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A woman looks at front pages from today's newspapers outside the Newseum in Washington, DC, the day after the US presidential election on November 9, 2016. (YURI GRIPAS/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman looks at front pages from today's newspapers outside the Newseum in Washington, DC, the day after the US presidential election on November 9, 2016. (YURI GRIPAS/AFP/Getty Images)

SIMON HOUPT

Donald Trump is a great gift to the media he hates Add to ...

Late on Tuesday night, as the vote counts rolled in across the United States and it became clear Donald Trump was headed for the White House, the Huffington Post issued a strange memo to its staff.

The editors believed Mr. Trump to be a uniquely toxic candidate. So, since the summer of 2015, every news story the outlet published about him had included an addendum noting he “regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims – 1.6-billion members of an entire religion – from entering the U.S.”

But with Mr. Trump transitioning from candidate to president-elect, a HuffPost editor explained that “we’re going to start with a clean slate,” according to Politico, which obtained a copy of the memo. “If he governs in a racist, misogynistic way, we reserve the right to add [the tag] back on. This would be giving respect to the office of the presidency which Trump and his backers never did.”

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The move seemed to signify a newly chastened HuffPost: After all, Mr. Trump did not stop being a misogynist or serial liar just because 59.5-million Americans voted for him. It felt as if the outlet was pre-emptively playing possum, perhaps because it was worried that, as president, Mr. Trump might follow through on the threat issued on the campaign trail to “open up our libel laws” and make it easier for people to sue outlets “and make lots of money.”

Mind you, it would appear Mr. Trump has not kept up to date with the state of the industry, which has been in a notorious swan-dive for more than a decade. Indeed, if media outlets had “lots of money,” they might not have used as many stories about him as they did to pull in audiences, especially during the early months of his run.

Like most codependent relationships, the bond between Mr. Trump and his media enablers grew toxic until both sides felt sullied.

As the shock over Mr. Trump’s election subsided on Wednesday, conventional wisdom took hold that the mainstream media had blown it: They had lost touch with America’s heartland, had been too busy chasing Kardashian clicks and currying favour with the elites to notice the enduring pain of the voters who turned out at the polls and put their man in office.

Some of which may be true. It is certainly true that, in issuing an unprecedented series of editorial endorsements of Hillary Clinton, U.S. newspapers illustrated that they had surprisingly little influence over readers who supported her opponent.

But it is also true that, while Mr. Trump says he hates the media, he may have just given them the greatest gift in a generation, and a thrilling way out of their existential doom.

That is because the public’s appetite for stories about Mr. Trump is unlikely to evaporate any time soon. On Tuesday, more voters pulled the lever for Hillary Clinton than for Mr. Trump. With both the executive and legislative branches of the federal government controlled by Republicans for at least the next two years, many Americans will want the media to rediscover their sense of purpose as the unofficial opposition.

Clinton voters feel thwarted. And after spending a campaign cycle believing the voices in their social media streams that falsely predicted their candidate was headed for a historic victory, they may be wary of pundits, and eager for more fact-based reporting than opinion-based journalism.

On Wednesday, Kyle Pope, editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, wrote a call to arms for the industry, saying it needs “to embrace, even relish, our legacy as malcontents and troublemakers, people who are willing to say the thing that makes everyone else uncomfortable.”

As Tuesday turned into Wednesday, many journalists filled Twitter with commendations of the heroic work that was done during the campaign, especially by reporters such as David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post, who almost singlehandedly demolished Mr. Trump’s claims of philanthropic generosity. Yet, they cried, none of it mattered, for their fellow citizens had still voted for Mr. Trump.

Of course it mattered. It just did not make as much difference as some people hoped. But then, it’s journalism, not magic. Still, it changed minds, and inspired other vital reporting. And it set the tone for the Washington press corps during the Trump administration.

It is going to be a wild four years.

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Follow on Twitter: @simonhoupt

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