The Third Third

Reporting from the Third Third in the Age of Trump

I have been a news junkie probably forever, but I have been ever more powerfully addicted these past four years — since the 2016 Presidential campaign began and throughout the Trump tenure. While I doubt there is any such thing as a healthy addiction, this one is particularly detrimental to my well-being: I can’t sleep, and when I do, I wake up with a sense of dread, I find it difficult to be nice and kind or understanding in any kind of disagreement, and I spew only venom when I write. 

This is in part, I think, because I am experiencing the news both as an erstwhile journalist and as a responsible, albeit partisan, information-seeking voter.              No matter how much television news I binge watch, no matter how many newsfeeds get “pushed” to me, no matter how many newspapers and magazines I read, I can’t satisfy the monster; I keep thinking “just one more hour, article, perspective,” and then the time suck that is this obsession takes over my life for yet another hour, another day — without providing the moral, political, professional clarity I seek. Much less any hope. It’s as if I am not only watching a train wreck and unable to look away, but I am also watching and hoping to see something that will keep it from happening, too, hoping against what I can clearly see and hear that things won’t turn out so badly for my country, for our world, after all. If I keep watching. 

But that’s only part of my angst. As a pre-Watergate journalist (that is, before Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward made journalism cool), I hold my news purveyors to a very high journalistic standard, and all too often, with some notable exceptions, they have missed the mark these past few years. Who, for example, thought it was a good idea to give Donald Trump a megaphone and all the free air time in the world in the lead-up to the 2016 election? Why was there such dependence on false equivalencies in the campaign coverage? Did anyone give any thought to the substance of the race, the nature of one candidate’s, or the other’s, appeal, and to airing their thoughts instead of letting one camp label the other in the interest of purported fairness? With all the red flags suggesting — and forcing folks to actually say, “This is unprecedented,” why was the campaign still covered conventionally, and like a horse race? Or a three-ring circus? 

Three years into Trump’s term, the New York Times just recently explored the role of Twitter in his rule. Really?!! Good journalism there, but still, why have we news junkies and every day citizens been subjected to viewing his Twitter feed as news for the last three years? Did anyone think long and hard about it? I mean, really, why, after giving Trump the megaphone for TV and seeing how that worked out, would you turn around and literally broadcast his Twitter feed? Relentlessly. And unfiltered. It felt like Journalism as well as the rule of law had given way to Trump’s “rule of thumb,” and I’m really aghast at that. Sure there’s a role for Trump’s Twittering to play, but it’s not for journalists to amplify or enhance it, legitimizing somehow the rants and raves that fire up his base and scare the rest of us. Just putting it out there for all to see, á la Mark Zuckerburg, isn’t responsible journalism. At the same time, I applaud the hard, steady and truly impressive work responsible journalists have done since Trump’s election and the corruption and chaos they have uncovered and chronicled all the while standing up to his furious threats against the news media. 

But there’s still a story no one is telling, and I think it might be time to shift the political narrative as we head into Impeachment hearings and the next election. I am reminded of a story I worked on as a young reporter for a local weekly newspaper in suburban New Jersey, one of those towns where the property values are (and always have been) high because of (1) proximity to New York City and (2) really good public schools. Regrettably, I can’t remember the facts of the story, but I remember vividly the difficulty I had and the battles I fought to get those facts. New Jersey’s Sunshine Law, or Open Meetings Act, had been enacted in 1973, and state and local officials who had previous worked behind closed doors were, in 1977-78 still getting used to (i.e., resisting) working in open session when required. 

Such was the case with the school board in this town which was intent on hiding the ball on a key administrative change. There was a scandal involved and there were all kinds of rumors, but no one on the board or in the district’s communications office was shooting straight. I had a professional relationship with the schools’ spokeswoman and knew some of the board members socially, but they all stonewalled my reporter’s questions and claimed the personnel issues involved warranted their closed sessions. I complained in person and in print on behalf of the press and of the public, to no avail. And then, one night a few weeks in, under cover of darkness, someone anonymously left an envelope in my home mailbox with three pages that explained exactly what was going on and said, disturbingly, they wanted me to know the truth but I couldn’t print it in the newspaper. Wink, wink, nod, nod. I was one of them, if this was “us” versus “them.” It was in effect an after-the-fact “Off the record” request that would be difficult to enforce if I didn’t comply, but still, in a small town, that kind of breach could destroy a newspaper. 

So I didn’t print the anonymous report, but I refused to be complicit in the secret-keeping and so wrote instead about getting the report from an anonymous source. And I wrote that this kind of “communication” by public officials about the town’s public, taxpayer-supported schools was unacceptable and not in compliance with the state’s Sunshine Laws. The Board came clean shortly thereafter, and indeed, there was a scandal and heads rolled. 

Small potatoes, really, in retrospect, but it was an important principle. And I find it germane now because I believe today’s Republicans are co-opting many good reporters the way some anonymous school board member in New Jersey tried to co-opt me. “I’ll tell you, but you can’t tell anyone” about how I really feel about Donald Trump, how terrible I think he is for our country, for the balance of power, for our democratic institutions, for the world order, what a racist, sexist, vulgar, arrogant, cruel and corrupt human being he is and what an autocratic threat he is to Republican and American values. How many times have you heard reporters say “Behind closed doors, some Republicans are voicing doubts. . . .” but their concerns are rarely for public consumption. Instead, uniformly on-the-record, Republicans are united in support of the President and everything he says and does. 

This disconnect, or sheer dishonesty fuels the narrative that Impeachment is at once hyper-partisan and futile, that no House Republicans support it and that no Senate Republicans will vote to remove Trump from office. And this premise in turn, although built on obviously incomplete information, nonetheless undermines the integrity and efficacy of the impeachment process. And gets reported that way. Which is where good journalism comes in, or should. 

This summer I asked a New Yorker editor why this gap between what the GOP folks think and what they say isn’t more of a story, and he said things have always been thus in Washington, that politicians have always said one thing in private and another in public to shape the narrative their party needs to have told. You wouldn’t believe, he told me, how many Democrats disliked, even hated, Obama (and complained to reporters), but never called him out in public. It’s also, he said, part of the nature of the (somewhat incestuous) relationship between reporters and politicians: the reporters like to think they’re getting an inside scoop, while the politicians use off-the-record insights to curry favor with the reporters. Still, not liking Obama is a far milder confession to make than not being sure the President of the United States belongs in office. It’s a whole different story. And it’s not being told. 

It’s as if the news media is complicit in the charade that these are normal times. They are not. 

When journalists let politicians spew forth soundbites filled with words totally deprived of their meaning and import because the truth has been so egregiously compromised, the role of a free press and an informed electorate are undermined. And I don’t know why any self-respecting journalist would let that happen. But then, I don’t know why any self-respecting elected official would debase him-or-her self and jeopardize our democracy out of fear of a President’s wrath. They must be very, very afraid of President Trump. And if they are, we all should be. And that’s the story I wish journalists would tell. 

  Editor’s Note: What, exactly, does this post have to do with being a woman in the third third of her life? As I’ve worked at writing it over the last couple of days, I have wondered that myself, wondered how to justify politicizing or Trumpisizing my online take on being this certain age in the world. I have come to believe it is the “in the world” part that I’m embracing here, the “Do not go quietly into the night” mandate. I wrote this to demonstrate that those of us in the third third of our lives aren’t done yet thinking about things, working toward change, applying our experience to contemporary issues, and speaking our minds. So — thanks for indulging me. You are, of course, welcome to do the same.

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