Frank Bruni is tortured.
And he's got an elaborate plan for journalists to prevent Donald Trump from being reelected — to "redeem ourselves," he says — because obviously "we" never should have allowed him to win the White House in the first place.
Bruni is a good writer, but he seems to fundamentally misunderstand the role of the press and the president's use of the press. He’s an opinion guy but comes from the camp that Trump is such a monumental threat that the news business must drop its usual standards and expose him.
His piece comes at a time when the president is under fire on several fronts, including the longest government shutdown in history. The Times just dropped a piece that the FBI opened a counterintelligence probe of Trump after the Jim Comey firing, and CNN now has transcripts of the internal debate. The Washington Post just reported that Trump shielded details of his conversations with Vladimir Putin from top aides, in one case grabbing an interpreter's notes.
Trump, for his part, tweeted yesterday that "the Fake News gets crazier and more dishonest every single day," that "certain people" have "truly gone MAD" and should take two weeks off and "chill!"
In his lengthy piece, Bruni rails against the president's "talent for using us as vessels for propaganda," making us "Trump's accomplice," as if no other president or politician has done that.
He says Trump was a "perverse gift" to the media, which would just "present him as the high-wire act and car crash that he is; the audience gorges on it."
Let me stop right there. While the media lavished endless attention on candidate Trump, much of it was negative attention, which helped him anyway. He also generated coverage by doing hundreds of interviews, even when he was on the defensive, in stark contrast to his GOP opponents and to Hillary Clinton.
Bruni contends that Trump's tweets and theatrics get so much attention that voters are "starved of information about the fraudulence of his supposed populism and the toll of his incompetence."
Really? The papers, the TV, and the web are filled with that stuff every day. While covering style over substance has been a media shortcoming for decades, especially on the tube, no sentient human being can be unaware of all the arguments against Trump on the shutdown, the wall, the Mueller probe, Syria, White House chaos, and on and on.
In another 2016 lament, Bruni says "we interpreted fairness as a similarly apportioned mix of complimentary and derogatory stories about each contender, no matter how different one contender's qualifications." In short, why did the press spend so much time on Hillary's private e-mail server (which by the way was under FBI investigation) when Trump was clearly the morally deficient one?
He quotes ex-Times editor Jill Abramson as saying the email scandal (broken by the Times) now seems like a "small thing" and that she didn't turn the full investigative machinery against Trump because she assumed Clinton would win.
Bruni somehow didn't have room for Abramson's conclusion in her forthcoming book, "Merchants of Truth" (as I reported), that she finds the Times' news coverage to be "unmistakably anti-Trump." Guess that was an inconvenient fact.
Still, Bruni does give a nod to the central flaw in his argument: "I'm not certain that more firepower would have made a difference. For one thing, there were many exposes of Trump's shady history. For another, he appealed to voters who largely disregard the mainstream media and who thrilled to his exhortations that they disregard it further."
And he retreats to this: "The real story of Trump isn't his amorality and outrageousness. It’s Americans' receptiveness to that." In other words, the Trump phenomenon is the fault of those gullible voters who just aren't as smart as members of the media elite.
Finally, Bruni says the media must give a full introduction to Trump's Democratic challengers, which makes sense, as long as he doesn't mean an uncritical one. But he disputes the notion that these candidates must be vivid enough "to steal some of his spotlight," because we — the mighty media — "can direct that spotlight where we want."
And that's troubling. It's actually the job of the Democratic candidates to make the case against Trump, and find ways to drive media coverage, and our job to cover both sides fairly and aggressively. Unless, of course, you believe that the incumbent is so terrible that it’s the media's mission to ensure he doesn't win again.