On Saturday, Donald Trump was scheduled to give a speech at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). What the audience got, however, can hardly be described as a speech. Instead, Trump unleashed a two-hour-plus rant that sounded at times, more like the delusional ramblings of someone hopped up on drugs or suffering a mental breakdown than anything resembling a normal political speech.
If that sounds like an exaggeration informed by partisan bias -- seriously, it's not. Trump kicked the thing off by hugging the American flag, and that might have been the least strange part of the whole spectacle. Reporters Daniel Dale of the Toronto Star and Aaron Rupar of Vox live-tweeted the whole thing, and captured, for those of us who can't stand watching the president monologue for two hours, how straight-up weird the whole event was, even by Trumpian standards.
Trump pinged wildly from topic to topic, ranting about how Democrats want to take away electricity and murder newborns. He engaged in a lengthy rape fantasy about how female immigrants take "massive amounts of birth control" because they supposedly get raped so much. He also veered into peculiar personal anecdotes, such as the one about how a rich friend of his — who he assured the audience is very famous — is afraid of public speaking. And, of course, he raved about how unfair it is that he's under investigation for possible criminal conspiracy with Russian intelligence to throw the election, and whined about how it should be easier for him to obstruct justice.
But those who learned about the speech from glancing at mainstream news headlines the next morning would have no idea how flat-out bonkers the whole thing was.
I grew up in Texas, where the habit of droll understatement is alive and well. I recall one incident in my youth, where a friend and I saw a man riding a bicycle on the street in Austin clad only in a thong. After taking the scene in, my companion's one remark was, "Well, isn't that something?"
That's what these headlines reminded me of, except that the people writing them weren't trying to be funny.
The actual articles under those headlines aren't much better, describing the event as "a largely unscripted, wide-ranging speech" and "the longest speech of his presidency to date" or even "a slashing speech packed with braggadocio and grievance" but not really capturing how wild the whole thing was. Readers might get that the speech was long or dishonest or even incendiary, but not how disjointed and frankly unhinged it was.
From the beginning of Trump's campaign, and even more so during his presidency, there has been legitimate concern that the mainstream media — with its focus on seeming neutral, objective and balanced — was simply not up to the task of adequately conveying Trump's bizarre, authoritarian madness to their audiences. This response to his CPAC appearance shows that those concerns were well-founded.
There's simply no way to accurately describe Trump's behavior without sounding hysterical or, heaven forbid, "biased." So most media outlets resort to euphemistic language or focus on technically true observations — it's accurate that Trump criticized special counsel Robert Mueller — while sliding past the more relevant detail, such as the fact that the president of the United States was babbling like a man who hasn't slept in days.
After the debacle that was the 2016 election, many of us hoped that the mainstream media would learn its lesson about favoring "balance" and "objectivity" over the more old-fashioned journalistic concern for truth. It was an election cycle where Hillary Clinton's minor flaws were routinely exaggerated and Trump's outrageous behavior was routinely underplayed, all out of a misplaced sense of fairness. It's probably true that most people in mainstream media did not expect Trump to win the election, and that surprise outcome should have been a wake-up call. It's not clear that the lesson was learned.
The coverage of last week's congressional testimony from Michael Cohen, Trump's former personal lawyer -- who is going to federal prison for crimes he committed on Trump's behalf -- illustrates how much the mainstream media is still worried about "balance" rather than about telling the full story.
By far the most important takeaway from Cohen's hearing should have been the pathetic display by Republican members of the House Oversight Committee. With the sole exception of Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, every single Republican avoided asking substantive or serious questions of Cohen. They simply impugned his character (which isn't difficult), lied in Trump's defense and teed up excuses for their voters to ignore the growing evidence of the president's criminality.
But instead of focusing on the real story here, which is that one of the two relevant American political parties has been completely consumed by corruption, much of the mainstream coverage focused instead on how "partisan" or "divisive" the hearing was.
"As with so many other moments of the Trump era, the hearing seemed to be as much about partisan theater as fact-finding," the New York Times front page story read, equating "Democrats and Republicans" with "their conflicting narratives about the man who once served Mr. Trump."
Again, it's technically true that both parties were angling for some political gain here, but to focus on that aspect is far more misleading than illuminating. The more important story here is not this surface similarity, but the wildly different attitudes the two parties brought to the questions of criminal conduct and transparency.
To put it bluntly, Democrats spent the Cohen hearing trying to expose crimes and Republicans spent it trying to cover them up. To simply describe the difference as "partisan" is to fail readers by drawing a false equivalence between moral and immoral behavior, and to suggest that doing right and doing wrong are equally dirty, if there's any political gain to be had from either. This kind of coverage portrays political grandstanding, a venal sin, as no better or no different from actively covering up criminal activity.
To be certain, events like Trump's CPAC speech or Cohen's congressional testimony were broadcast live on cable TV, so anyone who cared to could simply watch and decide for herself. Realistically, however, few Americans have the time or stomach for such a thing. Instead, they rely on mainstream news sources to boil these events down and highlight the most relevant aspects. Mainstream media outlets' routine failure to focus on the most critical issues, in a bid to sound neutral or objective, isn't serving their audiences, nor any standard of truth or fairness.
The biggest takeaway from Trump's speech at CPAC was that the president of the United States is acting as if he were losing his mind. That's not all that surprising when you consider that his former right-hand man just accused him, under oath, of committing numerous crimes. But someone who takes in the news the way most Americans do — by checking out headlines and reading a few paragraphs of a story, at most — would just assume that Trump was angry this weekend, rather than monumentally unhinged. That level of ignorance could matter a lot in the 2020 election.