candidates like Trump
Years ago, I learned a painful lesson watching Donald Trump.
No, not the one who is our president-elect; the candidate whose coverage
I witnessed was running for county commissioner, and although he lost,
he was Trump-like: loud, uninhibited, angry and loose with facts and
accusations. He also was extremely entertaining.
The lesson came when a colleague covered a candidates forum. Such forums
(fora?) often are dreary affairs, with well-meaning folks speaking to
a modest-sized crowd and, for a couple of minutes each, promising jobs,
economic development, careful spending, new programs, devotion to motherhood,
love of puppies, etc. The presentations rarely rise above the superficial,
usually not because the candidates are stupid or lazy, but because the
format allows little time for depth.
But the Trump-like candidate – I’ll call him Lance –
was different. He was theatrical bordering on frantic, and although
much of what he said was vacuous attacking of the incumbent, he aroused
My colleague who covered the forum focused his story on Lance. He wrote
it knowing Lance was more qualified for “Saturday Night Live”
than for public office, and his misstep was that he assumed readers
would recognize that Lance had no serious positions, just mindless anger
at the status quo.
The reporter’s reasoning was that the other speakers were bland;
at least Lance would draw readers.
Tactically he was correct; readers responded. However, the story was
strategically wrong, as it gave too much unchallenged space to a crackpot.
The reporter should have written a standard candidates-forum story that
mentioned, but didn’t dwell on, Lance, then followed with a rigorously
reported follow-up showing Lance was spouting absurdities.
That was my lesson.
Now, it would be irresponsible to equate President-elect Trump with
Lance. Yes, both tapped into the anger and distrust among the electorate.
But Trump, despite his faults, is an accomplished person with a record
of dealing with complex real-world problems. As a candidate, Lance was
a dilettante who could deliver a rousing speech but whose background
did not merit a decision-making role in government.
Criticism of the news coverage of Trump’s campaign has flowed,
um, liberally since Election Day, some of it self-directed, although
weird. The New York Times’ publisher and executive editor penned
a letter “To Our Readers,” in which they praised “our
newsroom” for its election-night coverage, then seemed on the
verge of apologizing for something – “… we aim to
rededicate ourselves …” – then snuffed the apology
and vowed to cover President Trump diligently.
The Wall Street Journal published a remarkable column by its deputy
editorial page editor who had criticized Trump throughout the campaign.
The column’s thoughts were unremarkable; it was standard, “I’m
a columnist, and I have to express my honest opinion” stuff, the
very definition of a column.
What was remarkable was that the columnist thought he had to say it.
In thinking he had to explain his role, he didn’t show much respect
for the intelligence of readers.
All of this “rededication” and public introspection seems
honorable, but it’s meaningless if we don’t learn from what
really happened in the 2016 campaign. Just as my colleague (and I) assumed
voters would see Lance for what he was, journalists started covering
Trump as a goofy footnote who would liven up the tedium of the early
By the time journalists started taking him seriously, their profuse
“Look at this funny guy!” coverage had built up Trump’s
following, and traditional candidates couldn’t catch up.
After Trump’s election, two outcomes are possible, and they might
coincide: (1) More candidates will adopt the Trump-Lance approach of
loud, bold, insulting comments – his assertion that Jeb Bush was
“low energy” devastated the acknowledged front-runner’s
campaign – to gain early attention for an otherwise long-shot
campaign. (2) Astute journalists, both reporters and their demanding
editors, will not let candidates build a following based on bombast.
And one more thing must be considered: Even before The Lesson Of Lance,
I got a schooling from a different iconoclastic candidate. He was running
for mayor, and he ripped into everything the city had done or was doing.
One night after a candidates forum, he took me aside and, smiling broadly,
he said, “I trust your story tomorrow will make me look bad.”
A young reporter, I was perplexed.
He added, “As long as the press is against me, I know I’ll
He did, and as I watched Candidate Trump, I thought: If the country
is as angry as he says, the negative stories will only help him because
the traditional news media is perceived as propping up the status quo
fueling that anger.
THE FINAL WORD: When I see a book on word usage, I
have to have it, so I recently bought “Bryson’s Dictionary
of Troublesome Words” by the delightful Bill Bryson.
Skimming it, I found that the plural of “mongoose” is “mongooses.”
Bryson explains: “The word is of Indian origin and has no relation
to the English ‘goose.’”
This is going to be fun.
Jim Stasiowski welcomes your questions or comments. Call him at (775)
354-2872 or write to 2499 Ivory Ann Drive, Sparks, Nev. 89436.