Why is the first inclination of Donald Trump’s supporters to lash out at the press when he says something ridiculous? Part of it is political expediency, of course. Most of it, though, is completely understandable.
Even when Trump badly mangles science, journalists, who spend vast amounts of their time chasing gotchas, offer a misleading and histrionic rendering of his comments. Trump doesn’t want Americans to inject themselves with disinfectants or ingest bleach and die. Journalists know this.
The media are a collection of well-funded outlets that set the agenda, narrative, tone, and focus of coverage while conspiring with a major political party. Reporters don’t openly collude with Democrats (well, most of the time they don’t), they merely share the same objectives and set of values. This wasn’t a problem created by Trump’s emergence. It’s problem that’s been festering for decades.
Now, I wish conservatives would build their own journalistic outfits to proactively chase down big stories and, in part, dictate the conversation. I’ve never understood why more big donors, and there are plenty of them, haven’t diverted dollars from political candidates, think tanks, and PACs to help build a reliable and serious conservative news infrastructure.
As National Review alum Daniel Foster notes: “The left has a dozen nonprofit ‘investigative journalism’ nonprofits whose work is treated as completely neutral and unimpeachable by the Post, the Times. The attributions are ‘a watchdog group reports’ etc.” There’s no reason the Right couldn’t create a competing network.
It’s not just the nonprofits. If a mainstream conservative news site had been given the funding left-wing outlets such as Vox ($200 million for starters) or Buzzfeed enjoy, they would produce far more meaningful investigative journalism, for no other reason than that there is so much uncovered ground. If conservative journalists do solid work — with sourcing and reliable information –these efforts, while they would still be pooh-poohed by institutional media, would be far more difficult to dismiss.
Quality investigative journalism, though, is expensive. When I worked at a relatively large newspaper, I watched teams of reporters take on year-long inquiries that would often generate significant stories. (Sometimes, as is also the case in journalism, they led nowhere.) These pieces predictably focused on issues that animate left-wingers.
My experience taught me that the biggest source of political bias isn’t necessarily the left-wing framing of stories and issues, but the focus and types of stories that editors assign writers. Our national conversation is often centered on the whims of editors who see the world through the prism of their own left-wing ideology and urban experiences.
I’m not even talking about transparently risible, ahistorical, progressive hobbyhorses such as the New York Times‘ 1619 Project. This week, my colleague Alexandra DeSanctis pointed out that there’s a CBS News reporter on the “abortion access beat” who simply regurgitates abortion-lobby press releases. Points for honesty, but the very focus of the beat is prejudiced. And I bet that reporter and her editor don’t even see the problem.
Of course, the chances of an “abortion access” reporter critically reporting on abortion are somewhere in the same vicinity as most economic and business reporters praising free markets: zero. Most of the media are pro-abortion. Most of the media are pro–socialized medicine. Most of the media are pro–big government. Most of the media are actively pro-Democrat. It’s no mystery why conservatives have a disinclination to join them in piling on the president.
None of this is to say conservatives aren’t writing and engaging in the debate in important ways. For one thing, Fox News dominates cable news. For another, debunking bad journalism is also journalism.
Why don’t Republicans trust the media’s reporting on Trump, you ask? We spent three feverish years chasing the Russia-collusion whale, an imaginary beast created by Democratic Party operatives and brought to life by big-name reporters at major outlets. Inexplicably, all the “mistakes” these journalists made were skewed in the exact same direction every time. Yet to this day, networks that convinced half the country that a Russian asset had purloined the presidency have yet to explain how their high-profile reporters got so much wrong. Actually, these networks continue to feature the very same “experts” and guests, still opining with the very same confidence. (Credit should be given to people such as the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple, though he is a rarity.)
Not only is there no price paid for getting things wrong, there really is no financial incentive to be a grounded, straight-down-the-line, unbiased journalist these days. It’s the Jim Acostas and Philip Ruckers of the world who get the book deals and big followings, not the diligent journalists poring over documents and offering serious, context-rich reporting.
There are plenty of solid reporters, but the most of the big-name journalists are only big names because they are granted a perch by powerful corporations. Most of best-known reporters aren’t especially talented writers, or especially knowledgeable, or especially good interviewers, or especially adept at ferreting out important stories. They have access. They break stories because insiders with hostility toward an administration hand them incriminating or damaging information. All they have to do is show a modicum of skepticism and judiciousness in reporting those facts. Many rarely do.
Moreover, journalists no longer act as competitive outlets, they act like a political tribe — sanctimoniously operating as if their vocation imbues them with some great knowledge or morality. CNN’s Chris Cuomo can concoct a fabulist coronavirus resurrection, and virtually no journalist will speak up to defend their profession. MSNBC’s Andy Lack will complain that Trump, who has done nothing to inhibit free speech, has “shaken the soul of the First Amendment,” but he offers not a word about the unprofessionalism of his market rival.
No matter how bad ratings are, no matter how little trust they engender — and though the entire journalism project is predicated on trust, it engenders less than most institutions — journalists do not grapple with the problem. Just look at the crass hypocrisy of the coverage of Biden’s sexual-assault allegations. One can be critical of the Trump presidency and still wrestle with obvious double standards of journalism. Instead, well-read “media critic” newsletters by reporters such as Brian Stelter have become indistinguishable from a Media Matters press release.
It’s not a mystery why Trump’s fans can so easily dismiss the media.
Conservative are blackballed. Last year, when CNN hired moderate Republican Sarah Isgur, Jeff Sessions’s former spokeswoman, as political editor at its Washington bureau, there was a backlash from left-wing media types and activists. She was not there long.
To put this in perspective, the chief national-security correspondent at CNN, Jim Sciutto, is a former member of the Obama administration. ABC’s George Stephanopoulos is not only a former White House communications director for Bill Clinton, but someone who was donating to Hillary’s controversial foundation during the 2016 election even when he was ostensibly an unbiased moderator of that network’s Sunday news show. And to be fair to Stephanopoulos, he’s still less biased than NBC’s Chuck Todd. If you want to know why news consumers have a difficult time making a distinction between reporters and opinion journalists, it’s because most of the time there is no difference.
This trend is unsurprising when you realize that left-wing news outlets such as Buzzfeed, TPM, and Vox are the ones feeding major networks with their reporters. It’s unsurprising when you realize that media’s favorite “journalism professors” like Jay Rosen are arguing for more bias. These are con artists. Not because they’re partisan activists, but because they pretend not to be.
Let’s also dispense with idea that liberals are more interested in fact-driven journalism. Just recall the Left’s reaction when the New York Times accidentally ran an accurate headline accusing House Democrats of killing a coronavirus funding bill. Liberals revolted on Twitter. The newspaper changed its headline three times until it had placated the digital mob.
And when the New York Times reported that Joe Biden has a long history of unwanted touching of women, the same newspaper that transmitted nearly every unsubstantiated rape allegation against a conservative Supreme Court nominee removed the offending passage after pressure from the Biden campaign. These things happened after publication. Can you imagine what goes on before?
Journalists should act as the adversaries of those in power. For me, at least, it’s not the antagonism toward Trump that is infuriating, but the insincere and transparent lack of consistency and professionalism.
Americans don’t live in a vacuum, and most of them remember how the last president, and every Democrat, was cossetted. Journalists have made it incredibly easy to dismiss their reporting because they treat every Trump misspelling, self-praise, garbled sentence, and exaggeration as if it were Watergate. For many conservatives, joining the media means participating in a wide-ranging, concerted, and often deeply dishonest effort to undermine their party and their side. Fighting back is not always the right thing for conservatives to do, but it’s not a mystery why they do it.