What an amazing mood swing the Beltway press corps seemed to experience between last Friday and Tuesday night. Veering from expressing shock at the White House decision to exclude several major news organizations from a press “gaggle” with the administration’s press secretary on Friday to then offering up hosannas for President Donald Trump’s speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday, much of the pundit class appeared to have moved on from last week’s shunning.
Focusing on theater criticism instead of policy analysis, the pundit class seemed to be engaged in a heated agreement that Trump had hit a “presidential” home run with his pedestrian and factually inaccurate address. According to a Media Matters count, cable news discussions of Trump's address from directly following the speech until 11 a.m. the next day included more than 300 references to the optics of his speech -- including mentions of a “pivot," “presidential,” “reset,” and “tone.” (Even the White House was reportedly surprised at how fervently the press praised the speech.)
The runaway falsehoods and craven lies at the heart of Trump’s address didn’t seem to matter for members of the gushing press corps, whose performance was succinctly captured by this next-day headline from Raw Story: “‘Grading On A Curve’: Morning Joe Rates Trump ‘Almost Normal’ Because He Didn’t Threaten To Crush Democracy.”
What explained the media’s over-the-top praise for Trump’s ordinary speech?
“Because it’s in their nature, and the nature of the form, to get caught up in the moment -- and to elevate perception over reality,” suggested Will Oremus at Slate.
But I think there’s more to it than that. You have to take into account Trump’s ongoing war on the press and his daily denunciations of journalism to understand the media’s submissive behavior.
Observe what was noticeably absent from Trump’s speech to Congress. “He avoided any criticism of the media, a hobby horse he has ridden hard over his first weeks in office,” Politico pointed out.
Indeed, Trump’s defining criticism was quietly set aside for the night. The result? The press corps that Trump claims to hate so much rallied to his cause and elevated him to new heights.
We’re seeing something akin to a Stockholm syndrome situation unfold: Trump doesn’t viciously attack the press in public, so the press sings his praises.
Recall the warning from Bret Stephens, the deputy editorial page director for The Wall Street Journal, in the wake of the “gaggle” banning last week: “This is an attempt to bully the press by using access as a weapon to manipulate coverage.”
Guess what? The bullying worked.
It’s hard to imagine that without the backdrop of Trump’s long-running war on the press, the Beltway media would have swooned so aggressively over the president’s mundane speech.
It was impossible to watch the full-on Beltway media gushing and not think that the administration’s daily, unprecedented and weirdly personal attacks on the “dishonest media” had paid off.
It seems increasingly clear that instead of the media attacks damaging Trump’s treatment by the press, the bitter jabs might actually improve the president’s coverage. Having deeply stung the press corps, he has left journalists searching for some kind of detente.
Of course, they’re never going to get one. Despite Tuesday night’s respite, Trump will unquestionably return to singling out journalists and news organizations for derision and labeling their hard work “fake news.”
But with his speech, Trump provided a window for pundits to unabashedly praise him for doing the minimal. And they did not waste that rare opportunity.
Slate’s Will Oremus wrote of CNN’s post-speech coverage (emphasis added):
The cable news network that Trump has cast as the “enemy of the American people” was back to its old self for one night: self-consciously nonpartisan, obsessed with optics, largely unconcerned with facts, in thrall to conventional wisdom, and keenly attuned to the way the political wind was blowing.
Meanwhile, looking back over the several days leading up to Tuesday’s address, it’s easy to suspect that the White House set the media up by escalating its rhetorical war with the press.
“I called the fake news ‘the enemy of the people’ -- and they are. They are the enemy of the people. Because they have no sources, they just make them up when there are none,” Trump announced during his media-bashing address at the Conservative Political Action Conference last Friday. That same day, The New York Times, BuzzFeed, CNN, the Los Angeles Times, Politico, the BBC, and others were deliberately excluded from a White House briefing “gaggle.” (He later labeled the New York Times “evil” in an interview with sycophantic Breitbart.com reporter Matthew Boyle.)
Those theatrics may have all been designed to push the press back on its heels. That way journalists would be delighted and relieved when Trump took the supposed high road in his speech to Congress.
“After a year of beating them, berating them, having supporters yell and threaten them, calling them fake news, calling them an enemy of the people, calling the NYT ‘evil,’ shutting them out of events, he gave them a night of perfectly normal-sounding politician speak,” wrote blogger Eric Schmeltzer. The Trump speech represented a “return to the days of when they could just bask in the afterglow of a politician speaking, and do their usual punditry.”
Pundits relished that opportunity and thanked Trump for it. They thanked the guy who has targeted journalists as a menace to society.
So yes, press bashing works. Trump just proved it.