The political press was rightly outraged over the alleged manhandling of a Breitbart News reporter at the hands of Donald Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski. The reporter, Michelle Fields, appeared on Fox News’s The Kelly File and on ABC’s World News Tonight. CNN’s Jake Tapper was Internet shamed for his failure to ask the candidates about the incident during last week’s debate. The White House was asked to weigh in.
And yet, within 48 hours, the attention had shifted almost entirely from the Trump campaign’s wanton contempt for the media to the absurdities of the Breitbart newsroom, which for months now has publicly beclowned itself with its fawning coverage of Trump. (There have been some notable exceptions.) We have seen breathless coverage of the resignation of a Breitbart spokesman, of internal messages sent within the Breitbart offices, and of a Breitbart editor’s inquiries about a speechwriting job on the Trump campaign. Finally, news broke on Monday that Fields and another colleague, Ben Shapiro, had resigned. Their resignations were followed by two more.
The press is somehow slack-jawed by Breitbart’s predictable refusal to stand up to Trump. What is more interesting is that credible news organizations have for months now ignored the Trump campaign’s disregard for the media. For ratings and clicks, they’ve taken seats seven rows back at his self-parodic press conferences at Mar-a-Lago while his golf-club members are given front-row access. For ratings and clicks, they’ve allowed themselves to be penned up like farm animals at his rallies and risked scuffles with the Secret Service for covering the events like actual reporters. For ratings and clicks, Trump has been allowed to violate the rules of a presidential debate – consulting with a campaign manager during a commercial break — with impunity. For ratings and clicks, Trump has been allowed to phone in to prime-time and Sunday shows while his challengers have been required to show up on set.
CBS News president Les Moonves gave a window into the mentality at work when he said late last month that Trump’s candidacy “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” It’s not just Breitbart that has debased itself.
That sort of collective action on the part of the press has been entirely absent when it comes to Trump. Instead, reporters now take for granted the deeply personal nature of everything in Trump’s world, where access and interviews are granted based on the candidate’s whims. Reporters and outlets perceived to have slighted Trump — including National Review, Buzzfeed’s McKay Coppins, the Des Moines Register, and, at one point, the New York Times’s Trip Gabriel, among others — are denied access altogether and without explanation. The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment about its repeated denials of National Review’s requests for press credentials.
The National Press Club on Monday raised concerns about the Trump organization’s treatment of journalists and urged it to respect freedom of the press. But the Trump campaign, much of whose success has been dependent on earned media, is unlikely to change its conduct until the press changes its approach to the candidate. And for individual news organizations, it’s business as usual. Even if, you know, it “may not be good for America.”Trump has created a Manichean world in which there exist, on one hand, embarrassing suck-ups such as Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski and, on the other, obvious outcasts like McKay Coppins and National Review. Most credible journalists have decided they don’t want to fall into either camp, but, to preserve their access, they have also decided they don’t want to unduly antagonize Trump. The Breitbart drama has demonstrated that in Trump’s world, even shameless panderers can be cast out at a moment’s notice.
How do you solve a problem like Michelle Fields? The press should be less interested in how Breitbart answered that question than in how their news organizations might do so. In dealing with Trump’s contempt for the free press thus far, they haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory.
— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor for National Review.