A new epithet has entered the political lexicon: “theater criticism.” Since the 1980s, wrote Charles Homans in The New York Times Magazine in August, American journalists have been eviscerating candidates for saying things that journalists deem bad politics, whether or not these “gaffes” really matter. Thus, they have been “practicing a kind of theater criticism as much as political reporting.”
Earlier this month, Slate’s Jamelle Bouie panned the media’s response to Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment. Instead of asking whether Trump’s supporters actually held racist views, Bouie argued, many commentators practiced “theater criticism—an analysis of how the remarks look, how they might play with a broader audience.” And last Friday, Paul Krugman excoriated campaign reporters for “abdicating responsibility for fact-checking entirely, and replacing it with theater criticism,” adding that “theater criticism is the job of theater critics; news reporting should tell the public what really happened, not be devoted to speculation about how other people might react to what happened.”
I understand the sentiment. Donald Trump is the most shamelessly dishonest major-party presidential nominee in modern American history. If journalists don’t call out his lies, they’re doing their readers and viewers a profound disservice.