Admittedly, some of us have been running on fumes since Election Night 2016.
The weeks ahead of Donald Trump’s election were filled with outrage, sexist and racist memes and the promise of chaos. That was only the beginning. Now the “Access Hollywood” tape is ancient history and our pussy hats are in storage. Trump’s threats not to accept the results of the 2016 election are echoed in the current season. His appalling divisiveness has deepened, his threats have accelerated and, as he no doubt hoped, our anxiety has escalated.
Media watchers and political junkies started the Trump years in a state of exhaustion; there wasn’t much left of our nerves to fray. Then came the pandemic.
So how have the media performed during this critical era? Here’s hoping we live long enough for history books to evaluate the lapses. Overall, it’s been a distressing performance by those in the drip-drip daily news business, a better effort by those taking the longer view. And some lessons have been learned.
Trump dared label the media the enemy. He denied reports from the southern border that found children in cages, separated from their parents. He publicly insulted scientists, the disabled, immigrants from countries other than Norway, women and a Gold Star family.
He told white supremacists to “stand by” and targeted the Michigan governor for trying to keep her citizens safe from COVID-19. His words from the White House led to an armed march on the statehouse and a foiled kidnapping plot.
Through it all, the media suffered a collective jaw drop.
At their worst, members of the Fourth Estate were enablers. They played a role in normalizing an abnormal presidency and took too long to call out blatant lies and malicious behavior. If only the media had the fortitude to nail it as frankly and quickly as George W. Bush did after Trump’s inaugural: “That was some weird shit.”
Social media delivered the highest volume of falsehoods ever seen in an election cycle. But how to respond on the nightly network news? Reporting that things were “not normal” wasn’t pro-active. The old rules of journalism proved inadequate to the Trump task.
While some journalists successfully dug beneath the minute-to-minute, tweet-by-tweet news cycle — thank you authors Bob Woodward, Sarah Kendzior, Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig — the overriding state of the “breaking news” media was paralysis. CNN eventually apologized for giving Trump too much uncritical coverage in the first place, but most media outlets didn’t know how to approach the challenge once his became a daily reality-show presidency.
When to cut away from a president who holds the briefing room podium for a noisy and fact-challenged two hours? How to report on the drumbeat of disinformation? It took nearly four years of his authoritarian rule for reporters and editors to rise to the challenge.
The big lesson of the past four years for newsrooms: the old goals of fairness and balance no long apply. Outrageous falsehoods must be met with real-time corrections, “coverage” doesn’t consist of repeating lies or noting abnormality. False equivalences must be called out. Truth and facts beat both-sides-ing. Sounds obvious, no?
Thankfully, the old belief that everything a president says is newsworthy was slowly revised. Per columnist Karen Tumulty, a former White House correspondent at The Washington Post: “When he speaks, journalists must take note. Those on the social media sidelines who urge that news organizations boycott the briefing room are simply wrong. The real question is how to report what a president says when it is disconnected from reality.”
Stop carrying the briefings live, many advised. That’s a start. Only CSPAN need stay focused on that lectern.
Trump’s war on the “disgusting and corrupt” media, those “enemies of the people,” came close to breaking the institution. It took months for news outlets — from The New York Times to cable TV — to use the word “lies” in rigorous coverage. It took as long for correspondents in the White House press room to learn to back each other up, to hammer away in tandem. When they did, it was productive. April Ryan, Jonathan Karl, Weijia Jiang and Yamiche Alcindor were stars. At least they limited the disinformation.
It wasn’t until June 2017 that The New York Times published what it called “the definitive list of Trump’s lies,” (updated and still growing). And The Washington Post has logged 20,000 false and misleading statements — so far — in its Fact Checker’s database. Before that, most media outlets shied away from labeling the exaggerations and obfuscations as blatant falsehoods.
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Commentators asked when would Republicans find their spines and stand up to Trump? As if it might happen any day. By August 2017, when hundreds of white supremacists and neo-Nazis descended on Charlottesville for a “unite the right” rally, the bewilderment expressed by the experts and analysts was stunning. It was as if the media never saw the extremism of Trump’s followers coming. By extension, the extremism of the modern GOP was continually treated as surprising by the too-polite media.
Before Trump’s final national TV debate, some in the media predicted a “new tone” that, of course, never materialized. He may have kept himself from raving, but “new tone” was a stretch.
Credit the investigative reporters deployed to study Trump’s finances, his Hatch Act violations, his taxes, his medical condition, his dealings with Russia and China and more. They did better than the White House correspondents trying to cover the briefings, sitting through alarming and disrespectful blasts of misinformation.
The daily bulletins and alerts only allowed Trump more airspace. His focus remained TV ratings and crowd size. The serial departures from his inner circle — Michael Flynn, Sean Spicer, Omarosa Manigault, Reince Priebus, Fiona Hill, McGahn, Tillerson, Conway, Bolton, etc. — confirmed his lack of interest in the daily briefing book. Confederate flags flying at his rallies were treated as routine.
On the plus side, Brian Stelter breathlessly kept track of the media on CNN, NYU Professor Jay Rosen monitored journalists’ failings on PressThink. Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic exposed Trump’s view of veterans as “suckers” and “losers.” The former Republicans of the Lincoln Project posted immediate and well-crafted responses. Online and on billboards in Times Square and, this weekend, on barges near Mar-a-Lago, they went where the mainstream media dared not go.
Casualties of the era include satire and “SNL,” which tried but couldn’t compete with the real-life crazy. Other entertainers rose to meet the times including Stephen Colbert, Sarah Cooper and, yes, Borat (Sasha Baron Cohen).
Hannity couldn’t save Trump. Jared and Ivanka couldn’t save Trump. Roger Stone, Rudy Giuliani, Mike Pence and Kayleigh McEnany enabled and egged him on. A parade of generals and others in the crew of not-ready-for-primetime players took turns on the national stage but couldn’t rein in Trump.
In the homestretch of what feels like the longest four years of our lives, let’s hope the media get the final call right and dig relentlessly to trace (or prevent?) any malfeasance around the vote count.
Joanne Ostrow is a recovering television and media critic who lives in Denver.
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