New year, new media? Good luck with that.
As the first full year of President Trump’s time in office wraps up, there’s absolutely no indication the national media want to do anything different, even if there’s every reason they should.
Out of the major newspapers, the Wall Street Journal’s opinion page stands alone in providing anything that even looks sort of like a reasonable perspective on the still-young White House.
The Washington Post, New York Times, and USA Today still refuse to employ a single columnist that won’t begin each piece with anything less than “Mr. Trump, you are a liar!”
CNN this year had to retract one story and significantly modify a second one (both were related to Trump and Russia) after it turned out the former wasn’t supported by any facts (otherwise often referred to as “fiction”) and the latter was inaccurate to the point of libel.
Brian Ross, with his apparent lifetime tenure at ABC News, was suspended in early December after he once again reported catastrophically wrong information about Trump and, of course, Russia.
These are the universal truths about the media in 2017:
1. Activism at news outlets is fine. In what the New York Times editorial page editor called an “experiment,” the paper used one of its Twitter accounts in November to urge its 650,000-plus followers to call Republican senators and push them to vote no against a GOP-backed tax bill. It’s not unusual for the opinion pages to take sides on an issue, but to spend a full day blasting out the office phone numbers of specific senators over one piece of legislation is new. The paper attempted to cover its activism by sending the tweets out from its “opinion” account, but the account represents the New York Times' commentary side, not a named individual or columnist.
CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta, who saved democracy when he challenged the administration’s immigration plan by quoting a cliche poem, said in a radio interview that the media need “a different kind of playbook” when it comes to covering Trump. Like an old lady who feels sassy ordering a Sex on the Beach, Acosta defined his new journalism rules as, “That means at times, you know, I bring a little attitude to what I do on a daily basis.” Acosta may be harmless on his own, but when the sea of media decide to rewrite the standards for covering a presidency, to assume an “attitude,” it’s time to accept that they’re no longer journalists. They’re activists.
2. Everything Trump says is “controversial,” even when it’s not. In September 2016, then-President Obama acknowledged that now-former NFL Quarterback Colin Kaepernick may be kneeling for the national anthem in earnest, but he said that Kaepernick should “listen to the pain that that may cause somebody who, for example, had a spouse or a child who was killed in combat.” It wasn’t controversial to stand up for the country’s most recognized symbol until Trump did it, at which point it became racist. The Washington Post’s liberal blogger Greg Sargent said Trump’s criticism of NFL players kneeling fit into a pattern of attacking “high-profile African Americans to feed his supporters' belief that the system is rigged for minorities.” The NFL is not an exclusively black league, and patriotism isn't racially divisive, but that’s a nuance that doesn’t feed a fake controversy instigated by reporters.
The New York Times this month published a list of what it called Trump’s “lies.” Included on that list was were several otherwise unmemorable quotes from Trump, including when he said in January that he thought he had been on Time magazine's cover “14 or 15 times,” “the all-time record in the history of Time magazine.” That’s the kind of comment that qualified as “demonstrably and substantially false,” so that the paper could accumulate a grand total of 103 “untruths” told by Trump over the course of 10 months. The list’s main author, David Leonhardt, was afterward invited on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” to talk about how deceptive Trump is. This is how the media manufacture a controversy, and then accuse Trump of starting controversy.
3. Willful ignorance isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. It’s possible to actually earn prestige in the national media, a field that formerly required an ongoing thirst for knowledge and understanding, by refusing to learn new things. In November of last year, New York Times columnist Charles Blow bragged that he refused to meet with then-President-elect Trump after the election, though he had come to the Times newsroom for an interview with staff. It’s more important for Blow that he stay ignorantly angry rather than learn anything that might change his mind from a face-to-face meeting.
And if there is information readily available that disrupts the media’s enduring suspicion that Trump is a closet klansmen, writers find it best to simply ignore it. In the October issue of The Atlantic, the journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates called Trump “the first white president” elected by “the white tribe.” Trump, despite being called a racist daily, outperformed 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney among both blacks and Hispanic voters by 2 percentage points each. When there’s doubt, the media ignore it.
These are the media’s axioms of 2017. They will be in the same in 2018 for one reason: Trump is still here.