Oh, how optimistic, naïve and ultimately foolish we were! When Donald Trump bulldozed his way through his first five weeks of his presidency, leaving wreckage in his wake, we knew the mainstream media couldn’t pretend this was business as usual. And they didn’t. And when Trump performed at his first presser as if he were, to put it charitably, deranged, we knew the media couldn’t pretend otherwise. And they didn’t. And when Trump decided to lash out at the mainstream media and declared them an “enemy of the people,” a characterization that even the reliably conservative John McCain thought contained a hint of dictatorship, we knew that the media, if only in self-defense, wouldn’t take that lying down. And they didn’t.
But here is what we should have known: the media scrutiny was only a temporary deviation from their norm. And something else. Though, as Todd Gitlin wrote so powerfully and eloquently in this space, we have a lot to fear from Trump’s media attacks, I think we have far more to fear from the media’s own customary cowardice. Trump won’t have to murder them. They will kill themselves. They already are in the process of doing so.
Since the election, the great media beast, which had performed with such servile lassitude for decades, had finally seemed to rouse itself from its stupor. It was one of the things that provided some small comfort for those of us who perceived Trump as an existential threat not only to civility, decency, common sense and truth, but to democracy itself. The press acted the way it was supposed to act: as a searchlight and a disinfectant. And, of course, it was the reason our new president was so exercised against them.
Well, the comfort didn’t last long — just until Trump’s appearance Tuesday before a joint session of Congress. We all know that it doesn’t take much to snooker the press. Alas, Donald Trump knew it too. Before last year’s debates, many of us predicted that if Trump could simply string two sentences together, the media would declare him the winner. His problem was that he couldn’t even manage that. But, to borrow a phrase that George W. Bush once applied to education — “the soft bigotry of low expectations” — when it comes to Republicans, the media always apply their own bigotry of “low expectations” and then somehow turn it into a win for the inept. If a candidate or, in this case, a president, exceeds those expectations by just a smidgen — “surprisingly presidential,” the ordinarily astute Washington Post pronounced afterward — the press gush and grovel. So all Trump had to do was take it down a notch, stay on the TelePrompTer, throw a few tiny bones to his antagonists and — voila! — the roaring lions of the press suddenly became cuddly kittens. It’s too easy.
If you ever needed an object lesson in media abdication, Tuesday’s speech analysis was it. When Trump began by condemning anti-Semitism after weeks of silence and after seemingly helping to incite a wave of national hatred, the media fawned. (Let me repeat that: A president condemns anti-Semitism and gets cheered for it. That is how far we have fallen.) When he said that the time had passed to fasten on “trivial fights” — this from the man who had only focused on the trivial — the media saw statesmanship. When he used the widow of dead Navy Seal William “Ryan” Owens as a prop, milking his death for applause, the media saw a great moment — “an emotional moment,” ABC called it, and CNN’s Van Jones said it was “one of the most extraordinary moments you have ever seen in American politics.” All sins were apparently washed away, no matter that on the same day he had accused former President Obama of leaking the Russian information to the press and picked up the “alt-right,” white nationalist theory that the attacks on Jewish cemeteries and centers were inflicted by his enemies. Some statesman.
The media response would be laughable if it weren’t also terrifying. Of course, Fox News thought Trump’s speech was the Gettysburg Address. Even Chris Wallace, who is supposed to be one of the few sane voices at that insane network, actually said this: “It was one of the best speeches in this setting I’ve ever heard anybody give.” On Trump’s alleged nemesis, CNN, Van Jones, a liberal, declared the speech the moment he became president. “Presidential” was the word that was tossed around the most, along with “optimistic.” Both The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times headed their coverage with that word.
On ABC, White House correspondent Jonathan Karl celebrated an “upbeat President Trump,” “right off the bat reaching out.” The other words we heard endlessly were “new tone” (“a softer and more measured tone,” said anchor Lester Holt Wednesday on the NBC Nightly News, while Kristen Welker said he was “striking a more positive tone”) and “pivot,” as in, he pivoted from being a reckless amateur to a president, though, in fairness, NBC also noted that Trump’s windy pronouncements needed to be subjected to a “reality check,” and had the temerity to challenge his assertion that the raid in which Owens died provided “large amounts of vital intelligence.” Citing 10 officials, Cynthia McFadden said it did no such thing.
Of course, we should have seen this capitulation coming. Trump can’t help himself from being who he is, and the media can’t help themselves from being who they are. The mainstream media have been so timid for so long, so unwilling to take on the right for fear of being accused of liberal bias, that they really don’t know how to behave otherwise. It was a wonderful interlude of media responsibility we had for a few weeks there, but it was an interlude and an anomaly, and even then, Trump’s dalliance with the Russians got 1/10,000 of the coverage that Hillary Clinton’s emails received, and, let me remind you, we are talking about a foreign enemy government hijacking our election.
The problem is not that the media are now normalizing Trump, serious as that is, but that their tendencies to do so are so deep, there is little hope they can ever perform as a real instrument of democracy. First, there is their fascination with style over substance, which was in full display on Tuesday. In the media, it is not what you say or even do, it is how you say it. I assume that this is so because substance is hard and style is easy, and the media almost always take the path of least resistance. Trump talked nice, and they fell for it.
Second, there is their tendency to create narratives — in this case: Trump, who was out of control, has now learned how to become a statesman. This is a much better story than the real one: that of a president who is temperamentally and ideologically unfit for office. The media love this stuff.
Third, there is their obsession with reverting to the mean — which we see not only in the false equivalencies the media seem intent on creating, but also in their timid retreat when they realize they may have acted too boldly. Trump hadn’t given them much of an opportunity to temper criticism with praise, and they were clearly looking for one. (How eager? Seth Meyers showed how often they had leapt to the same conclusion during the campaign.) Once they found it on Tuesday, they seized it with alacrity. Expect more.
Finally, there is the terror of engaging in warfare, even if warfare is the only way to preserve our democracy, as it is now. I suspect that a lot of journalists fear blurring the line between telling the truth and taking sides, and the Republicans have taken full advantage of that fear for years. No doubt Trump will too. If you call him out, you are picking on him, which is to lose your objectivity. And even if individual journalists were to screw their courage to the sticking post, it is highly unlikely that their employers, especially broadcast networks, would let them. You have to play it safe.
So Donald Trump has actually been right about one thing: the mainstream media are a farce. You can game them, as he has and will continue to do. It is best we realize that now. Trump may be his own worst enemy because some things are beyond the pale and must be reported as such. But Tuesday provided a vivid demonstration that we are in this all by ourselves. The media won’t come to America’s rescue. They don’t know how.