An essential part of the news media's job is to hold those with privilege and power accountable. The press in America are supposed to have a professionally adversarial relationship with politicians. But, in the era of President Trump, some big news organizations and high-profile commentators have slid into the confused notion that their role is to be the vanguard of a "Resistance" to the duly elected executive.
The result, aside from the damage their work is causing to the fabric of our democracy, is bad journalism. And this feeds the argument that the media form "the opposition party."
CNN's weeklong feud with Trump is the clear and profoundly unfortunate example of this phenomenon, of a news outlet deciding to war with Trump rather than do its job.
It started when Trump astonishingly and embarrassingly tweeted out a video from his professional wrestling days in which the face of the man he slams to the ground had been replaced by CNN's logo. Spreading this image was a long way beneath the dignity of the presidential office. But for all that, it was not an assault on the First Amendment, which was the way CNN decided absurdly to treat it. It was no more inciting or provocative than a political cartoon.
The cable network sicced its investigative reporting team on the anonymous Internet troll who originally posted the video on a message board. And CNN's article included a threat that it would name the fellow if he misbehaved. This was a thuggish use of journalistic resources that confirmed the image so many Trump supporters have of the media as out-of-control elites using their immense power to ruin the lives of anyone with the "wrong" politics.
This is the main reason why Trump is so easily able to stir hatred towards the press, whom he calls "the enemies of the American people." He is, in this, pushing at an open door. A large portion of the public already believes it. And they're not entirely wrong. It is beyond plausible doubt that elements of the news media are indeed straying beyond their proper role in an effort to undermine the elected government of the country.
CNN followed that gem with a series of inaccurate attacks on Trump, some of which, ironically, focused on Trump's poor record of accuracy.
On July 4, CNN tried to taunt Trump with an Abraham Lincoln quotation: "Let the people know the facts, and the country will be safe." The problem is that CNN provided no attribution, and this quotation seems to be an urban legend, a falsehood.
The cable network's hits continued. When Trump spoke in Poland, CNN's White House correspondent blasted as "'fake news" Trump's claim that it was not 17 intelligence agencies but only three or four which had concluded that Russia meddled in the election. Trump was, though, right and CNN wrong in this debate. The number 17 is false — the New York Times corrected its inaccurate reporting on this — recently, yet CNN called Trump "fake news" for being correct.
Then a CNN reporter tweeted out "OHMYGOD" repeatedly while publicizing a brief video falsely suggesting Poland's first lady snubbed Trump going for a handshake.
What's the common thread here? Not once were CNN's journalists holding Trump accountable. As with the shouted and contentious questions at televised news conferences, CNN's behavior — they are not alone in this — was mostly showy resistance to an unpopular president. A few reporters have profited in the past year by getting in high-profile fights with Trump, and at times it seems CNN is trying to do that on a channel-wide scale. Doubtless it is good for ratings, but it is bad for journalism.
CNN's reporters, editors, and executives would do well to take the advice of one of their stars, Jake Tapper, who last month said, "It's easy to get swept up into the stance of opposition." Tapper was receiving an award at the Los Angeles Press Club, and added, "[W]e're not the resistance, we're not the opposition, we're here to tell the truth, report the facts, regardless of whom those facts favor one way or the other."
Americans distrust and often fear those with power. Some journalists need to learn anew that that includes us, the media. We need to do everything in our power to earn the public's trust. Last week was a bad week on that score. Our industry is damaged, and it should stop inflicting such wounds on itself.