To understand how pained a mainstream national news outlet is to question the motives and intentions of a person, consider the case of Brian Williams.

In 2015, after the then-NBC "Nightly News" anchor confessed to having "misremembered" an episode wherein he claimed to have been aboard U.S. aircraft downed by enemy fire in Iraq, the New York Times reported it as a "mistake" in his memory.

Not until eight days later did the paper render a judgment in its news pages that Williams had "lied."

That was then, and over a relatively minor controversy.

But at the height of the 2016 election, with stakes orders of magnitude higher, national news media cast aside that sober restraint. It freed itself. Or revealed itself, depending on whom you ask and, even more, which end of the coverage you're on.

On Sept. 16, though it hadn't been an issue in his campaign in any major or minor way, Republican Donald Trump admitted that President Obama was born in the U.S.

"President Obama was born in the United States — period," said Trump at his new hotel in Washington, D.C.

The New York Times, in a front page story the next day, reacted in a way nearly unheard of in modern day political news coverage.

In its headline, the paper said, "Trump Gives Up a Lie."

In 2015, after then-NBC "Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams confessed to having "misremembered" an episode wherein he claimed to have been aboard U.S. aircraft downed by enemy fire in Iraq, the New York Times reported it as a "mistake" in his memory. (AP Photo)

Throughout his story, Times reporter Michael Barbaro wrote as though he were finding personal closure in a particularly painful period of his life.

"It was never true, any of it," wrote Barbaro of Trump's questioning of Obama's birth place before his 2016 campaign. "Mr. Obama's citizenship was never in question. No credible evidence ever suggested otherwise. Yet it took Mr. Trump five years of dodging, winking and joking to surrender to reality, finally, on Friday, after a remarkable campaign of relentless deception that tried to undermine the legitimacy of the nation's first black president."

He said that Trump's "birther" claims were "an insidious, calculated calumny that sought to undo the embrace of an African-American president by the 69 million voters who elected him in 2008."

It was a stunning case of a news reporter openly sharing his views of a major-party presidential nominee in what is still the most precious piece of real estate in journalism: A1 of the Times.

It wasn't, however, the only case. Far from it.

What he said and what they heard

Throughout the 2016 campaign, journalists and whole news organizations made clear their feelings about the choice between Trump and Clinton.

In July, the Washington Post editorial board dubbed Trump "a unique threat to American democracy."

USA Today, which had a long-standing policy against endorsing candidates, decided that the 2016 election was the moment to shed its skin.

"In the 34-year history of USA Today," the paper said in late September, "the editorial board has never taken sides in the presidential race ... Because every presidential race is different, we revisit our no-endorsement policy every four years. We've never seen reason to alter our approach. Until now."

The paper declared Trump "unfit for the presidency."

Dana Milbank, a liberal columnist for the Washington Post, acknowledged just days ahead of the election that the media are biased against Trump. The "problem," however, was that the media "didn't show bias against Trump earlier and more often."

He added, "In an ordinary presidential campaign, press neutrality is essential. But in Trump we have somebody who has threatened democracy ..."

What exactly Trump did to threaten democracy has never been fully explained by the political media, other than with vague references to his policy proposals, which are often vague in themselves.

What exactly Trump did to threaten democracy has never been fully explained by the political media, other than with vague references to his policy proposals, which are often vague in themselves. (AP Photo)

He had made inflammatory and ambiguous remarks, such as when he said, "We have to take out their families" with regard to terrorists, a shocking statement, though made in the context of what he said is a "politically correct war" the U.S. is fighting against the Islamic State.

Among the other things Trump has said that were dubbed by the news media a "threat" or "danger" were: to "build a wall" on the Mexican border to ebb the flow of incoming illegal immigrants; "open up the libel laws" so that it might be easier to win a lawsuit against false media reports; prosecute Clinton for an unspecified crime; and ban Muslims from entering the U.S.

In separate interviews, Trump has decried Obama's use of executive orders. He said in January that the "good thing" about the ones issued by Obama is how easily they are reversed, and also said he would "use them much better" if he becomes president.

But it struck veteran journalist Carl Bernstein in October that the candidate is "setting himself up as the head of ... a real neo-fascist movement."

The Washington Post ran a column headlined, "This is how fascism comes to America."

The New York Times editorial board said in September that Trump's views were rooted in "dangerous impulse."

Salena Zito, a New York Post columnist and former politics reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review (who starts as a columnist for the Washington Examiner this week), said it became clear throughout the election that though Trump was often speaking in metaphors and imagery to capture a mood shared by millions of voters, the national media were taking it too literally.

"Because our job as reporters is, 'He said this,' we'll fact check it and write a story as, 'Here's what it means for Trump to say all Muslims are banned,'" Zito said in an interview. "People who support him look at it and say, 'No, no, no, he doesn't mean all Muslims, he means the bad ones.' And that's how they digest it. And that makes it incredibly difficult for us to cover the race both accurately and yet see it through the eyes of a voter."

That dynamic was fully showcased in July when Trump, during a press conference, attempted to draw attention to Clinton's 30,000-plus deleted emails from her tenure as head of the State Department.

"Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing," Trump said, referring to hackers in Russia who are suspected of illegally obtaining and publishing internal emails from the Democratic National Committee.

The embarrassing DNC emails revealed that the committee had conspired against Clinton's primary opponent Bernie Sanders. Trump, at least to his supporters, was simply tying one email scandal to another for his political gain.

But reports saw a more sinister meaning in what Trump said in those three seconds out of the hour-long press conference.

"Donald Trump invited Russia to hack Hillary Clinton's emails on Wednesday, asking one of America's longstanding geopolitical adversaries to find 'the 30,000 emails that are missing' from the personal server she used during her time as secretary of state," read Politico's report.

The New York Times said, "Donald J. Trump said on Wednesday that he hoped Russian intelligence services had successfully hacked Hillary Clinton's email, and encouraged them to publish whatever they may have stolen, essentially urging a foreign adversary to conduct cyberespionage against a former secretary of state."

The New York Times editorial board said in September that Trump's views were rooted in "dangerous impulse." (AP Photo)

A similar episode played out the following month, when Trump, during a rally in North Carolina, warned supporters that Clinton would appoint federal judges hostile to conservative ideals.

"If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks," he said, adding, "Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don't know."

Trump said on Twitter that night that he was making a point about Clinton's "anti-Second Amendment stance" and that gun-rights supporters "must organize and get out the vote to save our Constitution!"

But rather than reporting it as an ambiguous comment with several possible meanings, journalists decided Trump was calling for Clinton to be assassinated.

"Donald J. Trump ... appeared to raise the possibility that gun rights supporters could take matters into their own hands if Hillary Clinton is elected president and appoints judges who favor stricter gun control measures," read the Times' report.

Rolling Stone magazine's headline blared, "Donald Trump Hints at Hillary Clinton Assassination."

Rebecca Berg, a politics reporter for RealClearPolitics, said it's not necessarily up to the media to decipher when a candidate's words should be taken for face value.

"Beyond style, words are important in a campaign," she said in an interview. "We've had instances where [Trump's] aides, his advisers have suggested in interviews that his words shouldn't be taken literally. While they are in their right to argue that — we can include that in our coverage — it's not the press' responsibility necessarily to decide what a candidate meant by what they said. It's our job to take it seriously, contrary to some of the opinions we've heard from Trump's campaign in particular."

But doesn't that precisely contradict what the media are doing? Isn't the press actually deciding what Trump meant rather than reporting what he said when it asserts that he invited Russia to hack Clinton's computer, or that he suggested she be assassinated? Time and again the media take a vague statement from Trump and assert that it unambiguously means the worst thing possible.

Another such episode followed the third presidential debate in October.

It's standard campaign politics for a candidate to show optimism about his or her chances of success and never to acknowledge the possibility of defeat in a coming election.

But at the debate, moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump to account for repeatedly claiming that the election process is "rigged."

Rather than asking Trump directly to clarify what he meant by "rigged," however, he asked Trump to concede that he may lose the election and to state that he would accept such an outcome.

"I'm not looking at anything now. I'll look at it at the time," Trump said, deflecting the question outright.

At the third presidential debate, moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump to account for repeatedly claiming that the election process is "rigged." (AP Photo)

Wallace pressed the question, saying that there's "a tradition" in the U.S. that "at the end of the campaign, the loser concedes to the winner ..."

Trump deflected again.

"What I'm saying is that I will tell you at the time," he said. "I'll keep you in suspense, OK?"

Despite what effectively amounted to a non-answer to a question that implied Trump would lose the race, NPR summed up the incident as: "[T]he stunning moment that will stand out ... is the GOP nominee's statement that he won't necessarily accept the results of the election on Nov. 8."

The Associated Press said Trump had "threaten[ed] to upend a basic pillar of American democracy ..."

The day after the debate, Trump said at a campaign rally that he would in fact "accept a clear election result."

Still, Milbank wrote a week later that all journalists should "condemn a candidate's reluctance to accept a bedrock principle of democracy."

Balance abandoned

There may be no principle more dear to political journalists than balance, the idea that every story has at least two sides and each should get its day in court.

This election changed that, perhaps permanently.

New York Times media columnist Jim Rutenberg acknowledged that 2016 and Trump's candidacy led many reporters to abandon the norm.

"It may not always seem fair to Mr. Trump or his supporters," he said in August. "But journalism shouldn't measure itself against any one campaign's definition of fairness. It is journalism's job to be true to the readers and viewers, and true to the facts, in a way that will stand up to history's judgment. To do anything less would be untenable."

He added, "If you view a Trump presidency as something that's potentially dangerous, then your reporting is going to reflect that. You would move closer than you've ever been to being oppositional."

A recent study by the right-leaning Media Research Center analyzed network news coverage of both Trump and Clinton. Of the Trump coverage, 91 percent of it was negative in tone. For Clinton, 79 percent was negative and the amount of airtime her campaign received came in at about half of what Trump's campaign got.

The discrepancy in tone was felt on cable news, as well.

Mika Brzezinski, co-host of MSNBC's "Morning Joe" program, a popular show among political journalists, erupted in late August over Trump's campaign.

"Look at this conversation," she said as the show's panelists were discussing a speech from Trump on immigration. "We're talking about nothing. We're talking about a guy who means nothing, who says nothing, who has no opinions. We're talking about a speech that will probably end up being something that he doesn't mean and we're pretending to try and translate strategy out of it."

Mika Brzezinski, co-host of MSNBC's "Morning Joe" program, a popular show among political journalists, erupted in late August over Trump's campaign. (Screen shot)

Such commentary was common throughout the campaign, though "Morning Joe" received intense criticism for being, critics charged, excessively accommodating and friendly to Trump in the primaries.

"The cable news channels were tougher on Trump in the general, no doubt about it," said one veteran cable news producer, who requested anonymity so he could speak frankly.

The producer said that during the primary, Trump received far more favorable coverage — his mega-rallies were often aired from start to finish, particularly on CNN — but that it changed in the general election. "Trump was the same candidate in the general that he was in the primary," the producer said. "The media may have wanted him to change and adjust to the general race, but that pivot never came."

From the summer into the fall, new controversies continued to swirl around Clinton — FBI Director James Comey said in July she was "extremely careless" in her handling of government information as secretary of state and WikiLeaks email hacks showed her campaign chair using the phrase "needy Latinos" — but it was Trump who journalists said deserved extra scrutiny.

In September, Politico media critic Jack Shafer wrote that "Trump has proven himself to be a grifter, a liar and Russian strongman's sycophant, and there's no way for a reporter delving into it to 'balance' that equation."

At his new D.C. hotel where Trump said in September that he would make a statement regarding the "birther" issue, cable news swarmed to air the event live.

It mostly featured short speeches from veterans who were supporting Trump and at the very end, Trump announced that he believed Obama was born in the U.S.

He took no questions, leaving the press offended, despite the candidate having far outweighed Clinton in terms of the number and length of press conferences he had held over the past year.

"With public trust in the media at an abysmal low, it's time — long past time — for TV news outlets to stop playing the stooge for Trump," wrote Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan after the "birther" event. "The paradox, of course, is that Trump expresses nothing but contempt for the very people in the media who have made his candidacy viable.

"Even if the turning point comes far too late, when billions of dollars of free media have promoted a candidacy like never before, it must come now. Indignation in the immediate moment should turn to soul-searching in the boardroom and the newsroom. This can't happen again."

On CNN, John King said he believed the media had been "played." They wouldn't allow themselves to be "played" again, if it meant giving Trump unfiltered coverage.

In late October, Trump held a grand opening event at his D.C. hotel where he touted the project as "under budget and ahead of schedule" and said it was how he would approach governing the country.

On CNN, John King said he believed the media had been "played." (AP Photo)

None of the cable channels carried it live in the same way as the "birther" event.

Seeming proud of herself as a responsible journalist, CNN's Kate Bolduan told viewers as it was happening that if Trump "makes any campaign news, we'll bring it to you." Her show moved on to other news.

Fact-check, please

Many political journalists defended the media's more aggressive stance on Trump as a corrective to the candidate's affinity for controversy and his penchant for spreading inaccurate information.

CNN started fact-checking Trump in on-screen graphics.

One of them in August took Trump to task for calling Obama "the founder" of the Islamic State, an obvious rhetorical flourish used to fault the president for recent terror attacks in the U.S. and abroad.

"Trump calls Obama founder of ISIS (He's not)," the graphic said.

Jake Tapper, anchor of CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday show, said that in this election, such measures became necessary for both candidates and that it's why his network paired up with the website Factcheck.org.

"I didn't know that there were going to be so many statements [in the campaign] that were made that were just demonstrably false that I would do not just on our Factcheck.org partnership online but also on air," he told the Washington Examiner.

Tapper devoted fact-check segments to Clinton as well, including her claim that the FBI deemed her "truthful" in her public comments about her private email server. (It didn't.)

"The amount of just sheer falsehood dropped all over the place, all the time this year on both sides is pretty stunning," Tapper said.

Jake Tapper, anchor of CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday show, said that in this election, such measures became necessary for both candidates and that it's why his network paired up with the website Factcheck.org. (Screen shot)

But it's also true that Trump's statements were confronted far more often than Clinton's were.

In just 2016, the website FactCheck.org, a regular resource for political journalists, has 18 pages worth of results addressing Trump's claims throughout the campaign. There are 12 pages of results for Clinton.

Turning the page

It's unclear if 2016 changed the way the media will cover future national elections. Each presidential campaign is unique and it could be decades before America ever sees anything again like a celebrity businessman with no political experience matched up against a woman who has spent more than a generation in politics.

But this year, perhaps more than any other year, did reveal the media's collective mindset. Journalists saw it as their responsibility to step out of their normal roles.

"[W]hen you see some reporters," Tapper said, "it sometimes feels like a pile-on. When you read Twitter feeds of reporters — it's not necessarily reflected in their work, in their stories — but if you just read their Twitter feeds, it can sometimes feel like a pile-on and I think that's something that people should think more about going forward."

A study on federal campaign finance filings released in October by the Center for Public Integrity showed that donations to Clinton and Trump by self-identified "journalists" totaled nearly $400,000. Of that, 96 percent of it went to Clinton.

At the same time, the public's distrust, once again, hit a record low.

Since Gallup began asking the public in 1997 "how much trust and confidence" they have in the news media, the number has dropped from a high of 55 percent in 1999 to just 32 percent in 2016.