Democracy dies in the darkness—so goes the slogan of the Washington Post. It can also perish when authoritarianism is normalized with a thousand nicks. A new website called the Messenger demonstrates how such normalization is becoming ever more normal.
Days after CNN handed Donald Trump a town hall platform that cast him as a conventional political candidate and allowed him to spread his democracy-undermining lies about the 2020 election (and much else), the Messenger launched this week as a site that boasts it will offer only “impartial and objective news.” In a brief howdy-do, editor Dan Wakeford, formerly editor-in-chief of People and editorial director of Entertainment Weekly, declared, “People are exhausted with extreme politics and platforms that inflame the divisions in our country by slanting stories towards an audience’s bias. Our talented journalists are committed to demystifying the onslaught of misinformation and delivering impartial and objective news.” Sounds good. But its opening day Big Piece—an interview with Donald Trump—signals that the Messenger may be just another media outlet that enables extreme politics and the inflaming of divisions.
The article based on an “exclusive” interview and written by Marc Caputo treats Trump—who tried to overturn a national election, who incited violence, who called for suspending provisions of the Constitution so he could be installed as president, who supped with antisemites and a white supremacist, who was recently found liable for sexually assaulting and defaming E. Jean Carroll, and who is facing multiple investigations for a variety of alleged wrongdoing—as a typical pol. It focuses not on his dangerous authoritarian impulses but on the 2024 horse race and Trump’s not-so-deep thoughts about it. To call this interview a softball-fest would be an insult to anyone who has ever hit, thrown, or caught the sphere with a 12-inch circumference. (Caputo, who previously worked at Politico and NBC News, has a strong reputation as a sharp political reporter who has specialized in covering the Sunshine State.)
The story leads with Trump crowing about the ratings he drew on CNN, and it offers this supposed scoop: After the CNN town hall, Trump resolved to do more media appearances beyond his usual love chats with right-wing outlets. So what? If Trump does more of these hits, we will all see them. How much news value is there in Trump’s desire to win airtime on other major news outlets?
Next the Messenger allows Trump—big surprise!—to once again bash Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a presumed opponent for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination. “He’s got no personality,” Trump says of DeSantis. “And I don’t think he’s got a lot of political skill.” On abortion, Caputo was unable to get a squirrelly Trump to utter anything definitive regarding what restrictions he would support.
What’s missing from the interview could fill an entire article. For example, there is nothing about the recent jury decision in the Carroll case that backed her allegation that Trump sexually assaulted her. A major political candidate and former president who is the Republicans’ top 2024 contender at the moment was just pronounced a sexual predator by a jury in his hometown—and nada from the Messenger.
Here was a typical question from Caputo: “Was [the CNN town hall] a win for you?” Now how do you think Trump answered that. (For those of you without any imagination: ” Everybody the radical left, fascists, Marxists, communists, and normal people—have said that it was a total complete victory for Trump.”) And when Trump (once again) claimed the 2020 election was rigged against him, Caputo let him bray on about this false and dangerous claim. Caputo did point out that Trump’s campaign conducted two studies that found no signs of significant fraud. But Trump steamrolled over this, and Caputo made it clear he did not want to engage in a forceful exchange over Trump’s firehose of falsehoods. “I need to find a way to discuss the 2020 elections without sounding like I’m debating it [with you],” he told Trump.
Moments later, Caputo stepped away from this topic, remarking, “How about we set aside the debate or the discussion on voter fraud?” He did so without addressing Trump’s multiple efforts to overturn the election results. There was nothing about Trump’s scheme to force the Justice Department to falsely declare the 2020 election was fraudulent or Trump’s attempt to pressure state election officials to reverse the results. Nothing about the fake elector plot or Trump’s Georgia phone call (“find 11,780 votes”). And nothing about January 6—Trump’s incitement of the violence, what Trump did or did not do while his brownshirts were ransacking the Capitol, or Trump’s vow to pardon January 6 rioters, a move that basically endorses the assault.
Instead, Caputo plowed ahead with this query: “Are you the establishment now? Is Donald Trump the establishment of the GOP?” To which Trump gave a reply that told us nothing new about the guy: “No, I’m the person with common sense.” Caputo asked if Melania Trump was going to participate in Trump’s latest campaign. Important stuff, right? And what would you expect Trump to say? Maybe something like this: “She’s very enthused—very, very enthused about it.” Which is what he said.
Caputo only had 30 minutes for this interview. That’s hardly enough time to press Trump on all the controversies and scandals that envelop him. But rather than ask Trump about his apparent theft of White House documents, his mishandling of the Covid pandemic, his support for the January 6 marauders, his refusal to condemn Vladimir Putin for his invasion of Ukraine, his praise of Michael Flynn, a QAnonish superspreader of conspiracy theories, or any of Trump’s other affronts to the rule of law and facts-based politics, Caputo queried Trump about artificial intelligence and Trump’s failure to release all the remaining files on the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Yet all he squeezed out of Trump on these fronts were nothing-burger replies: “a very dangerous subject” and “I will release everything else [if returned to the White House].”
Jimmy Finkelstein, the media entrepreneur and longtime Trump pal who has founded the Messenger, has told folks that he wants his new outlet to play it “down the middle,” according to several sources familiar with the start-up of the site. He has bemoaned the current media for being too partisan. (Finkelstein himself was a participant in a right-wing plot to spread disinformation about Joe Biden and Ukraine.) But when this down-the-middle approach is applied to a political extremist, the result is not objective journalism but the amplification and legitimization of extremism—and that can threaten honest political discourse and even democracy itself. With its initial offering, Finkelstein is sending the message that the Messenger is not up to its self-proclaimed task of healing the nation’s political discourse. It may even be part of the problem.