If we are to judge the importance of a threat by the amount of time President Donald Trump spends attacking it and the harsh things he says, the greatest peril facing the United States doesn’t come from Islamist terrorists, illegal immigrants, foreign nations that benefit from bad trade deals, or even from Democrats. By that measure, it’s clear Trump thinks the real peril stems from the media.
He loathes them and – the same way as with anyone else who says something unflattering about him — he believes he’s entitled to say anything he likes about them. If that means engaging in fibs or distorted accounts about what is said and written about him that are every bit as deceptive and unfair as the coverage he receives, he knows that his followers, and indeed most conservatives, won’t mind much. And he does it every opportunity he gets.
If you listen to many voices on the left, including those on many liberal-mainstream outlets, the answer is that the attacks coming from Trump as well as from conservatives on the media are nothing less than the moral equivalent of the last days of Weimar Germany. That’s why, if you want to know what’s really wrong with American democracy, you have to look beyond Trump’s flaws.
These days it’s hard to know which is the greater obsession — Trump’s with his media foes, or the media with their presidential tormentor. You can hardly turn on CNN or MSNBC on any given day without being confronted with panels of Trump critics not merely fact-checking and inveighing against Trump’s attacks on the media, but also huffing and puffing about what it is that dictators do to soften up their opponents before democracy dies (as the Washington Post now perpetually reminds us with its new self-aggrandizing motto). Those invoking the shade of the Third Reich include The Atlantic’s James Fallows as well as otherwise obscure Democratic members of Congress such as Representative John Garamendi.
Trump’s attacks are unpresidential and often inaccurate. Also, the cable-news networks have been as much his enablers from the start of his candidacy as they have been critics. Better men than Trump, including Ronald Reagan and the Bushes, have been subjected to vicious and unfair media attacks and never lost their cool or used the press as an excuse for their own failings.
But for all of the hyperventilating about Trump’s trying — and clearly failing — to intimidate the press, the notion that attacks on the media are a sign of impending authoritarianism is bunk.
Like Trump, the mainstream media are flawed and deserve to be attacked. Far from being a war on democracy, media criticism is democracy.
Media panels tell us they are just doing their job and that they are playing an essential role in our democratic system. But what has happened in the past year is that many in the mainstream-liberal press have dropped even the semblance of objectivity as they have joined the anti-Trump “resistance” en masse.
It says something about how far we have gone that Jim Acosta, CNN’s White House correspondent, could engage in what can only be described as a debate with Stephen Miller about immigration policy and be defended rather than disavowed by most of his colleagues. They actually saw nothing wrong with a man whose job was gathering the news rather than spouting opinion doing the latter and claiming there was nothing wrong with it.
The same dynamic was at work in the Wall Street Journal newsroom when that paper’s editor, Gerard Baker, admonished his staff to leave their opinions out of their straight news articles about Trump. The pushback was considerable and resulted in a news story in the rival New York Times. The sources for this piece had to be disgruntled Journal staffers who were happy to dish on their boss and portray him as being in the pocket of the Trumps rather than a man fighting to preserve his publication’s integrity.
Both of these incidents demonstrate that a considerable portion of those working at legacy-media outlets think all of the normal standards of journalism can be thrown out the window if it means wrong-footing Trump. Outlets behaving in this manner deserve to be attacked and readers have the right to demand that they play it straight in their news sections. Doing so is the duty of responsible journalists and citizens, not an act of support for authoritarianism, let alone the act of a would-be Nazi.
The media’s excesses do not excuse those committed by Trump or erase his misjudgments about Charlottesville or his disingenuous complaints about being unfairly criticized for what he did. But the notion that conservative complaints about media bias are either completely false or a smokescreen for a desire to destroy the First Amendment is sheer slander.
Many in the mainstream-liberal press have dropped even the semblance of objectivity.
Trump has made noises about wanting to change libel laws to make it easier to sue journalists but he has no more chance of doing that than of getting Mexico to pay for a border wall. Nor is there any other real evidence that what is going on is anything other than a more heated version of the same argument conservatives have been having with the press for decades. The only differences are that Trump has made it the centerpiece of his campaign appearances and the mainstream press is, if anything, far more biased than it used to be. Had journalists stuck to the standards they claim to be now defending, it wouldn’t have stopped Trump from attacking them. But it would make us a bit more sympathetic.
The rule remains that the first person in an argument to invoke a Nazi or Holocaust analogy loses. In this case, you don’t have to be a supporter of Trump to understand that the media’s claims about attacks on them being a blow to democracy are nothing more than the worst sort of partisanship masquerading as journalism.
– Jonathan S. Tobin is the opinion editor of JNS.org and a contributor to National Review. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.