Despite what Trump’s desperate criminal lawyer says, this is not normal journalism

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Todd Blanche, who’s stuck with the hapless task of defending Donald Trump in criminal court, mouthed something in his opening statement that really pissed me off. At first I wasn’t sure I’d heard him correctly, so I checked the trial transcript and lo and behold there it was, on page 90.

Blanche tried to tell the jurors that the criminal defendant’s deal with the National Enquirer was just normal journalism practice. He contended that when shlock tabloid bigwig David Pecker boosted Trump’s 2016 campaign by burying stories damaging to Trump and concocting blatant lies about Trump’s opponents, that was all journalistic business as usual. In Blanche’s words:

“This sort of thing happens regularly, that newspapers make decisions about what to publish, when to publish, and how to publish.”

I beg to differ with Blanche.

The National Enquirer’s “sort of thing” – paying people off to kill stories, acting as a propaganda organ for one particular candidate in ways that would do Pravda proud, spending corporate money to aid that favored candidate (essentially free advertising) in violation of federal campaign finance laws – is not something that “happens regularly” in American journalism. If ever.

Granted, there are more important developments in play right now. The U.S. Supreme Court conducted oral arguments on Trump’s preposterous claim that he deserves “immunity” for any and all criminal acts, and an Arizona grand jury  indicted top Trump hacks (including Mark Meadows and Rudy Giuliani) in a MAGA fake-elector scheme to overthrow Joe Biden’s Arizona victory…yet here I am, incensed by Blanche’s smear of the profession I hold dear.

But Blanche was taking a page from the standard MAGA playbook, and it needs to be called out. The entire MAGA shtick is that everyone and everything in every institution is hopelessly corrupt. When the courts indict Trump, it somehow means that the courts are corrupt. When voters reject Trump as they decisively did in 2020, somehow it means that the electoral process is corrupt. Whenever Trump is accused of doing stuff that’s corrupt, it’s somehow spun as no big deal because supposedly “everybody does it” and is therefore corrupt.

And when the National Enquirer is caught red-handed operating as a MAGA mud-slinger – hey, that’s supposedly no big deal either, because that “happens regularly” in mainstream journalism.

Team Trump’s desperate bid to drag us all down to his lowlife level is a smear on everything that’s good about America. Here’s a wild and crazy observation: Our institutions are not all corrupt. Our fellow citizens are not all corrupt. And real journalism is not on a par with the National Enquirer.

Mainstream media outlets do not pay for stories they seek to run, much less pay for stories they might to kill. Mainstream outlets do not spend money to aid candidates in violation of federal law; in a deal with the feds in 2018, the Enquirer’s parent company, AMI, acknowledged “that expenditures by corporations, made for purposes of influencing an election and in coordination with or at the request of a candidate or campaign, are unlawful.”

During my decades at The Philadelphia Inquirer, we had to hew to strict ethics guidelines. We had to buy our own meals because it was verboten to even let a source pay for us. We couldn’t sign any partisan petition, much less work on the sly for any candidate. And even if we loathed a candidate in our worst moments, we would never have typed up nonsense (with an OK from the editors!) linking Ted Cruz’s dad to the JFK assassination.

The tragedy, of course, is that tens of millions of Americans are primed to think the worst about this country, stoked anew every day by Trump and the lawyers tasked with saving his ass. It is incumbent on those of us who love our democratic institutions despite their flaws to save America seven months hence.

I have every expectation that a free and independent press will do its part.

Copyright 2024 Dick Polman, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Dick Polman, a veteran national political columnist based in Philadelphia and a Writer in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania, writes at Email him at [email protected]

Cited by the Columbia Journalism Review website as one of the nation's top political scribes, and by ABC News' online political tip sheet as "one of the finest political journalists of his generation, " Dick Polman is the national political columnist at Philadlephia NPR affiliate WHYY, and has covered or chronicled every presidential campaign since 1988.

A Philadelphia resident, Dick roamed the country for most of his 22 years at The Philadelphia Inquirer. He has been blogging daily since 2006. He's currently on the full-time faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, as "Writer in Residence." He has been a frequent guest on C-SPAN, CNN, MSNBC, the BBC, and various NPR shows - most notably Philadelphia's "Radio Times" on WHYY-FM.