On Tuesday, President Donald Trump sent House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) a rambling, unhinged, six-page screed in his own defense prior to the House’s Wednesday impeachment vote. The letter was riddled with factual errors ranging from misstating the number of votes he received in the electoral college to falsely stating that the whistleblower’s call was a “false report,” a claim that Politifact has declared its 2019 Lie of the Year.
Less a coherent work and more of a lengthy and lightly copyedited Twitter thread, the letter included bizarre lines such as “You dare to invoke the Founding Fathers in pursuit of this election-nullification scheme?” “It is a terrible thing you are doing, but you will have to live with it, not I!” and “More due process was afforded to those accused in the Salem Witch Trials.”
The letter was an exercise in abject paranoia, and it was exactly the type of letter that would have roiled previous administrations and have people questioning the president’s fitness for office. It was delusional, it was self-aggrandizing, and sadly, it was typical.
Mainstream media outlets did more than just treat the letter as typical; they treated it as normal.
Several early headlines treated the letter like any other piece of communication released by the president. NPR and CNN both described the letter as simply a statement of protest. The Hill wrote that the letter was “objecting to the impeachment process.”
Other outlets used language that highlighted the emotion in the letter without any negative connotation. For instance, Politico called the letter “scathing,” while Bloomberg said it was “blistering.”
The Washington Post’s front-page headline painted the president as a warrior, describing the letter as “a fiery last stand.”
These headlines don’t show us the real Trump, and that might be lost on people not particularly tuned into politics.
Quinta Jurecic, the managing editor at Lawfare, highlighted one of the major problems with these headlines, noting the clean-up work mainstream media outlets do to give the impression that Trump is a more “coherent person” than he actually is.
For people not constantly immersed in politics, a newspaper headline may very well be all that they see about any given event. Headlines matter in the age of social media, and right now, they’re serving as bumpers to protect the president.
This is hardly a new phenomenon. Going all the way back to his campaign, mainstream outlets have graded Trump’s statements on a curve, offering rosy interpretations of what he said rather than his literal words. While this may seem relatively harmless, polishing his words so they seem less alarming than they actually are is how certain damaging and false narratives get created. For instance, throughout the 2016 campaign, reporters fell over themselves trying to make Trump out to be a pro-LGBTQ candidate when he had, in fact, embraced a series of wildly anti-LGBTQ positions. Voters were led to falsely believe Trump would protect LGBTQ rights as president, but he’s spent the better part of his term decimating them.
After a racist shooter motivated by a hatred of immigrants massacred 22 people in an El Paso Wal-Mart, in Texas, the New York Times ran the headline “Trump Urges Unity Vs. Racism.” While the Times eventually changed the headline in subsequent editions of the paper following backlash, it showed how eager publishers are to convince the world that everything is normal. Trump’s remarks after the massacre did mention race, but he spent more time on things like video games and his frightening idea to have people institutionalized against their will should they show signs of being “mentally disturbed.”
Media’s desire to sanitize the president’s messaging to fend off claims of bias is understandable, but ultimately harmful.
In 2013, cartoonist KC Green published “On Fire,” a comic perhaps better known as “This is fine.” In it, a dog sits at a kitchen table with a cup of coffee as flames surround him. “This is fine,” the dog says. “I am okay with the events that are unfolding currently.” His hat catches fire as he sips his coffee. “That’s okay, things are going to be okay,” he says before his face begins to melt.
Editors and publishers who insist on running tidy headlines that treat the president just like any other competent head of state have embraced the “this is fine” ethos. Perhaps they believed that if they just treated him as more composed than he actually was, that he’d grow into the presidency. But even if that were true, it’s a dishonest accounting of the world around us.
In the wake of Trump’s election, people warned against “normalizing” him and his rhetoric. Neutral-at-all-costs headlines are exactly what normalization looks like in practice. That normalization gives readers less reason to have faith in the press as a check on the powerful as it very clearly signals fear of the powerful. No matter how much of a “view from nowhere” approach journalists adopt, and no matter how neutral their headlines read, they will still be accused of bias by conservatives in and out of media.
Green’s 2016 update to “On Fire” picks up where the original left off. Engulfed in flames, the dog finally realizes how dire his situation actually is. As he runs about the house with a fire extinguisher, cursing to himself, he screams, “This is not fine!! Oh my god everythings on fire. What the hell is my problem? ... What the fuck was I even thinking? There was no reason to let it last this long and get this bad!”
That, sadly, is the current best case scenario for the future of American news media.