It's all come down to this. And we may have no one but ourselves to blame.
In a nation where free speech and freedom of expression are expected and encouraged, the openness of our society may have led to one of the most troubling U.S. presidential elections in modern history.
The result? Anyone can be president. And I used to think that was a good thing.
The ingredients that got us here are well established. There are fearful, angry, and hurting Americans who are distrustful of virtually all institutions—the government, the press, the global economic cabal. A brash and brazenly unorthodox candidate with extraordinary media savvy, Donald J. Trump, became a mouthpiece for the disenfranchised.
He was a natural for the job. Viewed as unfit for office by many Americans or as an interloper by the Republican establishment, Trump is the ultimate outsider writ large. He's lashed out at societal sacred cows with glee, from Miss Universe to American prisoners of war. He's cut a Sherman-like swath through conventional presidential politics, insulting large segments of Americans (women, minorities, the disabled) and undermining our country's bedrock principles by refusing to acknowledge the peaceful transition of power. This bad-boy iconoclast has attracted followers who seem unaware of, or possibly unconcerned with, Trump's destructive rhetoric. Many actually seem to revel in his bold, crass persona.
Because of his trademark disregard for the Republican party and an even stronger distrust of traditional media, Trump accounts to no one. He shouts ridiculous falsehoods with bombast and boasts millions of followers on Twitter. (For an objective look at the candidates' statements, read PolitiFact's analysis of Trump's truthfulness on the campaign trail versus Clinton's truthfulness.) His supporters are undeterred. Trump explains this phenomenon best: "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue, shoot somebody, and I wouldn't lose any voters." This is the man who could be the next president of the United States.
And yet, it's the media he claims to despise that has aided his ascent. Trump's outrageous, often unfounded comments are catnip to the cable and social media "news" channels that feed us a steady stream of one-sided pablum. He's perfected 24/7 digital communication, making it an accomplice to his raid on real news. And he's enlisted us in his efforts. Every one of us has a digital megaphone to share thoughts and opinions, along with the latest polls from Fox News or MSNBC. We want our voices heard too.
Veteran broadcaster Ted Koppel gave this media backdrop some much-needed context in a recent interview on The Charlie Rose Show. "We have totally democratized communication in this country, and that sounds like a wonderful thing, everybody loves democracy," said Koppel. "But the idea of representational government is that you have congressmen and senators and people who spend their entire lives, theoretically, trying to do what is best for the country...Journalists are meant to do the same kind of thing, we're supposed to gather information, and then process it, and give people what is most important. We're way past that now."
Instead of opening our eyes to different news sources, the democratization of the media has led many of us to travel strictly within our own news lanes. It's allowed us to believe that our opinions—and the opinions of those who think the way we do—are a valid substitute for ethical, factual, careful journalism. Dissenting opinions are squelched or disregarded as irrelevant, or even called hate speech.
But when we cannot hear, much less consider, all sides of an argument, we cannot make intelligent decisions. To denigrate the media for "rigging an election," as the Trump campaign does, is to miss the point of being an American citizen in a society that cherishes the first amendment and respects civil discourse. The sad truth is this: the only people rigging the election are ill-informed citizens who willfully turn away from the facts.
Without respected media sources we all agree on, we're left a deeply divided nation that argues over false equivalencies. What gets lost in this junk-news climate is objectivity and context, or any substantive analysis of important issues we should all be talking about, such as trade, global warming, and immigration.
I was reminded of the essential role of professional journalism last weekend after a two-day tour of the Newseum in Washington, D.C. The Newseum "promotes, explains and defends free expression and the five freedoms of the First Amendment: religion, speech, press, assembly and petition." It houses the twisted, ashen broadcast antennae from the top of the World Trade Center; a section of the Berlin Wall alongside an East German guard tower; and a memorial of more than 2,200 media professionals who've lost their lives in pursuit of a story. The Pulitzer Prize photo gallery alone, showcasing award-winning photos since 1942, is enough to move anyone to tears.
I left the Newseum with renewed respect and yearning for high-quality and fair news sources that Americans can trust and share ("Goodnight, Chet. Goodnight, David."). I believe great journalism is a public service that our grand American experiment needs to survive. A quaint notion, perhaps.
I brought two small pieces of the Newseum home with me as a reminder of journalistic excellence. One is a refrigerator magnet that says "Just the facts." The other is a T-shirt with a quote from Martin Luther King that reads, "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."
Our democracy is a fragile organism. We must choose candidates who respect its basic tenets or we risk putting our entire political system in jeopardy. Freedom of expression allows Trump to say whatever he wants, to denigrate whomever he likes. But citizens must be informed enough to recognize an inflammatory bomb thrower who is fundamentally destructive to our democracy. Regardless of political leaning, it's our duty to choose country over party.
I have not remained silent. Neither should you. Don't be lulled into complacency in an election that matters as much as this one. Vote.