The 2016 presidential campaign broke political journalism, with too many reporters and pundits relentlessly feeding their audiences a dog’s breakfast of false equivalence seasoned with sensationalism. Then came the transition, which saw much of the press watching from the sidelines, parroting Donald Trump’s often-false tweets without sufficient context and failing to hold him accountable for his extreme Cabinet selections.
There has been no dramatic improvement since Trump took office, with press coverage of the first hundred days of his presidency marred by excessive normalization of a distinctly abnormal chief executive. Far too many members of the political press in the Amtrak corridor -- the journalists and pundits with platforms at major print, digital, and TV outlets who set the tone for coverage of the president through their reporting and commentary on the news of the day -- have kept the same methods, mindsets, and frames of reference under a very different type of president.
Some suggest that there is no need to change because Trump's election means his presidency is normal by definition. “The states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania ‘normalized’” Trump, New York Times White House correspondent Glenn Thrush tweeted earlier this week. His colleagues in the political press cheered him on, scoffing at critics who have argued that papering over Trump’s violations of ethical norms and his history of racism and misogyny poses a threat to the health of our body politic by dramatically shifting our expectations for what is acceptable in public life.
I have sympathy for reporters who are active on Twitter -- they must often feel like they are in a social media shooting gallery, their every word scrutinized by an ever-changing assembly of critics. I can see how being constantly exhorted not to normalize the president of the United States might quickly grow tiresome. But that does not make the argument against normalization any weaker, or excuse the ways that too many journalists have failed their audience.
There are any number of explanations for why the political press has not changed in response to Trump. The siren call of access to a president who is willing to grant interviews on a whim is constant. Decades of favoring coverage of style over substance have left the press viewing everything through the lens of optics, rendering them less capable of zooming out and seeing the bigger picture. It is unpleasant and difficult to dwell on the breadth of the president’s apparent stupidity and corruption. Political journalists at major outlets are overwhelmingly white men -- a demographic group mostly not targeted by Trump’s extremism -- creating “a dominant point of view in the press that ... squeezes out other perspectives,” as Oliver Willis has noted. And Trump’s complete failure to pass legislation and his ineptitude in filling out his administration have rightfully consumed much media bandwidth.
But here’s where Trump has succeeded: He’s shattered political norms and reshaped them in his own image. He’s used the power of the White House to enrich himself and his family in unprecedented ways, with no meaningful separation between the interests of his corporate empire and the country. He’s repeatedly sought to delegitimize any institution -- be it judges, or the press, or the bureaucracy -- that stands in his way. He’s operated amid a legitimacy crisis, constantly fending off new evidence that Russian government efforts to influence the election were tied to his campaign. And he’s demonstrated a palpable lack of concern for his ignorance of world affairs while spending hours live-tweeting cable news broadcasts.
But faced with these unprecedented strikes at the heart of the democratic system, many reporters and pundits have frequently fallen back on a familiar trope from the campaign -- constantly looking for, and claiming they have found, the elusive Trump pivot to normalcy. In their efforts to normalize Trump, the depth of his extremism and corruption is too often swept aside, as major stories are abandoned while reporters follow the shiny object.
To be sure, these conditions are not universal. There are bright spots throughout the major bastions of Beltway reporting. And investigative journalists have feasted on the wealth of conflicts of interest throughout the administration, and provided new and expanding insight into the investigations of Russian efforts to impact the 2016 election. I’ve also been impressed with the efforts by many journalists to correct, collate, and categorize the president’s many lies.
But as The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan has pointed out, “For every great scoop, there’s been an embarrassing moment of declaring the president statesmanlike for giving a speech without a history-making gaffe.”
Following the president’s February speech to a joint session of Congress, journalists rushed to proclaim that Trump had “hit the reset button” and, before their eyes, “became president of the United States,” in the infamous words of CNN’s Van Jones. Trump is still crowing about the praise he received from the press.
Five weeks (and numerous mishaps) later, pundits found a new reason to declare that the page had turned and Trump had “truly” become president after he ordered airstrikes against the Syrian government. Those rave reviews so impressed the president that we warned they may actually increase the chances of future military action.
And indeed, in mid-April the U.S. military dropped its most powerful conventional bomb on an Islamic State complex in Afghanistan, triggering a new round of obsessive, fawning coverage from the cable news networks.
These periods of over-the-top praise for the president have come even as the Trump administration frequently lashes out at the press in unprecedented ways. Over the past 100 days, the president and his top aides have declared the media to be the “opposition party” and “enemy of the American people,” blacklisted critical news outlets in favor of sycophantic ones, publicly berated individual journalists, and engaged in unusual efforts to deny access to the press.
News outlets -- led by a White House Correspondents Association that at times seemed most interested in whether Trump would attend its annual dinner -- have often proven unable to respond collectively.
Press coverage of Trump’s supporters also deserves criticism, whether it be the seemingly endless stream of articles coddling the Trump fans who still like him, or the pieces on the “alt-right” that demonstrate an ignorance of the way white nationalism and misogyny are intrinsic to their worldview.
NBC News has responded to Trump’s election by hiring and elevating conservative commentators who have accommodated him. CNN’s news hours are politics as sport, built around endless, fruitless debates between fawning professional Trump fans hired by the network to defend literally anything he does, and everyone else. Fox News is almost entirely on the Trump Train, with a lineup dominated by the president’s most fervent supporters, their cheering carefully calibrated to bring in praise from and access to the most powerful man in the country.
The political press is still not rising to the challenge. They are still normalizing a fundamentally abnormal president. We deserve better.
Images by Sarah Wasko