For a two-week stretch this summer, our country celebrates Olympians of the traditional variety. Superstars like Simone Biles, for whom gravity is less a law of nature than a gentle suggestion, or Katie Ledecky, who smashes her own world records like glass at a Jewish wedding. There are male Olympians, too, but in an effort to balance out the inane, sexist commentary that has littered NBC’s coverage of the Games, I will not bother listing them here.
But there are other Olympians who we, as a nation, should take a moment to honor. These Olympians do not, to my knowledge, wear leotards bedazzled with 5,000 Swarovski crystals, nor do their bodies bear the purple welts caused by cupping.
I am talking about whoever at CNN and MSNBC is responsible for writing the chyrons that fact-check presidential hopeful and failed frozen steak impressario Donald Trump.
Somewhere in the CNN and MSNBC offices, rogue reporters have promoted the humble parenthesis from lame, forgettable punctuation mark, only useful as part of a set and/or emoticon smiley, to a weapon of small scale destruction.
These individuals have figured out how to relate what Trump said and, when appropriate, alert the public to the glaring inaccuracies therein, not just within quick succession but at the exact same time. Who are these behind-the-scenes truth-tellers, and how are they sneaking this parenthetical snark past their higher-ups and onto all our screens?
The answer is, I don’t know, because no one at CNN or MSNBC seems to be interested in sharing the names of these heroes with the outside world. I would love to openly celebrate — instead of subtweet-celebrate — the makers of these marvels, but I understand why they’d want to keep a low profile. It’s a tough summer for superheroes: If Jared Leto finds out about you, he might FedEx you a dead possum that’s been suffocated with a used condom.
But in the spirit of the presidential candidate at which these chyrons take aim, I will not let this pesky thing called “ignorance” stand between me and my desire to talk about this issue at length.
For months — though it feels like centuries — all the usual suspects, including the aforementioned CNN and MSNBC, let Trump literally phone in his interviews. Last December, MSNBC ceded nearly an hour of weeknight prime time to a live airing of a Trump rally, hot on the heels of the candidate’s claim that all Muslims should be banned from entering the U.S. Trump had some huge(ly inaccurate) ideas he wanted to share with the world — his oft-repeated claim that thousands of New Jersey Muslims celebrated the September 11 attacks comes most readily to mind — and cable networks gave him the megaphone to do it.
An existential question has hovered above this election season like a helicopter parent on a playground: How, exactly, does one cover the Donald Trump campaign? And a more damning inquiry: How will history judge coverage that is anything less than vigilant?
Strategies deployed thus far have ranged from the “jam fingers in ears and pretend it’s a joke until it goes away” tactic (See: Huffington Post’s early method of keeping Trump news siloed in its Entertainment section) to the misguided, awkward, gotta-hear-both-sides efforts at fairness.
Looking at these chyrons, and the exasperated tone in which one could easily read them, it feels like we are watching cable news reporters realize, in real time, what over a year of Trump-fueled ratings-chasing hath wrought. MSNBC can’t un-air Trump rallies, and CNN can’t undo phone interviews, and no cable network can un-give Trump the almost $2 billion in free media exposure they handed him in a single year. To invoke a technical term, no backsies.
But whatever stealthy staffers are slipping this commentary onto our screens seem to be operating on the premise that it’s never too late to do, well, something. There’s a baseline understanding that the news has an obligation far above and beyond just telling the public what Trump said, word-for-word.
In May, during an in-person interview on NBC’s Nightly News with Lester Holt, Holt asked Trump about how he’d continue to self-fund his run for the White House “as you move into the expensive general election campaign.”
After saying he would raise $1 billion, Trump said, “I’m not even sure that’s necessary, because I have a big voice, I go on shows like yours, I explain the truth. And people seem to go along with it.” (At least, they did.)