Politics & Policy

Journalism’s Fake Renaissance

Reporters raise their hands during a White House press briefing, January 24, 2017. (Reuters photo: Kevin Lamarque)
If it’s renewing itself, was it all washed up before?

Historians nowadays don’t much care for the term “Dark Ages.” In their eyes, its pejorative connotations unjustly condemn a civilization that they have long struggled to rescue from the obscurity into which Petrarch banished it seven centuries ago. American journalists, on the other hand, seem to be bringing the idea back into vogue. Judging by journalists’ words and deeds since Donald Trump was elected, their field stands on the precipice of a renaissance. To be reborn, however, something must first have become moribund. Which raises the question: If American journalism is on the eve of a renaissance, why was it experiencing a dark age in the first place?

Immediately after the election, members of the media began issuing birth announcements like proud new parents. On November 9, Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post exhorted her allies to marshal their forces: “We have to keep doing our jobs of truth-telling, challenging power and holding those in power accountable. We have to be willing to fight back.” The time had come “to toughen up and be as good as we can be, all of us.”

In January, Politico’s Jack Shafer failed to see his shadow and prophesied that Trump’s inauguration heralded the advent of “journalistic spring.” Similar proclamations abounded, from the New Year’s resolution by the New York Times’ Nick Kristof, who vowed that the press would be “watchdogs, not lap dogs,” to the promise by Vox founder Ezra Klein that his outlet would cover the new president “by focusing on policy, and the people affected.” Journalists lined up to affirm that they felt reenergized, reinvigorated, and filled with a renewed sense of purpose.

The spirit had been summoned from the vasty deep, but whether it would come when called for was something that the public couldn’t know until Trump assumed office. Four weeks later, the initial reviews are in, and they’re glowing: Trump’s first month in office has validated all the media’s prognostications. Reporting on any number of stories could be cited as proof of their rediscovered commitment, but it was Michael Flynn’s ignominious departure last week from the post of national-security adviser that confirmed, at least in journalists’ own eyes, that they were back, that Trump had made their profession great again.

CNN’s Brian Stelter wrote that “investigative journalism created the conditions” that drove Flynn from his job. The New York Times portrayed a beleaguered, overwhelmed press struggling valiantly against the slings and arrows of an outrageous 24-hour news cycle:

The news cycle begins at sunrise, as groggy reporters hear the ping of a presidential tweet, and ends sometime in the overnight hours, as newspaper editors tear up front pages scrambled by the latest revelation from Washington. In consequence and velocity, the political developments of the past four weeks — has it been only four weeks? — are jogging memories of momentous journalistic times.

Far from drowning in a sea of troubles, taking arms against them has, in the Times’ words, provided journalists “a renewed sense of mission.”

The most emblematic of these testimonials, because the most obnoxiously self-congratulatory, was from the Daily Beast ’s Lloyd Grove. Flynn’s ouster, he declared in a piece titled “The Journalism Empire Strikes Back,” had compelled the White House “to confront a basic fact: Journalists matter.” The torrent of revelations about Flynn’s contacts with the Russian ambassador and his subsequent prevarications about them to the vice president and others, demonstrated conclusively: “Journalism as an institution has reasserted itself. Big time.” Grove proceeds to quote several of his peers, all of whom corroborate his central contention: The media have been reborn.

For something to be revitalized, it must first have become defunct, gone extinct. The idea of renaissance implies the idea of a dark age out of which it emerges. Journalists sound very much as though a dark age has ended and that they have entered a renaissance. Perhaps they have. But if so, why were they in a dark age to begin with? Or to put it another way, if journalism’s back, where was it hiding for the last eight years?

There is no answer to this question that casts the media in a flattering light. At best, they were merely derelict; at worst, they refused to do their job for reasons of politics and partisanship. It’s unlikely that in their hosannas to themselves, reporters meant to convey the impression that hitherto they had been asleep at the switch. Yet by so loudly advertising the alacrity with which they were now executing their solemn duties, they inadvertently exposed their quiescence under President Obama.

Why did journalism have to reassert itself? Had it been tamed or rendered timid? Each time someone proclaims that the media are back, he implies that they had gone away. You can’t return unless you’d left. So where did the media go? Were they on sabbatical or something? When reporters swear, “We’re doing our jobs again,” they are confessing, “We weren’t before.” Which leads one to ask, Why not?

There is a quality of “doth protest too much” to these oaths. They are too effusive, too vociferous. The zeal of the convert draws attention not to the zeal itself but to the conversion. If reporters are now doing their job, this suggests that they weren’t when Obama was president. This disparity between the media’s attitude to Trump and their attitude to Obama confirms their critics’ worst suspicions.

Only a month into the Trump administration, reporters have proved themselves to be just as insular, self-serving, petty, and hypocritical as ever.

Where stands a saint once stood a sinner. What grates so many on the right is that for all the vaunted avowals to do better, many in the media are committing the same transgressions that brought their profession into disrepute in the first place and eroded public trust in it. Only a month into the Trump administration, reporters have proved themselves to be just as insular, self-serving, petty, and hypocritical as ever.

The White House Correspondents’ Dinner is one of the major events of the Washington social calendar. To hobnob with the glitterati at what has come to be known as the “nerd prom” is a professional and personal highlight for many journalists. This year, however, as the Guardian reports, there is a decided chill in the air. Many reporters are reluctant to attend. Nerd prom is no longer cool. The reason? Donald Trump. His denunciations of the media have cast a pall on the proceedings.

It’s not hard to see the sudden downgrading of the WHCD as the result of wounded pride. Trump’s tirades against the press — including his unconscionable tweet that “the FAKE NEWS media . . . is the enemy of the American people” — may be hurtful. Yet so far his attacks have been rhetorical. Barack Obama actually prosecuted whistleblowers and leakers and investigated reporters, prosecuting nine cases, compared with three by all previous administrations combined. But as more than one wag noted on Twitter, not a single journalist contemplated boycotting the WHCD even though the president was bringing the force of the law to bear against fellow reporters.

Worse still for the media’s reputation is that in their rush to get back to work, reporters have turned in one slipshod, incompetent effort after another. Coverage of Trump’s first month in office has been rife with misrepresentations and errors. Becket Adams of the Washington Examiner has kept a running count of stories that have been botched since the inauguration. It stands at 38 as of this writing. That is a remarkable number of stories to get wrong in the space of a month. “Whether through bias, sloppiness, or sheer panic, newsrooms have dropped their standards since President Trump was sworn in as 45th president of the United States,” Adams concludes.

Such failures should be an invitation to introspection, not celebration. Yet reporters, goaded by Trump’s fulminations and by their own sense of purpose and self-worth, have turned themselves, by their own admission, into an opposition party. I have written before at NRO that the notion of “resistance” to Trump is a fallacy. Yet it is clear that a number of journalists envision the press as one of an array of institutions aligned against Trump, as the Atlantic emphasized in a piece last week titled “American Institutions Are pushing Back against Trump.”

A noble aspiration, perhaps, but the media simply no longer have the moral authority to fulfill this role. Trust in the media has greatly eroded, Gallup notes, much of it squandered by the media itself.

As Jason Willick wrote in the American Interest in January, “if the Fourth Estate is diminished in the Trump era, it will have mostly itself to blame.” It deserve blame because it’s doing nothing to correct its flaws, it’s acting in the same self-aggrandizing manner it has exhibited for years, and it is showing the same partiality and proclivity to play favorites that it did during the Obama years. 

The job the media are doing best is that of publicizing themselves.

The way to convince someone you’re doing your job is to do it. Show, don’t tell. The proof will be in the reading and the viewing. Journalists would be well advised to heed the admonition of the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza: “We aren’t the story.” By doing that, the media can restore their reputation and live up to those hoary — but nonetheless valid — clichés about the importance of a free press to democracy. Great journalism speaks for itself. It requires no advocacy.

It’s not being back on the job that counts; it’s doing the job well. So far, the job the media are doing best is that of publicizing themselves. The media’s spurious efflorescence should not deceive us; the institution remains as flawed as it always was. These flaws are now even more glaring because the attempt to rectify them has served to remind us of their existence. To overcome them, the media will first have to overcome itself. The Obama years tarnished the press. From the evidence of his successor’s first month in office, the Trump era will do the same.


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