Faced With Trump’s Looming Press Crisis, Media Embrace Timidity And Accommodation
Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT
Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus has apparently undergone a rather dramatic change in terms of how she views President-elect Donald Trump -- specifically, whether she thinks it’s OK for journalists to label him a liar when he constantly lies.
Stressing the “huge challenge” that looms for the press to cover Trump “fairly” in coming years, Marcus joined forces with Wall Street Journal editor Gerard Baker, who last week insisted it’s out of bounds for his reporters to call a Trump a liar. (They run the risk of not looking "objective," Baker fretted.)
Weighing in with her Sunday Post column, Marcus agreed that it’s just not fair to label Trump a liar. “The media shouldn’t hesitate to label an assertion false, but it should be cautious about imputing motive,” wrote Marcus, who doesn’t like the “inflammatory baggage” that comes with dubbing the president-elect a liar.
“The past few weeks have offered Americans a chilling glimpse of three faces of Donald Trump: the stonewaller, the shape-shifter and the liar,” Marcus wrote on May 18. She conceded that it was a “strong charge,” but insisted it was “warranted.”
How does a media transformation like that take place, considering the avalanche of lies Trump told over the course of the campaign and since his election win? How do you go from stating unequivocally that Trump’s a liar, to advocating that calling him that same thing today is somehow out of bounds and means you’re not treating him “fairly”?
Is it because Trump will soon be president and some journalists are nervous about offending him -- nervous about appearing to be too tough on him and not wanting to be the targets of further bullying? Perhaps journalists are simply intimidated by Trump, whose political fortunes this year can be partially attributed to his gleefully mean-spirited attacks on the media.
Over and over we’re seeing this discouraging and potentially dangerous pattern unfold: At a time when Trump and his team are ratcheting up their attempts to discredit the media, and as they stand poised to choke off all meaningful access for journalists, too many news organizations are responding with timidity and accommodation. They seem to have learned nothing from the campaign, when Trump banned certain news outlets at will while his staff herded reporters into restricted press pens at rallies.
“Winter is coming,” is how New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has framed the looming press threats under Trump: “For a free press as a check on power this is the darkest time in American history since World War I, when there was massive censorship and suppression of dissent.”
As is the case with so much of the press’s relationship with Trump, there continues to be a runaway normalization effort at play. Rather than Trump’s relentless assault on the press sparking a collective resistance, more and more it seems to have sparked a weird, collective acceptance.
Just look at the media event that took place last Friday: Trump met in private with editors from Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Vogue. He met them at the headquarters of the magazines’ parent company, Conde Nast. Trump’s confab was off the record, which is exactly what journalists should not be doing right now -- cutting side deals with Trump for sit-downs in exchange for secrecy. Instead, media outlets should be taking collective action to push back against Trump’s naked refusal to be held accountable, as well as Trump’s 19-month war on the press, not ushering him in for closed-door meetings.
A president-elect who has refused for nearly 170 days to hold a press conference and who has essentially closed off all meaningful access to political reporters -- while constantly publicly denigrating journalists -- doesn’t deserve to be rewarded with off-the-record bull sessions.
For instance, at their meeting the Conde Nast editors reportedly asked Trump about his plans for “health care, climate change, relations with Russia, women’s issues and abortion rights,” which are exactly the types of topics he should be asked about on the record. Because right now it’s virtually impossible to understand his specific policy positions since Trump refuses to articulate them in detail.
Besides, remember what happened the last time the president-elect had an off-the-record meeting with news executives?
For more than twenty minutes, Trump railed about “outrageous” and “dishonest” coverage. When he was asked about the sort of “fake news” that now clogs social media, Trump replied that it was the networks that were guilty of spreading fake news. The “worst,” he said, were CNN (“liars!”) and NBC.
Another participant at the meeting said that Trump’s behavior was “totally inappropriate” and “fucking outrageous.”
Meanwhile, what also occurred on Friday, after Trump met off-the-record with Conde Nast editors? He issued this stunning threat:
So now we can add threats of congressional investigation to the long list of bullying tactics President-elect Trump has unveiled against journalists since Election Day.
Winter is coming, indeed.