The New York Times is worried, and it thinks its liberal readership should be just as scared. The source of this fear is the possibility that President Donald Trump might escape retribution for the crime of being unfit for an office that he won through alleged collusion with Russia and other crimes, for which he must be made to pay. How might he manage that feat?
The answer is that he has something that Richard Nixon — the liberal bête noire of a previous generation — lacked: media that are no longer united in their desire to expose and impeach a president. But the problem here isn’t so much the costs of a bifurcated press as it is the mythology that rests on the faux sanctity of a uniformly liberal mainstream media.
The conceit of Times media columnist Jim Rutenberg’s Monday column was a counterfactual query: “What would Watergate look like if it happened now?” While the answer is far from clear, he believes a divided media might have rendered Nixon’s downfall questionable, or at least made it something that much of the country would have refused to accept. In his telling, today’s lack of a media consensus across the political spectrum over collusion and the firing of FBI director James Comey gives Trump an advantage that Nixon could only dream of:
A loyal media armada ready to attack inconvenient truths and the credibility of potentially damning witnesses and news reports while trumpeting the presidential counternarrative, at times with counterfactual versions of events.
Review papers from the Nixon White House and you can see just how much Nixon and his team pined for a media environment resembling the one today.
There’s much to be lamented about our contemporary political culture, in which Americans no longer seem to share a common bond. In our Facebook world, most news consumers live in self-constructed cocoons in which anything that does not confirm their pre-existing assumptions and prejudices is ruthlessly deleted and the author of the offending post is unfriended. All too many not only are unfamiliar with the reasoning of those on the other side of the political divide but have lost the willingness or ability to listen to an opposing view. Left and Right no longer merely disagree but doubt each other’s patriotism and good faith.
In no small measure, that’s because growing numbers do not read, listen to, or watch the same media outlets. The consequences of this division are serious, but Rutenberg’s assumptions about the media past and present are just as faulty. And that’s where the Watergate-and-Nixon analogy comes in. If Nixon was sent speedily to his doom, it was, in this retelling, largely due to the unified nature of what Rutenberg describes as “a much simpler time in the media industry”:
There were three major news networks and PBS; a major paper or three in every city; and a political dynamic in which leaders duked it out by day and dined together at night. They did so on a solid foundation of agreed-upon facts and a sense of right and wrong that was shared, if not always followed. The Trump-Russia scandal is breaking during a time of informational chaos, when rival versions of reality are fighting for narrative supremacy.
There’s some truth to that description, but not as much as Rutenberg thinks.
The media universe of the 1970s was smaller not merely in terms of the number of national outlets but in terms of the diversity of views allowed a hearing. Rutenberg may recall it as a golden era of journalism in which Walter Cronkite and a few other middle-aged white guys told us what the news was in a manner beyond reproach. But the problem was the pretension to objectivity of uniformly liberal mainstream media that routinely marginalized or excluded conservative points of view. That lack of diversity was exposed with the opening up of the airwaves that occurred after the “fairness doctrine” was shelved and the arrival of cable set the stage for the explosion of conservative media. Though liberals still labor under the delusion that there is something unhealthy about an alternative to news that is skewed left, the market illustrated that at least half of the country disagreed.
The problem in the 1970s was the pretension to objectivity of uniformly liberal mainstream media that routinely marginalized or excluded conservative points of view.
The ocean of alternatives to the traditional mainstream media does include many that, as Rutenberg points out, traffic in falsehoods, conspiracy theories, and agitprop that sometimes masquerade as news. But that is as true of left-wing fever swamps as it is of those who are on the right.
That brings us back to the problem with the Watergate analogy that is an article of faith among liberals.
The reason why Watergate brought down Nixon is that press investigations such as the Woodward and Bernstein articles in the Washington Post and the efforts of the special prosecutor in the case began with an actual crime: the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee plotted by Nixon’s reelection team, and the subsequent cover-up.
Trump’s troubles could, in theory, lead to the same sorry end, but right now it is still an investigation in search of a crime. The Russians sought to influence our presidential election, but the main difference between liberal and conservative views about the investigation is that the former take it as a given that Trump and his team colluded with Moscow, while the latter are still, not unreasonably, demanding proof that such a thing happened before acquiescing in what would be, for all intents and purposes, a reversal of the outcome of the vote.
Trump is tough to defend, and his behavior and statements are often inexcusable. But liberal journalists such as Rutenberg seem to think any hesitation in making the leap from acknowledgment of Trump’s obvious faults to belief that he is guilty of criminal wrongdoing is due to a lack of integrity, not reasonable caution.
Our bifurcated political culture probably ensures that many liberals will never accept that Trump didn’t collude with the Russians, even if special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s efforts come up empty. Trump fans are also unlikely to believe in his guilt even if proof is forthcoming. That is regrettable, but if Nixon was guilty as charged in Watergate, so far the only thing we know for sure about Trump is that he’s guilty of bad judgment and unpresidential behavior, not high crimes and misdemeanors.
If Democrats and their liberal-press cheerleaders are frustrated that not everyone is joining in the crusade against the president, it is not because many voices on the right don’t know the difference between right and wrong. Rather, it is because the liberal media’s assumption that Trump must be guilty of some crime for which he can be impeached is rooted more in their partisanship and disgust for the president than in objective analysis. If, in their zeal to jump to conclusions about Trump, they have jettisoned even the pose of objectivity, it is an indictment of their conduct, not a commentary on the failures of those who are waiting for evidence.