Politics & Policy

The Media’s ‘Me Party’

Reporters raise their hands during a press conference at the White House, February 16, 2016. (Reuters photo: Kevin Lamarque)
In confronting Trump, the press is undermined by excessive self-regard.

‘It took ten days for the glue that holds this country together to crumble,” New York Daily News columnist Linda Stasi wrote on January 31, responding to Donald Trump’s flurry of executive orders. Two weeks later, amazingly, the country remains apparently un-crumbled, but the media’s Trump-related frenzy continues apace.

Tom Friedman, the globetrotting, mustachioed New York Times columnist, led the pack with a Valentine’s Day doozy, comparing Trump’s election to the bombing at Pearl Harbor and the September 11 attacks. “We have never taken seriously from the very beginning Russia hacked our election,” he told MSNBC. “That was a 9/11-scale event. They attacked the core of our democracy. That was a Pearl Harbor–scale event.”

Well, yikes. The specific event Friedman compared to 9/11 and Pearl Harbor, it should be noted, was not Russia’s literally hacking into voting machines, although MSNBC viewers could be forgiven for thinking so. It was, in his own words, Russia’s “deliberately breaking into Democratic National Committee computers and then drip-by-drip funneling embarrassing e-mails through WikiLeaks to undermine Clinton’s campaign.” In other words, it was the exposure of largely accurate information that made Hillary Clinton look bad, widely covered — and condemned — by the press.

Is Russia’s enthusiastic foray into hacking a serious and alarming problem? Certainly. Should we all be concerned about Russia’s meddling in American politics, and its possible links to the Trump administration? Absolutely. Is there a good chance that the media will blow its remaining shreds of credibility by hyperventilating and exaggerating and bringing every single presidential kerfluffle to DEFCON 1? It sure looks like it.

Friedman’s February 14 column is a case in point. In the paragraph following his passionate call to arms regarding the serious issue of Russian hacking, Friedman goes on to blast Trump, with equal venom, for – wait for it – criticizing the cast of Hamilton and Meryl Streep. No, I am not making this up.

This is simply not serious. It’s also a perfect example of the media’s inability to separate important news from run-of-the-mill Trump. Alas, perspective is in short supply these days, and Friedman seems to view himself as a hero, not a professional muddier of the waters. Unluckily for us all, he’s not the only one busy patting his own back.

Despite achieving the dubious distinction of polling lower than Donald Trump — the latest presidential approval ratings range between 39 (Pew) and 55 (Rasmussen) percent, while Gallup’s brutal new confidence poll has a mere 32 percent of Americans saying they have a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of trust in the media “to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly — many esteemed journalists are seemingly six drinks in at their own self-congratulatory Me Party.

This week, over at the Daily Beast, Lloyd Grove penned an article titled “The Journalism Empire Strikes Back.” This is an unfortunate headline, given that the original Empire that Struck Back was, as you’ll remember, evil. It was also hapless, building an obviously flawed Death Star and then repeating the same mistake in another movie. But let’s move on.

“Donald Trump and the people around him are being forced to confront a basic fact: Journalists matter,” Grove wrote. “And with the firing of White House National Security Adviser Michael Flynn . . . journalism as an institution has reasserted itself. Big time.”

This is all fine, but let’s put this in other words: Hooray, journalists! You’re apparently back and actually doing your jobs after checking out for eight years with President Tiger Beat!

Don’t worry, it gets worse. “Even presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway,” Grove continues, “acknowledges the power of the journalism establishment in a way that her boss does not.” He then goes on to approvingly cite one of Conway’s most mystifying stock lines, if you are not a space alien who has never read the Constitution: “My big line about all this is that the White House and the news media are going to have joint custody of the country for eight years.”

The renewed sense of mission, it turns out, comes from the exhilarating hunt for a scalp.

Good heavens! “Joint custody”? That is not how any of this is supposed to work, but it is helpful in highlighting a distorted view of the roles of both the media and the government. Also, in case nobody noticed, the media and the Trump camps aren’t exactly poised for a friendly divorce.

“Journalists, Battered and Groggy, Find a Renewed Sense of Mission,” declared Wednesday’s New York Times, again failing to explain why that sense of mission was conveniently misplaced with a president who sent shivers up Chris Matthews’s leg. The renewed sense of mission, it turns out, comes from the exhilarating hunt for a scalp. When it comes to stories about the Trump administration’s Russia connections, columnist Frank Rich noted, “You have what seems to be a story of Watergate proportions married to this red hot Wild West of the new mediasphere.”

As we’ve seen, that “red hot Wild West” atmosphere has led to more than its fair share of hyperventilation, gun-jumping, and flat-out mistakes. Certainly, journalists, by all means, do your jobs. But if the status quo remains, don’t be surprised if the rest of the world simply tunes you out.

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