As Donald Trump added to his delegate total this week, CNN commentator Sally Kohn offered a grim forecast of a Trump presidency – and suggested the media will be culpable.
“There is a fine line between covering a candidate and amplifying a candidate,” Kohn, a progressive activist, said during the cable channel’s coverage of voting this past weekend. “And I’m sorry, but, yes, Donald Trump may be the Republican front-runner, I still think we’re giving him way too much attention in proportion to the other candidates who also had victories to celebrate tonight. I’m worried. When he institutes internment camps and suspends habeas [corpus], we’ll all look back and feel pretty bad.”
Shortly after making those remarks on the air, Kohn took to Twitter to remind critics – who were quick to dismiss her hypothetical – that Trump previously cited the World War II-era internment of Japanese Americans as a precedent for his plan to ban all Muslims from entering the United States.
“What I’m doing is no different than FDR,” Trump said on ABC’s “Good Morning America” in December. “I mean, take a look at what FDR did many years ago, and he’s one of the most highly respected presidents.”
That’s not exactly the same thing as saying he would suspend habeas corpus protections against unlawful imprisonment and bring back internment camps, but let’s consider Kohn’s larger point – that Trump will do bad things if elected president, and it will be partly the media’s fault because they have given him so much attention.
This is a popular argument, and it certainly makes some sense. When the press covers an idea such as closing U.S. borders to an entire religious group – even in a negative light – it does, by definition, amplify the proposal by drawing attention to it. The media could theoretically ignore Trump’s most incendiary comments, and he might find fewer “amens” by finding fewer eyes and ears.
What really frustrates Trump critics such as Kohn is voters’ response to the coverage – many like what they see in the Manhattan billionaire, despite being told by pundit after pundit that they should not. Kohn’s complaint suggests that news outlets should recognize the kind of reverse psychology going on in this campaign and cut down on Trump’s air time and column inches. If voters see less of Trump, maybe they’ll support him less, too.
It might work. But it’s a very cynical and short-sighted view of democracy. Since when is the best thing for a free press to deliberately provide less information to voters? Since when is it up to media executives to decide that voters can’t handle information about a candidate – that they can’t be trusted to use it responsibly and make the right decision?
There’s no question that Trump has received far more coverage than his rivals, but much of it has been highly critical. If voters decide that they like him anyway, they’re completely within their rights. Journalists are free to try to change voters’ minds by providing more information about Trump’s flaws, but they shouldn’t try to swing the election by providing less.
(C) 2016, The Washington Post · Callum Borchers