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Why Didn't A Reporter Tell Us That Trump Had Bullied Him?
It might be because media norms protect bullies.
Image: Mark Taylor CC
Yesterday we learned that Donald Trump grabbed a reporter’s phone and hurled it across the room at a speaking event. The incident didn’t happen this week, though. It happened more than a month ago, at Trump’s Waco rally, in full view of numerous journalists.
The journalists didn’t report it at the time. In fact, they never reported it. Instead, Vanity Fair’s Charlotte Klein revealed the details. An NBC reporter Vaughn Hillyard was asking Trump about the New York criminal investigation into Trump’s hush money payments to adult actress Stormy Daniels prior to the 2016 election. Trump got annoyed.
About 10 minutes later, as Hillyard continued to ask about the investigation, Trump snapped, grabbing the reporter’s two phones and chucking them to the side, according to a source familiar with the matter. “Get him out of here,” Trump told his aides, according to a recording obtained by Vanity Fair.
So why didn’t the reporters, you know, report? That’s their job, after all—and a presidential candidate throwing a tantrum and physically bullying a reporter seems like it’s news.
At his substack, Oliver Willis argued that the journalists didn’t write about the incident because they want Trump to win the 2024 election.
The mainstream media has a symbiotic connection to Donald Trump. They profit handily from his continued prominence as a significant political figure in America...
Trump in power means gold in the media hills, and just like when he was in office, the press engages in smoothing down his rougher edges, hiding the bizarre nature of the man and the cretins in his orbit, hoarding it for their books and other media products.
I think Willis is right that news media executives see Trump as a surefire eyeball catcher. CNN’s decision to host a Trump townhall is surely motivated by greed. The network’s increasingly right-leaning executive suite may even want Trump to win on the merits. They’re certainly salivating at the idea of capturing all those Fox viewers, maybe for a day, maybe for years to come as they rebrand as more-MAGA-than-thou.
I’m unsure that reporters have quite the same incentives though. A few big-name access reporters may have their eye on anecdotes for their books. But Vaughn Hillyard hasn’t even published a monograph yet, as far as I can find. He’s not Maggie Haberman. This could have been a big national byline for him. It’s hard to see how he benefits from letting someone else steal his own story.
So again we’re back at the question, why didn’t he (or others in attendance) report it?
I think the answer may be that reporters are supposed to be “objective.” Journalistic norms demand that reporters appear dispassionate. They’re not supposed to take sides. They’re not supposed to become the story.
In effect, these norms mean that reporters who are targeted are seen as compromised. As one egregious example, Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez says that she was barred from covering stories about sexual assault after she spoke publicly about being a survivor. (The paper later fired her for speaking out about sexism in the newsroom.)
The failure to speak in this instance might be less about Mammon, and more about Moloch. Journalism defers to power. That means that the powerful are often given the benefit of the doubt. Newsrooms may choose not to cover the ethical breaches of Supreme Court justices,. They may quote the police sans skepticism.
But deference to power also means that people who are powerless are seen as untrustworthy and compromised. And when you are assaulted or bullied, you’re disempowered.
When people are bullied, they tend to feel embarrassed and humiliated. Hillyard was bullied. Maybe he didn’t report on it because he felt that it would make him look bad—not just to the public, but to his bosses. If the story came out, would the higher ups question his ability to report on Trump? Would Trump acolytes start to troll him? Would readers consider him less objective?
I’m not saying that Hillyard or other reporters necessarily thought this through. Shame and institutional pressures often function as a kind of subconscious intuition—a sense of what’s right and proper, of how professionals conduct themselves, of who is likely to be chastised in a confrontation between the powerful and the less powerful.
Trump’s been a bully all his life; he’s very aware of the dynamics of abuse. “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ‘em by the pussy,” he infamously boasted. He was talking about his lifelong campaign of sexual assault. But the comments generalizable to almost all of his personal and political interactions. He abuses everyone he comes in contact with, just about, and then counts on deference, shame, fear, and the norms of hierarchy to protect him.
Journalism is committed to those norms of hierarchy. Media outlets still often act as if journalists who are targeted by the right-wing mob have done something wrong, or at least something embarrassing and inconvenient. Writers who carefully act as if a fascist party is a normal part of democracy get op-ed sinecures; marginalized people who are targeted by fascism are seen as too biased to do good reporting.
If self-interest was really the sole motivator in media deference to Trump, we’d be better off. Trump threatens journalists and media outlets with financial ruin and physical violence with some regularity, after all. If orgs were solely dedicated to profit and self-preservation, they’d have good reason to be anti-Trump.
Fascists, though, know how to hack civility and deference so their victims end up paralyzed by their own norms. Journalists want to be professionals, not victims. And since we as a culture tend to see those two categories as exclusive, Trump is able to stop journalists from being journalists by the simple expedient of victimizing them.
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