Magazine | February 11, 2019, Issue

Bad, Press

A White House press briefing (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
How the media fail

Our national press is a national joke. Vain, languid, excitable, morbid, duplicitous, cheap, insular, mawkish, and possessed of a chronic self-obsession that would have made Dorian Gray blush, it rambles around the United States in neon pants, demanding congratulation for its travails. Not since Florence Foster Jenkins have Americans been treated to such an excruciating example of self-delusion. The most vocal among the press corps’ ranks cast themselves openly as “firefighters” when, at worst, they are pyromaniacs and, at best, they are obsequious asbestos salesmen. “You never get it right, do you?” Sybil Fawlty told Basil in Fawlty Towers. “You’re either crawling all over them licking their boots or spitting poison at them like some Benzedrine puff adder.” There is a great deal of space between apologist and bête noire. In the newsrooms of America, that space is empty.

It’s getting worse. Despite presenting an opportunity for sobriety and excellence, the election of President Donald Trump has been an unmitigated disaster for the political media, which have never reckoned with their role in Trump’s elevation and eventual selection, and which have subsequently treated his presidency as a rolling opportunity for high-octane drama, smug self-aggrandizement, and habitual sloth. I did not go to journalism school, but I find it hard to believe that even the least prestigious among those institutions teaches that the correct way to respond to explosive, unsourced reports that just happen to match your political priors is to shout “Boom” or “Bombshell” or “Big if true” and then to set about spreading those reports around the world without so much as a cursory investigation into the details. And yet, in the Trump era, this has become the modus operandi of all but the hardest-nosed scribblers.

The pattern is now drearily familiar. First, a poorly attributed story will break — say, “Source: Donald Trump Killed Leon Trotsky Back in 1940.” Next, thousands of blue-check journalists, with hundreds of millions of followers between them, will send it around Twitter before they have read beyond the headline. In response to this, the cable networks will start chattering, with the excuse that, “true or not, this is going to be a big story today,” while the major newspapers will run stories that confirm the existence of the original claim but not its veracity — and, if Representative Schiff is awake, they will note that “Democrats say this must be investigated.” These signal-boosting measures will be quickly followed by “Perspective” pieces that assume the original story is true and, worse, seek to draw “broader lessons” from it. In the New York Times this might be “The Long History of Queens Residents’ Assassinating Socialist Intellectuals”; in the Washington Post, “Toxic Capitalism: How America’s Red Hatred Explains Our Politics Today”; in The New Yorker, “I’ve Been to Mexico and Was Killed by a Pickaxe to the Head”; in Cosmopolitan, “The Specifics Don’t Matter, Men Are Guilty of Genocide.”

By early afternoon, the claim will be all the media are talking about, and the talking points on both sides of the political divide will have become preposterously, mind-numbingly stupid. On a hastily assembled panel, a “political consultant” who spends his time tweeting “The president is a murderer. This. Is. Not. Normal” will go up against a washed-out politician trying desperately to squirm his way around the protean Trump-didn’t-do-this-how-dare-you-but-if-he-did-it’s-actually-good-because-Trotsky-was-a-Communist-and-anyway-didn’t-Obama-drone-terrorists position that he contrived in a panic in the green room.

And then, just when the fracas is reaching boiling point, a sober-minded observer will point out that Donald Trump wasn’t actually born until 1946 and so couldn’t have killed Trotsky in 1940, and everyone will wash his hands, go to bed, and move on to the next “Boom!” project.

Everyone, that is, but the victim of the frenzy — who is usually Donald Trump but might also be Brett Kavanaugh or Nikki Haley or Ben Shapiro or a county comptroller from Arkansas or the children of Covington High School or someone who just happens to share a name with a school shooter and once complained online about his property taxes — who will complain bitterly about the spectacle and then be condescended to on the weekend shows by professional media apologists such as CNN’s Brian Stelter.

This phase is the final one within the cycle, and it may also be the most pernicious, for it is here that it is made clear to the architects of the screw-up at hand that they should expect no internal policing or pressure from their peers and that, on the contrary, they should think of themselves as equals to Lewis and Clark. To watch Stelter’s show, Reliable Sources, after a reporting debacle is to watch a master class in whataboutism and faux-persecution, followed by the insistence that even the most egregious lapses in judgment or professionalism are to be expected from time to time and that we should actually be worrying about the real victim here: the media’s reputation. This, suffice it to say, is not helpful. Were a football commentator to worry aloud that a team’s ten straight losses might lead some to think they weren’t any good — and then to cast any criticisms as an attack on sports per se — he would be laughed out of the announcers’ box.

“Accountability” doesn’t mean “always running a retraction when you get it wrong.” At some point it means learning and adapting and changing one’s approach. It is not an accident that all of the press’s mistakes go in one political or narrative direction. It is not happenstance that none of the major figures seem capable of playing “wait and see” when the subject is this presidency. And it is not foreordained that they must reflexively appeal to generalities when a member of the guild steps forcefully onto the nearest rake. Ronald Reagan liked to quip that a government department represented the closest thing to eternal life we are likely to see on this earth. In close second is a bad journalist with the right opinions, for he will be treated as if he were the very embodiment of liberty.

That, certainly, is how they regard themselves. “The last person to rule America who didn’t believe in the First Amendment was King George III,” wrote MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt, back in June — which is true only if you discount that the colonists actually enjoyed robust speech protections relative to their English cousins; if you are insensible of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, the pro-slavery “gag” rules that bound the House of Representatives from 1835 to 1844, the Civil War, the Espionage Act of 1917, the Sedition Act of 1918, New York Times Co. v. United States, Woodrow Wilson, Charles Schenck, or Eugene Debs; and, most crucially, if you remain wholly incapable of distinguishing between criticism and restriction.

Donald Trump, at whom Hunt’s quip was aimed, does indeed have instincts toward the First Amendment of which he and his acolytes should be ashamed; he does indeed have a tenuous relationship with the truth; and he does indeed wear a skin so thin as to border on the translucent. But he has not — ever — “attacked the free press”; he has not prevented, or attempted to prevent, the publication of a single printed word; and he has made no attempt whatsoever to change the law that he might do so. Rather, he has repeatedly — and often stupidly — criticized the press corps. The difference between these two actions is the difference between a bad art critic’s savaging a painting in print and a bad art critic’s savaging a painting with a chainsaw. One is the exercise of liberty; the other, vandalism and intimidation.

If the media understand this difference, they are doing an excellent job pretending otherwise. In complaint after complaint, the “press” and “the First Amendment” are held to be synonymous when they are no such thing and cannot logically be so. Thomas Jefferson, who was as reliable a critic of suppression as the early republic played host to, wrote famously that if it were left to him “to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” And yet he also contended that “nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper.” This represented no contradiction whatsoever. One can believe simultaneously that the press must remain free and that it has built itself into an ersatz clerisy that regards its primary job not as conveying information in as effective a manner as possible but as translating writs for the benighted public, the better to save its soul. If the polls are to be believed, a majority of Americans believes exactly this.

And why wouldn’t they, when it’s made so obvious? Last year, when the White House unveiled an immigration change that it hoped to persuade Congress to pass, CNN’s Jim Acosta showed up in the press room with an indignant look on his face and began to recite poetry from the stalls. It is true that Acosta, a man who seems unable to decide whether he’s a political correspondent on basic cable or a member of the cast of Hamilton, is particularly absurd. But he is by no means an aberration. It is for a good reason that one cannot imagine a member of the mainstream press behaving toward a Democratic administration in the manner that Acosta behaves, and the reason is that he’d never think to do so against his own team.

Sometimes consciously, but most often unwittingly, journalists treat Democrats as normal and Republicans as abnormal and proceed accordingly in their coverage. Once one understands the rules, the whole setup becomes rather amusing. When a headline reads “Lawmaker Involved in Scandal,” one can immediately deduce that the lawmaker is a Democrat. Why? Because if he were a Republican, the story would make that clear in the headline. Without fail, stories that begin with “Republicans pounce” are actually about bad things that Democrats have done or said, while stories about bad things that Republicans have done or said begin with “Republican does or says a bad thing” and proceed to a dry recitation of the facts. A variation on this rule is “Republicans say,” which is used when a Republican says something that is so self-evidently true that, had a Democrat said it, it would have been reported straight. For a neat illustration of how farcical things have become, take a look at the Washington Post’s most recent “fact check,” which helpfully informs its readers that the claimed “one thousand burgers” President Trump bought for the Clemson football team were not, in fact, “piled up a mile high” because, “at two inches each, a thousand burgers would not reach one mile high.”

Democracy dies in darkness, indeed.

Selective political interest is disastrous in its own right. But when combined with the catastrophic historical illiteracy that is rife among the journalistic class, its result is what might best be described as the everything-happening-now-is-new fallacy, which leads almost everybody on cable news and the opinion pages to deem every moment of national irritation unprecedented, to cast all political fights as novel crises, and, provided it is being run by Republicans, to determine that the present Congress is “the worst ever.” Turn on the television and you will learn that our language is the “least civil,” our politics is “the most divided,” and our environment is the “most dangerous.” When a Democrat is president, he is “facing opposition of the kind that no president has had to suffer”; when a Republican is president, he is held to be badly unlike the previous ones, who were, in turn, regarded as a departure from their predecessors. Continually, we are held to be on the verge of descending into anarchy or reinstituting Jim Crow or murdering the marginalized or, a particular favorite of mine, establishing the regime outlined in The Handmaid’s Tale. Past is prologue, context, and balm. Without it, all is panic.

One of the most toxic consequences of this myopia is that both longstanding problems and bad ideas with a long pedigree come to be discussed in the press as if they were unique to the moment. Early in Donald Trump’s tenure, the Internet was thrown into a flat panic by a host of stories warning that President Trump was marking Loyalty Day. Surely, it was proposed, this was proof of his fascistic aspirations? As it happened, Loyalty Day had been recognized annually since 1958, as the law requires. Similar panics have been started by the news that Trump was bombing Syria without explicit congressional authorization; that he was relying on executive orders to achieve some of what he could not persuade Congress to acquiesce to; that he was detaining illegal immigrants at the border and repelling those who became violent; that he reserved the right to use drones anywhere around the world; that he was amending federal websites to reflect his priorities; and that he liked to play a lot of golf. The wisdom and legality of all of these decisions and behaviors is debatable. But none of them is new. Even Thomas Paine didn’t hope to start the world over again that often.

Which brings us to the press’s most infuriating habit: its selective defense of American institutions. On cable news, on the New York Times editorial pages, at the many black-tie galas that the media like to hold for themselves, the word is deployed as a cudgel. “Institution.” “Institution.” “Institution.” At least . . . until it’s not. Institutions matter until the Supreme Court rules in a way that annoys the editors of the Huffington Post, who immediately cast the same judges who yesterday were beyond reproach as “illegitimate” or “corrupt” or too male or too white or too Catholic or too rich or too mean. Institutions matter until the economy produces results that irritate Paul Krugman, at which point the system is held to be “rigged.” Institutions matter until Barack Obama wants to change the law without Congress, at which point the story becomes what the president wants and not whether what he is doing is legal. Institutions matter until Donald Trump wins an election, and then the entire system needs junking and is probably being run by the Russians anyway. Institutions matter until the Senate is deemed an obstacle to progress, or the House disagrees with the president, or the wrong team is making demands, and then . . .

Nothing is safe — not even longstanding rules against diagnosing patients from afar. In early 2018, the White House held a press conference at which President Trump’s doctor, a U.S. Navy rear admiral, delivered a report on the president’s health and, in so doing, unleashed the most extraordinarily unethical frenzy in recent memory. At the press conference itself, ABC’s Cecilia Vega insisted that, despite passing the same test that is used at Walter Reed, Trump might have “early onset Alzheimer’s” and “dementia-like symptoms,” while her colleagues threw out maladies from which they thought the patient might be suffering and cited “the doctors and clinicians all across the country” who had diagnosed Trump without examining him. On CNN, Sanjay Gupta explained that, whatever the doctor said, “the numbers” proved that Trump had “heart disease.” The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin insisted on Twitter that “Trump got a cognitive test not a psychiatric exam,” which, she said, “does not rule out most of what’s in DSM [the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders].” Rubin’s speculation was swiftly echoed across the media, which spent the next week inviting experts to take guesses as to what might be wrong with the president.

The greatest service that Donald Trump has rendered these United States is to have exposed the many ailments of which he is a symptom but not a cause. We had political division and cultural alienation before him. We had overbearing government and an imperial executive branch before him. We had media that were arrogant, parochial, and impenitent before him, too. Alas, they have grown yet worse since he arrived.

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