Traditional journalism is under siege, NBC News chief Andy Lack wrote this week: President Donald Trump continues to “put the bully in bully pulpit,” and the coronavirus crisis has taken a toll.
“But we’re winning,” proclaimed the headline of Lack’s piece published on NBCnews.com, which argues that news organizations, because they are still able to tell citizens the truth of what’s going on in the country, are victorious.
I wish I could agree.
Even if you get past the objectionable notions of “winning” and “losing,” I very much doubt that history will judge mainstream journalism to have done a terrific job covering this president — including in this difficult moment.
On the contrary, the coverage, overall, has been deeply flawed.
Those flaws were on full display over the past few days, just as they have been every day since a real estate mogul/reality TV star grandly descended a goldtone escalator into the marble atrium of New York’s Trump Tower on June 16, 2015, to announce his presidential campaign.
For nearly five years, the story has been Trump. And, in all that time, the press is still — mostly — covering him on the terms he dictates.
We remain mesmerized, providing far too much attention to the daily circus he provides.
We normalize far too much, offering deference to the office he occupies and a benefit of the doubt that is a vestige of the dignified norms of presidencies past.
And day after day, we allow him to beat us up. And then we come back for more.
“Front Row at the Trump Show,” is the name of ABC News White House correspondent Jonathan Karl’s bestselling new book. The current president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, Karl is well-respected, smart and experienced. But if there was ever a self-own, it’s right there in that title: president as vaudeville performer, journalist as rapt audience.
“Trump has been able to make it all about him, and the press — with some notable exceptions — too often allows him to turn the coverage into a carnival,” said Tim O’Brien, a Trump biographer, former New York Times business reporter and columnist at Bloomberg View.
“You can’t let the person you’re covering set the terms of the coverage, but that’s exactly what he has done.”
Every day — sometimes every hour — there’s some new craziness to distract us.
Here is Trump suggesting that ingesting disinfectants may cure the coronavirus. Here he is trashing reporters on Twitter who won Pulitzer Prizes by talking about revoking their Nobel Prizes — but misspelling it as Noble. Here he is claiming he will somehow punish reporters by not having his near-daily briefings — and then changing his mind, as a press aide quips that reporters should be kept on their toes.
Journalists are whipsawed. The public tunes out in disgust or regrettable credulity. And meanwhile, a nation has become inured to the fact that U.S. cases of coronavirus are about to pass 1 million, and that at least 56,000 Americans have died of COVID-19.
And then we come back for more, writing headlines that somehow combine the words “Trump” and “strategy.” Or ponder in cable-news panels if he’s turned the corner and started acting more presidential. Or downplay the sheer madness of the disinfectant idea with a news alert and related story politely stating that “some experts” call it dangerous.
Is this winning? Only in the sense that a verbally abused spouse is winning if she manages to get the kids off to school after another sleepless night.
Granted, there has been great journalism over the past five years. There have been outstanding investigations, trenchant analyses, important day-to-day coverage.
In recent weeks, both The Washington Post and The New York Times published investigative reports at the failures of the Trump administration to heed early warnings and act quickly enough to protect the nation against the virus’ ravages. Both news organizations also undertook deep analyses of his recent briefings, showing how Trump dominates the discussion, instead of the medical experts — presidential monologues chock full of bragging and misinformation and precious little empathy.
There has been plenty of other good work, too, providing valuable insight, like Michael Kruse’s recent “Donald Trump’s Greatest Escape” which looks back at the real estate developer’s near financial collapse in 1995. Kruse persuasively suggests that Trump is a political Houdini who has been training his whole life to survive today’s political challenges, no matter how much it may appear that he’s finally met his match.
And the best news organizations have become more blunt, when warranted, about calling out Trump’s lies, racism and failures of leadership.
But in the big picture and as a whole, we’ve never quite figured out how to cover Trump for the good of citizens. We’ve never really fully changed gears despite Trump’s constant, norm-busting behavior. Determined to do our jobs — dutifully covering the most powerful person in the world — we keep coming back for more:
Beat reporters file into the briefing room, sometimes to be publicly insulted and disparaged as “fake news” or “a terrible reporter.”
Television’s live coverage of briefings continues at many news organizations — allowing Trump to dominate the late-afternoon airwaves, day after day, with torrents of misinformation and narcissistic bragging.
As Fintan O’Toole recently summed it up in the Irish Times: “It is not just that Trump has treated the crisis merely as a way to feed tribal hatreds but that this behavior has become normalized. When the freak show is live on TV every evening, and the star is boasting about his ratings, it is not really a freak show anymore.”
He added, pointedly: “For a very large and solid bloc of Americans, it is reality.”
Someday, we’ll get some perspective on how the press has contributed to this mess — just as we can now look back on the news coverage of the run-up to the Iraq War and clearly see the sins committed then by most of Big Journalism: the shameful lack of skepticism, the foolish granting of anonymity to deceptive and self-interested sources.
When we have that distance, what I suspect we’ll see is a candidate and a president who played the media like a puppet while deeply damaging the public’s trust in the press as a democratic institution. Someone who dazzled us with his show, while acting constantly in his own self-interest while we willingly — almost helplessly — magnified his message.
We’ll figure out what happened and why. And we’ll know what to call it. But it won’t be “winning.”