Everyone knew that Trump would win the Iowa caucuses (the Associated Press called the race while people were still caucusing). So everyone knew that he'd be making a victory speech. MSNBC and CNN had to decide whether to take the speech live, in a re-enactment of a question that arose night after night in 2016 and 2020. MSNBC didn’t, and CNN, now supposedly laboring under a less Trump-obsessed or less extremely partisan management team, decided to let it run for a few minutes, and then cut it off midstream. They appeared, that is, to change their minds live. According to an account in The New York Times, CNN's incoherence came out of and led into yet another series of debates about whether to put Trump on the air at all.
This is the former and perhaps future POTUS, mind you: newsworthy by default.
Rachel Maddow, among others, is puzzling on this matter. “It is not out of spite. It is not a decision that we relish. It is a decision that we regularly revisit, and honestly, earnestly. It is not an easy decision. But there is a cost to us as a news organization of knowingly broadcasting untrue things.” It's not out of spite! It's out of their great love for their country, I guess, that they’ve decided not to cover the news. Perhaps there’s a cost of that, as well, to a news organization, the price being that they no longer are. The idea is to control the way Trump is interpreted by their audience, or to make sure that he himself has no effect on that. Maddow's is an oddly defensive and repetitive, even a desperate explication.
It's an anti-journalistic impulse: it’s a decision specifically to conceal current newsworthy events. And it appears to be a much easier decision for MSNBC than Maddow is letting on as she gropes for a justification: the network reaches the same decision every time out. Maddow and co. obviously think their audience is vulnerable to Trump's misinformation. Even a few minutes of Trump, adulterated only by the scroll at the bottom of the page, Maddow evidently believes, is likely to corrupt, persuade, and damage her viewers. That's odd, because she and we know that no one with any sympathy for Trump is watching her show. She's trying to keep people who hate and disagree with Trump from hearing what he's saying, in order to protect their current opinions or to nurture their agreement with her. That's how powerful she thinks he is, and how pathetic and manipulable she believes her audience is.
What strikes me is this: she is, like most of her viewers and colleagues, afraid to hear Trump. They don't appear to trust themselves not to believe him. That's strange, and it definitely indicates that we’ll need sources other than MSNBC, if we want to have any notion of what's going on.
As to Maddow's idea that a news network should not "knowingly broadcast untrue things": that's just the worst kind of misunderstanding, jarring in its lack of reflection. Let's say, for example, that Alex Murdaugh says something like "I loved my wife and son! I could never hurt them!" Now you in the newsroom may well be aware that what he's saying is false. But if you can't quote his denials, you can't cover the trial. Maddow's way of thinking about this is devoted only to the pathetic and anti-democratic project of silencing people she disagrees with and making them incomprehensible to herself and her viewers. MSNBC can't cover the election, and isn't.
Meanwhile in Germany, at Bertolt Brecht's old theater along the river Spree, they're taking a dramatically different approach: a theatrical re-enactment of their opponents' horrendous jive.
In a "covert" meeting outside Berlin in November, politicians in the relatively mainstream but quite-right party Alternative für Deutschland met with further-right activists to discuss a "masterplan" for mass deportations of immigrants. "The mix of proven neo-Nazis and notionally respectable business people at the meeting," remarks the Guardian with considerable restraint, "was instructive." Journalists from the investigative group Correctiv planted bugs in the meeting and monitored it from cars and boats outside.
And then Correctiv helped whip up a theatrical presentation in which actors performed as the prospective deporters. This is an innovative approach to journalism, and was dedicated to enabling theatergoers to hear many false and repulsive things. They needed to hear these things, so that they could react to them in an informed way or have the knowledge necessary to help prevent them from happening. They needed to hear the sort of thing that Rachel Maddow and most of the staff at CNN think should be repressed.
The Guardian begins its story with an overhead view of tens of thousands of people at a rally in Hanover. "Now due to enter their eighth consecutive day, anti-AfD protests have been taking place around the country, despite the enduring alpine chill. The biggest so far, in Cologne on Tuesday, was 30,000 strong." That is, a mass anti-fascist movement is growing in Germany, and now it's even more evident why such a thing is needed, what it's responding to, how urgent it really is, and who it’s really fighting against. I don't think that people came out of that theater saying, as David Remnick still says about Trump and his devotees, that their opponents are bizarre and incomprehensible. They came out knowing exactly what they are up against.
On the other hand, just as Maddow says, MSNBC and perhaps its audience too, strongly prefers to have no idea. I have the notion that it portends defeat for Alternative für Deutschland and victory for Donald Trump.
—Follow Crispin Sartwell on Twitter: @CrispinSartwell