By James A. Kidney
Friday’s New York Times coverage of Hillary Clinton’s critique of Donald Trump’s foreign “policy” — essentially that it’s a nutty barrage of insults and non-sequiturs devoid of substance but dangerous for the country — showed how asymmetric the press is in its disparate treatment of Clinton and Trump — to Clinton’s disadvantage.
The main Times story on the speech was a workmanlike recounting of the highlights with perhaps too much inside baseball on how the speech came to be written. It also noted that “… the speech was devoid of new policy prescriptions, and she skipped over difficult episodes during her tenure as secretary of state . . .” In other words, where was the meat of foreign policy?
This was accompanied by a list of ways in which the speech fell short on specifics about foreign policy written by Mark Ladler, a Times reporter who recently penned a long, somewhat critical, analysis of Clinton’s policies for the paper’s Sunday magazine. The Friday article was headlined on line as “Where Hillary Clinton’s Heavy Attack Was Light on Specifics.”
Trump’s own response to the speech was to call Clinton names and say “she has to go to jail” for the email issue. “It was a pretty pathetic deal,” he said.
Of course, Trump has offered no coherent foreign policy proposals at all. He wants to wall off Mexico, consider expanding nuclear arms to South Korea and Japan, and possibly pull out of NATO. Since he is incapable to putting together a complete sentence, his reasons for these “proposals” are usually because some country — usually China — is being mean to the U.S. (and, from the plaintive sounds, mean to the Donald’s persona as a six-year-old billionaire).
The mainstream or Establishment press, preeminently the Old Gray Lady, still doesn’t get it about Trump. His is a campaign that revels in an absence of substance or realistic notions. His appeal is to the large number of voters who don’t give a damn about substance and will either fall asleep or order another beer if some politician offers it on TV. It’s working, at least for now.
But pity the poor journalist who has spent years at a posh publication earning his or her spurs by boning up on the foreign or domestic policies of the day. Think of the poor Brenda Starr who knows all the ins and outs of the immigration battles and yearns to show her chops in the pages of the paper (forget cable — it never cared about substance).
Or the Hildy Johnson who has traveled with presidents around the world soaking up intelligence on Air Force One since Henry Kissinger walked the earth, becoming (in his own mind, at least) a foreign affairs insider who nods knowingly when an eminence grise asserts that the country needs the Saudis as allies even as they fund groups fighting our troops on the ground. “When the plane lands I will file my scoop about U.S. views on the crisis in Timbuktu. The follow-up calls from the State Department should be exciting!”
Donald Trump doesn’t care about any of that and neither do his supporters. Instead, he deals in stereotypes and feigns loading dock toughness, treating countries as mugs to be beat up unless they do as he says.
What is a foppish State Department reporter to do?
Answer: Go after Hillary for failing to elaborate at length on her foreign policy views, victories and failures. There’s a place for expertise! I and my job are saved. I have meaning and worth again!
This asymmetric coverage, resulting from the historically threatening and anti-realism Trump campaign, is reiterated time and again. Trump holds press conferences in which the press is held up as piñatas for punishment. Substance: zero.
Clinton doesn’t hold press conferences. No wonder. She would be jammed up by specifics that make negative headlines and convey the notion that she is unreliable and incapable, if only because there are no comparable headlines about any “policy” or proposal from Trump. An intelligent, basically responsible person such as Clinton cannot stir up patriotic fervor if she is to be honest about the many challenges foreign and domestic faced by the country and not subject to simple solutions. She can only either bore the easily distracted public, or be made to look like a weakling who cannot Make America Great Again.
What is the solution? I don’t know. But perhaps when the press writes that Clinton has not proposed specifics, or that her solutions have weaknesses, the reporters also could note quite clearly that Clinton is making coherent proposals to solve the country’s problems, while Trump does not.
Would that be violating the foolish nostrums of “down the middle” journalism? No. It would be stating the facts.