The news media are supposed to be the fourth estate. When those in government behave incompetently, allow themselves to be corrupted, abuse human rights, or otherwise disgrace their office, we expect the media to be a force for accountability, and to expose these betrayals of our trust with precision, clarity, and courage.
President Trump certainly has a tendency to lie — most recently, about the dangers of mail-in ballots and about the relative severity of recent crime. The media serve an important role in picking up on such exaggerations and inaccuracies. But the institution’s all-encompassing attacks on the president go far beyond measured fact-checking and context-framing. Consider these headlines:
Trump Gets Roasted for Tulsa Crowd Size — also from CNN.
Which is it, CNN? Is Trump a menace to society for hosting the masses in a crowded stadium, or a pathetic farce for failing to draw a sizable crowd?
Trump’s Expanded Travel Ban Is a Blow to America’s Already Tarnished Global Image — from the Washington Post.
As Trump Ramps up His Coronavirus Denialism, GOP Allies in Hard-Hit States Are Singing a very Different Tune — also from the Washington Post.
So you denounce Trump for taking too much action on COVID-19, but then you go on to claim, in Holocaust-coated language, that he’s overlooking the pandemic? Nice going, WaPo.
And on the riots:
As Protests and Violence Spill Over, Trump Shrinks Back — from the New York Times.
Aggressive Tactics by National Guard, Ordered to Appease Trump, Wounded the Military, Too — also from the New York Times.
A simple question, NYT: is Trump a coward unable to lead, or a violent autocrat taking far too much action?
Now, media outlets often feature competing perspectives. Contradictory headlines in a single publication do not necessarily constitute evidence of hypocrisy. Yet in each of these cases the headline represents a talking point that was widely advanced on the airwaves and in letters before being jettisoned for the next.
The media don’t seem to care about these inconsistencies of logic. As long as Trump is being attacked as frequently and aggressively as possible, all is well. But in fact, by leveling such frantic criticisms, the media detract from their power to criticize. Who, after all, takes the media seriously when it yells at Trump for walking up the stairs, then loses its mind when he turns around and walks back down?
Not most Americans. As Gallup reports, only 41 percent of Americans believe that the media reports the news “fully, accurately and fairly.” Compare this with a 42.9 percent approval rating for Trump — one of the most controversial and polarizing presidents in American history — as measured by the RealClearPolitics polling average. Of course, the media’s political favoritism is nothing new: the New York Times has famously refused to endorse a Republican for the presidency for the past 64 years (yes, even Walter Mondale got the nod). The Washington Post has never endorsed a Republican for president. But the ruthless way the media cover Trump is something new altogether: Pew finds that Trump’s coverage is more than twice as negative as the coverage of Clinton, Obama, or even Bush.
It is ridiculous to suppose that we should have a fifth estate, or a sixth, or a seventh — the buck’s got to stop somewhere. It may as well be with the media. But if the media don’t abandon the notion that their sole duty is to bring the hammer down on Trump, their valid rebukes of the president will begin more and more to fall on deaf ears.