As the cowbells clanged, car horns blasted and anti-Trumpers partied Saturday on my New York City street corner not long after TV networks called the presidential race for Joe Biden, I did what comes most naturally.
I checked my email.
Because I write about the press, people tend to share their thoughts with me about how national politics is being covered, not just in The Washington Post but throughout the mediasphere. Their views, as my father with Irish understatement might phrase it, are various.
“Put this on your refrigerator,” demanded the subject line of one. It seemed unfriendly: “After you filthy sewer rats are exposed … there is going to be the greatest spiritual revival hitting this nation than at any time in our history.” It ended in an all-caps flourish: TRUMP FOUR MORE YEARS!
In contrast, one titled “Democracy in America” was milder, though no less heartfelt: “We saw how our democracy can work. A cynic would say it wouldn’t without an assist from a pandemic. Nonetheless, it was the free press which kept our focus, which allayed our fears of demagoguery and autocracy, without which we would be just another disenfranchised country.” It ended with a simple “Thank you.”
Over the past four or five years, I’ve been sharply critical of the media, including that subset I like to call the “reality-based press” — as distinguished from, say, the mendacious bilge spewed by the likes of Sean Hannity and Alex Jones. My continuing complaint has been that mainstream journalism never quite figured out how to cover President Donald Trump, the master of distraction and insult who craved media attention and knew exactly how to get it, regardless of what it meant for the good of the nation.
When he said “jump,” journalists all too often said “how high?” Some of this was about ratings and clicks; some of it was just because the latest outrage was irresistibly newsworthy.
He is a deeply abnormal president, but we constantly sought to normalize him, treating his deranged tweets like legitimate news and piously forecasting, every time he sounded the least bit calm, that he was becoming “presidential.”
From the beginning, TV news far too often took his public rallies and speeches as live feeds, letting his misinformation pollute the ecosystem. And we took far too long to call his falsehoods what they often were: lies. And far too long to call his world view what it clearly was: racist. Instead, we danced around — for years — with euphemisms like “misstatements” and “racially tinged comments.”
Maybe worst of all, we employed the time-honored method of treating both sides of a controversy as roughly equal. This might have been fine at an earlier moment of history. But it was almost criminally misleading in the Trump era, particularly when it came to the coverage of his Republican enablers in Washington.
Few have expressed this problem better than Thomas E. Mann of the (mildly left-leaning) Brookings Institution and Norman J. Ornstein of the (traditionally conservative) American Enterprise Institute in a piece titled “Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem.”
“We understand the values of mainstream journalists, including the effort to report both sides of a story,” they wrote. “But a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality.” Mainstream journalists have been so worried about being called biased by the rabid right that they’ve spent the past four years in a defensive crouch, far too often favoring this false balance over simple truth-telling.
And yet … I can’t help but find myself in agreement with my second correspondent — possibly because Trump is indeed being shown the door.
The mainstream media, however flawed, has managed to tell us who Trump is. Even the worst of it — the way lie-filled briefings on the coronavirus, in which the president promoted untested cures and pure quackery, were broadcast live to the nation — had the benefit of showing people how unfit he was.
And the best of the Trump-era journalism has been crucial, true to its democratic mission of holding the powerful accountable.
Recall, for instance, how in 2018 ProPublica obtained and published an audio recording of sobbing children at a Texas facilities run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection where immigrant children — taken from their parents because of the administration’s inhumane policies — were housed.
This year, The New York Times obtained Trump’s long-sought tax returns and told the world that this self-proclaimed billionaire had paid no federal taxes or only $750 in many recent years.
The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold has dug into the myriad ways that Trump has lied and abused the system.
And Elle Reeve, a journalist for Vice News, filmed a horrifying viral documentary on the white supremacists whom Trump would not convincingly condemn as they marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.
There is a great deal more across the spectrum, including work by network news reporters, by incisive commentators in text, on the air and in podcasts. White House reporters, much abused by critics as well as by the president, often have asked tough questions and have been the face of American journalism to the world.
And although I’ve had my doubts at times about the effectiveness of fact-checking, that exhausting work has been invaluable, too.
Without the reality-based press, whatever its flaws and shortcomings, we would be utterly lost.
Put that on your refrigerator.
Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist.