An editor whom I greatly respect believes essays about media coverage holes — “The press isn’t paying enough attention to this thing I care about!” — do not generally make for engaging reads.
She’s right, of course. There are too many things that are undercovered, and too many that are overcovered; you could work yourself into the same froth day after day without moving any closer to the heart of the problem. Why are we fuming about Lena Dunham’s insensitive abortion comment when dozens have died in political protests in Kinshasa this week, when North Carolina failed to repeal its transphobic “bathroom bill,” when Mike Pence — who is, unlike Dunham, an elected official — still wants American women to bury their aborted fetuses?
Why indeed? For a million deep-rooted historic, social, economic and political reasons that dictate what both the American media and consumers do and don’t care about. Because talking about cheap, small stuff is easier than talking about complicated, big stuff. Because we like schadenfreude, and symbols and scapegoats.
If so much feels undercovered in Trump’s America, it’s also in large part because of the fact that a story that normally would dominate the news cycle now gets five seconds before being washed away in the pounding tide of his team’s outrageous behavior. On Wednesday, Trump’s transition team ordered the State Department to submit a list of all existing programs and activities that “promote gender equality, such as ending gender-based violence, promoting women’s participation in economic and political spheres, entrepreneurship, etc.”
Yes, his transition team is doing a roundup of every U.S. program related to gender around the world. The week before, Trump’s people requested the names of all department officials who worked on the Paris climate change accords. (The Energy Department refused; the transition team later said its leadership hadn’t approved the request.)
Man, do you think Trump is making a list of State and Energy staffers to give holiday — excuse me, Christmas — bonuses? Me neither. “These types of requests send a cold chill through the Department and career diplomats dedicated to their work and service to the country,” a State Department official told the Washington Post. “It’s devastating to morale.”
And in a normal week, I’d be writing about it. But what’s the looming surrender of U.S. leadership on women’s rights and services, or a witch-hunt against those who are working to secure the long-term future of human life on this planet, set against a little nuclear winter? This morning, Morning Joe’s Mika Brzezinski (who Trump’s campaign manager described as a counsel and friend; note to journalists: if a politician describes you this way, you’re doing your job wrong) revealed that Trump told her yesterday: “Let it be an arms race because we will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all."
An arms race. Huge! Nuclear standoff. Terrific! Normalize that.
Because of the difficulty detecting a signal in the noise, we can lose sight of what’s at stake. This is exceptional.
When nuclear escalation is on the table, every journalist in America should get a new beat, and that beat should be reporting on how to avert nuclear war. We have covered this, but not with enough urgency. Each time the President of the United States speaks cavalierly or competitively about nuclear weapons, that should be a six-column headline in every paper in America. It isn’t; it hasn’t been.
The short memory America has when it comes to Trump — Remember his undisclosed tax returns? Pussygate? When he mocked a disabled reporter? — is the most surreal thing I’ve seen, akin to watching an image disintegrate before your very eyes. Slate published a list of “230 Things Donald Trump Has Said and Done That Make Him Unfit to Be President” the day before the election. Where would the count be now?
We’re either unwilling to take the man seriously, or in too much shock to believe it. The former is a fallacy. Taking him seriously is not akin to respecting him; do the former regardless of whether you can do the latter. Trump’s nuclear foolery may be a red herring, a distraction served up to take our eye off all the other balls he’s setting on fire, and we should be conscious of that. We should also not assume it, or presume that’s how his bluster will be interpreted by other countries.
On Wednesday, columnist David Horsey wrote about the unprecedented shock and despair those who voted against Trump (and, frankly, a lot of those who didn’t show up to vote) are still feeling. Fallibly human though President Obama is, I’ve never gone to sleep during his tenure wondering if we’d still have a country when I woke up. If that makes me a coddled snowflake or a sore loser, I guess Trump supporters are just so supremely badass that even nuclear war doesn’t scare them. Cool. Go read a book or watch a movie about it, then tell me again how strong you feel.
Donald Trump’s prime campaign promise was that Donald Trump would always win. He would win through strength, intimidation and stick-swinging. But nobody wins in nuclear war. It doesn’t happen. The use of nuclear weapons is a sin for which none is forgiven; a nuclear exchange is a potential extermination event.
So with apologies to my editor, I’m going to pull the “nuclear war card” to make the argument she cautioned me against: This is an issue that deserves more consistent and emphatic media coverage. Every single time our soon-to-be commander in chief says something incredibly dangerous or pursues a boneheaded policy on nuclear weapons, we should pull a six-column headline. The media should sound every alarm at its disposal, pursue every investigative angle and drop other priorities if necessary in order to bring this story into every corner of the country. Shame the Republican leadership into taking a stand; prod the Democrats out of mourning; put the electorate on its feet.
Do it for those of us who are simply not tough enough to desire painful, pointless deaths or to inflict them on others.
Melissa Batchelor Warnke is a contributing writer to Opinion. Follow her @velvetmelvis on Twitter.
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