60 Minutes gave a master class in normalizing a dangerous demagogue -- inviting President-elect Donald Trump to reintroduce himself as a reasonable politician while glossing over the most dangerous features and promises of his recent campaign, including his reliance on the chief of the white nationalist “alt-right” website Breitbart News, Stephen Bannon, who has just been named White House senior counselor.
During the November 13 edition of CBS’s 60 Minutes, Donald Trump gave correspondent Lesley Stahl his first extensive interview since winning the presidential election. The interview was a disturbing start for journalism in a Trump presidency -- asking softball questions, fixating on Trump’s personal feelings about becoming president, and repeatedly minimizing Trump’s most dangerous promises as mere campaign talk.
Do You Mean What You Said?
Throughout the interview, Stahl repeatedly invited Trump to distance himself from the extreme positions he took during the campaign. Stahl introduced the interview by telling viewers that 60 Minutes had discovered many of Trump’s signature campaign promises were, in fact, “not meant to be taken literally, but as opening bids for negotiation.” (A sentiment Trump himself did not express during the taped interview.)
That framing continued throughout the interview. “Are people going to be surprised about how you conduct yourself as president?,” Stahl asked, suggesting that the Trump Americans had come to know on the campaign trail might have been an act. Asking about Trump’s campaign rhetoric, Stahl wondered if the president-elect would “have that same rhetoric you had on the stump or are you going to rein it in?”
The bulk of Stahl’s policy questions focused on whether Trump was going to follow through on a given campaign position or “change it in any way.”
That approach -- essentially asking Trump ‘did you really mean what you said?’ rather than holding him accountable for the platform he ran on -- allowed Trump to reintroduce himself as a reasonable politician, distance himself from positions like putting his political opponent in prison or reversing marriage equality, and avoid having to answer substantive questions about how he planned to implement proposals like building a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border or repealing and replacing Obamacare.
Fixating On The Personal
Stahl also focused on Trump’s personal reaction to being elected president, asking if he was surprised by his victory, if he realized the enormity of his victory, if he was “intimidated” or “scared” by the burden of the presidency, if it was awkward meeting with President Obama, etc. Asking about Trump’s first meeting with the president, Stahl wondered “You looked pretty sober sitting there in the Oval Office. Did something wash over you?”
In a 60 Minutes Overtime segment, Stahl explained that she believed Trump had become “much more subdued, much more serious” in the days since winning the presidency:
“I really did have the feeling that the sense of gravity, and how big the problems are — it was sinking in, washing over him,” she says. “I think he wanted the public to know that he understood that he had to shift gears and pay attention to the responsibilities now.”
Again, Stahl’s framing assumes that the Trump who will soon be leading the country is not going to be the same Trump who ran one of the most divisive, undisciplined, and dangerous presidential campaigns in modern American history.
And those questions about Trump’s personal feelings came at the expense of more serious questions about what he actually plans to do as president, especially in light of his shameful positions as a candidate: his pledge to ban Muslims from entering the country or engage in war crimes, for example. They also came at the expense of questions about ongoing controversies, lawsuits, and conflicts of interest surrounding the president-elect, including charges of fraud over Trump University, his promise to sue the many women who accused him of sexual harassment and assault, the anti-semitic positions of his campaign and reports of the same surrounding his new senior counselor, and Trump’s ties to white nationalists at home and Russian interests abroad.
Is this how major news networks will spend the next four years normalizing Trump’s extremism? Treat it like an act, assume he doesn’t mean what he says, fixate on the sensationalism of his ascendancy, and play nice in order to maintain access? The same thing happened during the campaign, when journalists spent months predicting a Trump “pivot” that never came.
It is the responsibility of news networks to describe the world as it is, not as they hope it turns out. 60 Minutes’ apparent blind faith or unwillingness to take Trump’s campaign promises seriously -- to acknowledge that the most powerful office in the country is about to be occupied by someone who demonstrates no regard for basic democratic norms -- highlights the frightening possibility that many news networks simply aren’t prepared to speak truth to power during a Trump presidency.