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Sanders Joins Trump in Telling the Media to Go to Hell

Democrat’s reversal on medical records follows Trump’s precedent on obfuscation.

Bernie Sanders

Where are those medical records you promised to show us, NBC News’ Chuck Todd asked last weekend on “Meet the Press.“ Sen. Bernie Sanders sounded polite enough, as he exhaled a puffy cloud of obfuscation.

It was not hard to translate Sanders’ word cloud: Go to hell, Chuck.

A lot of that going around these days. Go to hell is what President Donald Trump said in response to his own reneged pledge to release his tax records, to inquiries about the details of his own health records, to criticism to this week’s decision by the leadership of his Justice Department to intervene in sentencing recommendations by line prosecutors in the case of Trump friend Roger Stone.

The narrow question is whether the public needs to see full health records of a 78-year-old man who recently suffered a heart attack and now hopes to be commander in chief or whether his physicians’ letters of reassurance (not accompanied by a news conference or interviews) that he is in satisfactory health are sufficient.

A much larger question is raised by Sanders’ willingness to tell Todd—and the rest of us—to pound sand, seemingly confident in his belief that there is not much price to be paid for doing so.

Sanders’ reversal on health records—in the fall he pledged he would “certainly” release “comprehensive” health information before votes were cast—is notable in at least three respects.

One, it shows how pervasive the Trump precedent is. Even politicians who stand against him on every issue, and who speak solemnly about the need to restore norms shattered during this presidency, are ready to follow trails he has blazed in taking flight from public accountability.

Two, Sanders’ evasion highlights the dilution of mainstream media’s institutional power. There has been no aspirant or occupant of the White House during the modern presidency who has not wished to say "Go to hell" to uncomfortable inquiries about health, finances, or aspects of personal lives that affect public duties. Trump and Sanders are hardly the first to do so. But the reason most politicians have historically resisted the impulse is that it came with a high cost: It was unpleasant and politically expensive to be in the crosshairs of the New York Times, the Washington Post, or a major broadcast network like NBC.

Three, the episode highlights how little public comprehension there is of the historic shift in political culture away from transparency, accountability and the traditional levers used to enforce both. In an earlier generation, editors at major news institutions possessed enormous power—through their story selection and story framing—to summon sustained national attention on subjects they deemed important.

On both left and right, a lot of media criticism is based on the assumption—a fantasy, actually—that this editorial power exists in the same fashion it did three or four decades ago. There will be debates about whether a headline is too credulous toward Trump, whether reporters betray their liberal biases through loaded adjectives, or whether they let down their audience by using weasel words like “mislead” instead of blunt words like “lie.”

This stewing sometimes recalls Vice President Spiro Agnew’s notorious complaints 50 years ago during the Nixon administration that network journalists covertly shaped public opinion through “a raised eyebrow, an inflection of the voice, a caustic remark dropped in the middle of a broadcast...”

In an age of media polarization and media saturation, however, the old power to shape reality—by some editor’s decision to put a story on the upper right hand corner of the front page or at the top of a 22-minute broadcast watched by tens of millions—is largely defunct. Arched eyebrows are beside the point.

Even many journalists, by my lights, miss the significance of this seismic change. The public sees journalists assuming an adversarial stance against Trump daily, on behalf of legitimate public interests of transparency and candor. Average people likely miss the fact that, in psychic and sometimes economic terms, the two sides’ interests are often aligned. Trump’s flamboyant controversies and breaches of precedent produce traffic, television hits, best-selling books.

Obscured in the heat and noise of conflict is how much institutional power to set the agenda and enforce minimum standards of public conduct has shifted away from the news media. It is an accelerating trend that both helped enable Trump’s rise and that he in turn further enables.

What to do about this? Editors I respect acknowledge there is not much to do except clang their bells as loudly as possible on matters of disclosure and accountability.

When I mention editors of an earlier generation who used their agenda-setting power on behalf the public interest, I am thinking of people like Robert G. Kaiser, who started at the Washington Post in 1963 and, for much of the 1990s—a long time ago, in media terms—was its managing editor. He is just a year younger than Sanders and said he was taken aback by his renege on health records. (Sanders told Todd once he begins releasing medical records “it never ends.”)

“What are the chances that what he is hiding shows him to be unusually healthy and ready to go four or eight years at top speed? “ Kaiser asked. “I'd say, in logic, they are zero. He's holding stuff back because it will cause him political problems—isn't that by far the safest presumption? The most logical?”

He agrees that institutional media power has been diminished but cautions against “exaggerating our power in the ‘good old days.’" But, he said, there is no doubt the Trump precedent is spreading: “To a much greater extent than I would like, he has changed the standards of the culture — very much for the worse.”

While Kaiser is from the generation ahead of me, former New York Times public editor Liz Spayd is from my own. One danger, Spayd told me, is that journalists lose their own sense of self-confidence and purpose in such a polarized environment, one in which Trump attacks not just stories but the basic concept of independent news media. “I agree politicians on both sides jump on the trail that Trump laid in terms of saying whatever they want,” Spayd said, “and assuming that even if the media does go after them—it won't be too harsh or for too long.”

The journalism that Kaiser, Spayd and I want depends on reporters and editors staying disciplined on important questions. It depends also on an audience that regards transparency, truthfulness and accountability for people in power as important values in all cases—not only when useful as weapons against the opposition.