How Trump Got CNN Off the Hook

(Reuters photo: Remo Casilli)
After the latest tweet controversy, the press sees bias as an obligation rather than a temptation.

Just when the Trump administration was putting its media opponents on the defensive, the president swept in to rescue the very people he and his fans have labeled as purveyors of “fake news.” That was the net effect of the president’s latest Twitter meltdown in which he elevated Morning Joe’s Mika Brzezinski from an annoyingly openly partisan liberal TV host into a martyr to journalism. In doing so, he didn’t merely step on his own theme about the bias of his media tormentors; he also reinforced his critics’ belief that bias against his administration was not something to deny but the right thing to openly peddle.

Trump’s instinct to lash out viciously at critics is nothing new. Nor is his willingness to objectify or insult women by referring to their looks. But his fiery tweets are not mere “counterpunches,” as his supporters argue. They are simply beneath the dignity of the presidency. They do great damage to our civic culture, distract the country from his policy agenda, and undermine Republican hopes for what the Trump administration may accomplish. But we’ve been through this so many times that it’s a wonder that the television talking heads condemning his awful behavior can maintain their level of outrage. If the 46 percent of the voters who put Trump into office thought any of it were disqualifying, Hillary Clinton would now be president.

So what about this incident is different from his previous dustups with Megyn Kelly and a former Miss Universe — or from the infamous Access Hollywood videotape?

In substance, the answer is nothing at all.

The fact that the vile jibes directed at Brzezinski and her co-host and fiancé Joe Scarborough came from the occupant of the White House rather than from a mere presidential candidate may account for the higher level of the outrage. Also, most reporters take the attacks on the MSNBC team more personally than they did when Trump attacked Kelly — probably because she was on Fox News at the time rather than one of the more liberal networks.

But the explosion of anger at Trump also has more to do with the war between the legacy media and the administration than with the particulars of this incident or even any real concern about civility.

For months, Trump has been labeling his media critics, especially CNN, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, purveyors of “fake news” whose only purpose was to defame him and delegitimize his election victory. In response, those outlets and others like them haven’t merely defended their reporting, they’ve doubled down on attacking Trump.

Trump is different from his predecessors in ways that are too numerous to count. But faced with his Twitter tirades and general demeanor, his media foes have stopped even pretending to play it down the middle in their reporting, even though his policies, for the most part, stake out mainstream conservative positions.

The notion that Trump’s media enemies are fighting for objectivity is a farce.

The willingness to embrace the narrative that the Trump campaign had colluded with Russia during the election, despite any evidence proving this, seemed to confirm White House adviser Steve Bannon’s belief that the media were not merely a foe but the real opposition party. Like all broad generalizations, this one can be punctured by citing the good work that some of the mainstream liberal outlets do.

But the notion that Trump’s media enemies are fighting for objectivity is a farce. Once the New York Times and other papers began to regularly feature opinion pieces as straight news, media bias ceased to be an accusation. Now it’s merely an observation of what is painfully obvious.

That mindset reached a peak last week with the news that CNN had to retract a story about a Trump associate’s alleged connections to Russia. The story, based on a single anonymous source, was unsubstantiated, and CNN publicly apologized to the Trump adviser in question (Anthony Scaramucci) and forced the resignation of the three highly respected journalists, including one Pulitzer winner, on the byline. The fiasco seemed to confirm everything Trump and his supporters had been saying about the media. The same applies to an undercover recording in which a CNN producer admitted that much of the Trump-Russia coverage was about ratings rather than the search for truth.

One can argue that Trump’s conduct and statements are outrageous and deeply wrong but still concede that the media he calls “fake news” is often heavily stacked against him. It’s not so much “fake” as hopelessly biased — far more so than the routine tilt that Republicans and conservatives have contended with for decades.

Trump has allowed his opponents to defend their bias as virtuous.

Which brings us back to the Trump assault on Mika and Joe. The absurd presidential tweets didn’t just bury any discussion of CNN’s troubles, as everyone in Washington on both sides of the aisle had to agree that the president was way out of line. What this story really did was to reinforce the impulse of most reporters to view bias against Trump as a journalistic obligation rather than a temptation to be resisted.

Those inveighing against Trump’s tweets were doing more than aiming at a favorite target. They see themselves as taking part in a justified crusade against a man who ought to be evicted from the White House by any means, fair or foul. The condemnations were fervent not so much because reporters abandoned objectivity in the heat of the moment but because they believe that the nature of this president dictates a different kind of coverage from what any president has ever received before.

In this sense, Trump hasn’t only confirmed Bannon’s thesis that the media are the opposition; he has also allowed his opponents to defend their bias as virtuous.

Trump’s behavior is indefensible, but the line between legitimate coverage of negative stories and a consistent partisan media campaign was crossed months ago. Now, with his childish rant against Brzezinski, Trump has allowed those taking part in that campaign to feel justified in going even further to denounce and undermine his presidency. So Trump got CNN off the hook. And he did the same for a whole class of journalists who now feel there are no limits on how far they can go to aid the resistance against a dysfunctional presidency.


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