The Press--A Compromised Immune System?

This past fall, before he died of cancer, my pal Joel Kurtzman reflected on what made its menace so fascinating. The terrible thing, he told me, was that cancer cells—clearly warped under the microscope—make themselves invisible to the immune system. The body would easily destroy cancer cells if it knew danger was there; but these cells evolve into forms that seem so ordinary, so passably normal on the surface, that they get away with growing. The body, or a subsystem of it, makes something fatal to the whole, deliberately designed (if that’s a phrase meaningful to evolution) to fool its defenses.

The jump from this insight to the body politic was natural. Donald Trump was already a thing; he seemed—given a moment’s thought—warped. Yet his campaign was growing and growing. You couldn’t say he was the first boor we
had ever seen, bragging, threatening, making things up. But a boor never made such a serious run at the presidency. What, we wondered, was our equivalent immune system in national politics, and what were the deficits that could have allowed for Trump’s rise—in what sense did he seem, of all things, ordinary?

Joel did not live to see today’s Republican convention, but the answer to the first question seemed obvious enough to us. We both had careers in journalism. We supposed the press should destroy the public reputations of politicians whose ideas were venal, illogical, unwarranted, or based on cooked evidence; or expose behavior that seemed hypocritical, unmannered, or criminal. (This was not exactly a new supposition. “The only security of all is in a free press,” Jefferson wrote Lafayette in 1823. “It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.”) Yet Trump seemed to thrive on press coverage. How? A couple of weeks ago, I tuned into MSNBC, the presumed bastion of “liberal” journalism. FBI Director Comey had just come out with the verdict on Hillary Clinton’s emails. It was 7 PM, time for “Hardball,” and I found the network devoting itself to a live broadcast of a Trump speech in Cincinnati. I watched, revolted: free association, self-aggrandizement, self-pity, faked numbers, paranoid conspiracies—all uninterrupted:

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