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I spent last Friday night flying from Boston to San Francisco on a plane with TVs in the back of each seat. Because the flight was delayed, the movies were free, and I was determined to kill time by watching the new Star Wars movie.
The problem was that I kept catching sight of my neighbor’s TV, which showed what I took to be live footage from the site of the Donald Trump rally in Chicago. There were protesters and Trump supporters yelling at each other, shoving, even taking a few sloppy swings.
What happened in Chicago was not an example of democracy run amok, but a rather remarkable example of democracy in action.
The scene looked like a race riot. Which made a sad kind of sense, given Trump’s racially charged invective and his pathological attempts to incite violence against protesters at his events.
So I found myself -- stupidly, inexorably — switching from Star Wars to various cable networks.
After 10 minutes, it became clear that the networks were vastly exaggerating the “upheaval” in Chicago, mostly by airing the same few clips of scuffles over and over. In fact, the vast majority of those who gathered in the arena had dispersed in a peaceful (if loud) manner. A grand total of four people suffered minor injuries. Five were arrested, one of them a reporter. The crowds at most NFL football games are far more menacing.
What happened in Chicago was not an example of democracy run amok, but a rather remarkable example of democracy in action. After months of telling individual protesters to “shut up” and “get out,” candidate Trump finally came up against a group too large to bully into silence.
The minorities, immigrants and liberal activists he had denigrated for months finally silenced him — at least for one night — by exercising their First Amendment rights to free speech and peaceable assembly.
Not surprisingly, Trump’s reaction to this humiliation has consisted of doubling down on his violent rhetoric. “We’re all together and we want to get along with everybody,” he told a cheering crowd in Dayton on Saturday, “but when they have organized, professionally staged wise guys we’ve got to fight back, we’ve got to fight back.” He went on to advocate that his supporters disrupt a Bernie Sanders rally.
What scares me about all this isn’t just that the presidential front-runner of the Republican Party appears eager to foment civil unrest, but that the networks are so desperate for ratings that they’ve become his de facto enablers.
I worry (a lot) about what’s happening inside the minds and hearts of white supremacists and other hate groups as they watch those same endless loops of racial confrontations on TV. Might these images — combined with Trump’s relentless exhortations — serve as an invitation to escalate the violence?
'It may not be good for America, but it is damn good for CBS … The money’s rolling in and this is fun. ...Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.'Les Moonves, president & CEO, CBS
And if that violence comes, is there any doubt that the networks will happily air around-the-clock coverage?
Sure, the anchors and pundits and correspondents may express dismay at the sight of citizens assaulting one another. But the network executives will be thrilled.
Consider the words of CBS head Les Moonves. Two weeks ago, he spoke about the Trump phenomenon at a conference in San Francisco: “It may not be good for America, but it is damn good for CBS … The money’s rolling in and this is fun. I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”
As disturbing as Trump’s baiting may be, this statement by Moonves is even more despicable. It suggests that the media will continue to promote Trump even, and especially, as his events become more violent -- just so long as “the money’s rolling in.”
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