Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach appears April 12, 2023, at the Kansas Reflector office in downtown Topeka for a podcast recording. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Political commentators have been outraged by CNN’s decision to broadcast a town hall with former President Donald Trump. They objected to Trump’s repeated lies, the studio audience’s lively support of the candidate, and shaky fact-check attempts from moderator Kaitlan Collins.
“This is an abnormal candidate who must not be normalized on national television in some run-of-the-mill Q&A with voters,” harrumphed columnist Jackie Calmes in the Los Angeles Times.
The same response could be heard across the internet after the New York Times published a profile of disgraced Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes. Critics wondered why a woman convicted of defrauding investors deserved a lengthy (5,000-some word), sympathetic profile.
“Nice to be a pretty white lady working your charm on a nyt reporter,” snarked former CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien on Twitter.
But as someone who has worked in journalism for the better part of two decades, I think the broadcast and New York Times profile were both defensible. Liberal pundits’ objections demonstrate a profound misunderstanding of the role journalists perform in our society. News happens whether we want it to or not.
Trump and Holmes are both figures of immense public interest. That alone justifies taking time to interview them. But being able to ask them tough questions makes the deal even better for journalists and their audiences.
Engaging across the spectrum
As opinion editor, I might not agree with much those politicians or that organization has to say. But so what? They have a constituency, Kansas Reflector has a platform, and our rigorous journalists make sure to hold them to account. We’re better off when news outlets engage with politicians across the spectrum.
On the commentary side of things, I emailed extensively with anti-vaccine activists and used those emails as the basis of a column. Did I worry about giving these fringe ideas a platform? Not especially, because I emphasized their potential harms.
Pretending these folks didn’t exist struck me as far more dangerous than attempting to figure out how they thought and why.
All of this came to mind as I sat on a panel at the annual Media and The Law Seminar in Kansas City, Missouri, last month. Titled “Liars who lie and naming names,” it also included New York Times reporter Elizabeth Williamson and media law attorney Steve Zansberg.
Conversation on the panel touched on Trump, as one might expect. The settlement between Dominion Voting Systems and Fox News had just been announced. We also talked about InfoWars host Alex Jones’ exploitation of the Sandy Hook School shootings in 2012, which Williamson has covered in a magisterial book. The question that hung over the entire event was simple but challenging: How do journalists and the lawyers who represent them deal with public figures who don’t act in good faith?
I told the audience there what I’ll write for you now. The news media endured unfair criticism for the rise of Trump and his election. Even the most inquisitive and hard-nosed coverage, coupled with the most incisive commentary, cannot make voters cast their ballots one way or another. People voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020 because they wanted him to be president, and the fantasy that somehow news stories or editorials could prevent that strikes me as the height of liberal self-delusion.
Reporters did incredible work covering Trump. David Fahrenthold (then of the Washington Post) stands out in my mind, but many followed his lead. Commentary writers by the dozen excoriated the real estate magnate, with conservative pundit Andrew Sullivan penning one of the most damning takes.
Voters still had the final say. For all of the good and bad and amoral rubbernecking that implies.
Dogged reporters led the way in uncovering skullduggery at Theranos, the now-infamous startup helmed by Holmes. In her case, the legal system picked up the ball and ran with it. Nevertheless, she has attracted a fanbase that reveres her as a “girl boss.” Given public interest in her case, any reporter would jump at the chance to update readers on Holmes and her family.
Learning our lessons
None of this should be taken to mean that I think the news media always did a great job before, during or after Trump.
His candidacy, freakish as it was, exploited weaknesses embedded deeply within our political system. He should have been challenged more as a candidate the first time around, and an eagerness for ratings likely distorted the perspective of TV news producers. In a similar way, Holmes’ status as a “pretty white lady” no doubt juiced interest in her case. The public craves entertainment, especially from evil people. So do reporters and columnists.
But all this should encourage journalists to do their jobs better and more aggressively, rather than excluding subjects altogether. That’s why I seized on the opportunity to join Kansas Reflector, where I’m able to state clearly — without interference — the moral stakes of Kansas politics. Columnists of the past may have fantasized about the better natures of the public. Now we know the powerful grip of authoritarianism over a swath of Americans.
Likewise, I know that not all our opinion section readers like Kobach or support his policies. Yet he’s undeniably important and powerful in Kansas politics. He has a story to tell, and his willingness to engage with reporter Tim Carpenter proves the Kansas Reflector doesn’t equate coverage to an endorsement. Our stories and podcasts let you decide.
These irritable online liberals remind me of conservatives who want to ban books in school libraries. They believe, with the best of intentions, that people need to be protected from harmful ideas. They only differ in defining what “harmful” means. A CNN town hall or a New York Times profile or an interview with a hard-nosed conservative politician might corrupt the innocent public.
Of course they won’t. We have to be willing discuss ideas openly — while including all the context we can manage.
As“Donald Trump is not Tinker Bell: He will not go away if the media ceases to believe in him. His message resonates with a large audience, and it’s made him the dominant figure in one of our two major political parties. He will not be defeated by a mainstream media blackout.”
No one becomes a journalist for public adoration. Indeed, this column may irritate some dedicated readers. That’s the point. We can’t make bad things in this world go away. We can equip you to deal with them.
We can share information. We can convey viewpoints. But everyday Kansans across the state — and everyday Americans across this incredible nation — have to pick themselves up to do the work.
Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.
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