Politics & Policy

The Press vs. the President

Members of the news media wait on the South Lawn of the White House, February 2, 2017. (Reuters photo: Carlos Barria)
Choosing sides is no substitute for thinking

The problem with the man currently leading the Republican party is that he is, as the Washington Post puts it, a hostage to the “fanatical policies of the extreme right.” His administration “insults women” and his unwelcome presence in public life “insults us all.” And, because the Republican party is all about the winning these days, the GOP establishment is “ready to forgive” . . . what? . . . “just about anything — as long as he wins.”

So says the Post, which is not alone in this estimate: Extreme on economic issues, extreme on the so-called social issues, he even has had an “extreme foreign-policy makeover,” according to The Atlantic. His views on immigration, MSNBC says, represent the Republican party “shrinking down to its most extreme elements.” One cable-news panelist insists he was the most extreme Republican presidential candidate ever. Paul Krugman laments that he has forsaken all serious policy thinking for “dangerous fantasy.” Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times is also alert to the “dangers” he presents, the “most dangerous of all” being his views on Iran, though Kristof also worries that he is too buddy-buddy with that awful, scheming Benjamin Netanyahu. Predictably, Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow dogpiled him for his perplexing relationship with Moscow. Vice calls him a “sociopath” and Maureen Dowd dismissed him as “an out-of-touch plutocrat” who keeps “his true nature . . . buried where we can’t see it,” a devious figure who is so awful deep down inside that he “must hide an essential part of who he is” from the public.

President Mitt Romney sounds like he would have been a riot. Alas, his presidency never came to pass, thanks in no small part to the hysteria chronicled above. Every Republican president is “the most extreme ever,” or so Democrats and their media friends insist.

(“We do always say that,” one Democratic friend acknowledged. “And it is always true.” Well . . . )

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In this corner, the American Press; in the opposite corner, the American President. The time has come for choosing sides — or so do many of our friends on the left and in the media (there is some crossover in that group) insist, as do more than a few of our friends on the right.

On Friday, I was scolded by Joe Hagan of New York magazine (he must have taken a break from the vital service he is offering to the republic at the moment, composing a biography of Jann Wenner) for daring to criticize my media colleagues in the age of Trump, “since you are supposedly a journalist.” It is, he insisted, “as if you, as a conservative, can’t see objective reality along with somebody you assume is a political opposite.” No, it is as if the American news media are predictably biased and incompetent, and would be writing almost precisely what they are writing about Donald Trump if the election had been won by Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, or Pat Sajak. Or, as the example above shows, Mitt Romney, who is a great many things (some of them admirable) but hardly an “extremist” or a “danger” to the republic.

It is possible, if you are not mentally crippled, to hold in your mind two non-exclusive ideas: Donald J. Trump stinks, and the press stinks. Trump’s spat with the press is a bloodless Iran–Iraq war, and I myself am cheering for (metaphorical) casualties. If you find yourself only able to focus on which party stinks worse, then you have adopted the pre-kindergarten “binary choice” rhetoric of the campaign, in which both Trump and Clinton supporters insisted that we must ignore the obvious character defects, financial shenanigans, lies, and foolishness of A or B on the theory that B or A is so much worse that we simply cannot acknowledge any shortcomings on the other side.

Those of us who have not entirely surrendered our neocortices to one cable-news tribe or the other are perfectly capable of criticizing Trump and criticizing the media.

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Of course the American media are terrible. Everybody knows this. Everybody who follows the public debate about guns, taxes, or abortion knows this. Dean Baquet, the executive editor of the New York Times, knows this, which is why he sheepishly acknowledged that the so-called Newspaper of Record and its editors “don’t get religion.” And that is just a little bit of what they don’t get. Other senior editors at major media outlets know this, too. The people who run the Washington Post know this. The reflexive Democratic affiliation of most of the major media is a simple fact of life that you’d have to be foolish or dishonest to deny: Hell, I got the business about being a conservative when I was being considered for a copy-editor’s job a million years ago at the Philadelphia Inquirer — working in the sports section.

The tragedy of all this is that, yeah, we really could use an effective, active, and credible press right now.

The tragedy of all this is that, yeah, we really could use an effective, active, and credible press right now. We have an active one five days out of the week, an effective one five days out of the month, and a credible one . . . not that often. My criticisms of Trump do not go so far as those who believe that he is a budding fascist dictator on the verge of building concentration camps, but if you really did believe that, wouldn’t you wish, at least a little, that the media hadn’t been exactly as hysterical when faced with the bland, anodyne visage of Mitt Romney? Or John McCain? You want to be taken seriously now after insisting that Dick Cheney was the new American Gestapo?

The last wolf show we bought tickets for wasn’t really all that spectacularly lupine.

It would be really very useful to have an authoritative source. I do not agree with Barack Obama about much of anything, but there is something to his argument that our public discourse suffers from our lack of anything that might be generally agreed upon as an authoritative source. The problem is that Barack Obama believes that this authoritative source should be Rachel Maddow or someone like her, or the editorial columns of the New York Times, dopey and predictable as they are. And, of course, there are people like Joe Hagan of New York, who believe that the current moment is simply too dangerous — it’s always dangerous with these people — to acknowledge that.

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Hagan’s opposite number is a correspondent who on the same day sneered at me for relying on the New York Times as a source for a historical question, because we all know that no conservative can trust the New York Times. The Times column in question was written by the eminent historian John Lukacs, whose conservative bona fides are such that there is literally a chapter on him in a book called Catholic Intellectuals and Conservative Politics in America 1950–1985, alongside Russell Kirk, Michael Novak (RIP), and William F. Buckley Jr. It did not matter to him what was written or by whom, only that it came from the other side — from the enemy camp.

We deserve a better press, and a better president, too. If you are the sort of partisan who cannot entertain the possibility that both of these things may be true at the same time, then you ought to consider the possibility that you are one of the reasons why we do not have a better press or a better president.


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