after the convention recessed last night. In much of the convention area, air conditioning and Wi-Fi are weak.

Andrew Rosenthal of the New York Times said that, compared to other conventions, “this is the worst I’ve ever seen.”

As one veteran public-relations expert told me, “The Republicans are always trying to get the media to love them. The Democrats take them for granted, and treat them like s***.”

Therein lies the problem for the media. Many in the media believe that they haven’t done enough to stop Trump, and that they must put aside any concerns about journalistic ethics in order to prevent him from becoming president. I know. I hang out with these people. During the Republican National Convention, I spent time in the media lounge and at the long tables where you could plug in your computer to work. I overheard them sneering at Trump and at the Republicans they consider sellouts for not being NeverTrumpers.

Jay Rosen, who teaches journalism (!!) at New York University—he used to be the department chair—wrote in the Washington Post (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/in-theory/wp/2016/07/13/donald-trump-is-crashing-the-system-journalists-need-to-build-a-new-one/ ) that Trump’s campaign obligates journalists to change the way they operate.

Traditionally, journalists have thought it “ethical” not to worry about the consequences of election coverage: as long as it was truthful, accurate and newsworthy, all was well. Here they may have to worry that their checking actions have no effect, and regroup around that discovery. . . .

I know what you’re thinking, journalists: “What do you want us to do? Stop covering a major party candidate for president? That would be irresponsible.” True. But this reaction short-circuits intelligent debate. Beneath every common practice in election coverage there are premises about how candidates will behave. I want you to ask: Do these still apply? Trump isn’t behaving like a normal candidate; he’s acting like an unbound one. In response, journalists have to become less predictable themselves. They have to come up with novel responses. They have to do things they have never done. They may even have to shock us.

They may need to collaborate across news brands in ways they have never known. They may have to call Trump out with a forcefulness unseen before. They may have to risk the breakdown of decorum in interviews and endure excruciating awkwardness. Hardest of all, they will have to explain to the public that Trump is a special case, and the normal rules do not apply.

Last week, at the GOP convention, one prominent journalist within earshot confided to a colleague that, “If Trump wins, it’ll be war, of course. But I really worry that, if Hillary wins, the Hillary people will treat us like s*** because they’ll assume we’re in their pocket. Which [snicker] we kinda are.”

Finally, a reason for the media to commit ethical journalism! Because, if Clinton wins, they’ll get treated, um, appropriately.

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