The Tempting of the Media
There are two common views among journalists about the fate of our profession under the presidency of Donald Trump. The first is that ours is an age of maximal danger for the freedom of the press, that Trump’s war on newspapers and networks will escalate from tweets to Erdoganian crackdowns, that truly independent journalism will be marginalized while the White House breeds a lap dog press.
The second is that this will be a golden age for the media, offering reporters a chance to shake free from access journalism and source-greasing and actually do their job in full, while finding in a Trump-fearing country the audience for serious investigative journalism that many believed had vanished with the internet.
As the press eases into covering President Trump, however, I have a different worry. Mainstream journalism in this strange era may be freer than the fearful anticipate, but not actually better as the optimists expect. Instead, the press may be tempted toward — and richly rewarded for — a kind of hysterical oppositionalism, a mirroring of Trump’s own tabloid style and disregard for truth.
This mirroring is a broad danger, applying to more institutions than the press. Trump comes to power as a destroyer of norms, a flouter of conventions, and everyone will be tempted to join the carnival — to escalate when he escalates, to radicalize whenever he turns authoritarian. The cycle of norm-breaking that began with Robert Bork’s defeated nomination or Newt Gingrich’s ascent (depending on your politics) may escalate on both sides of the aisle. Left-wing protest movements will be tempted more easily toward both absurdity and violence. Deep state institutions will be tempted to become more restive and politicized. Politicians will be tempted, like Marco Rubio talking about Trump’s manhood on the campaign trail, into surrendering their dignity in an effort to be at home in Trumpland.
But the coverage of the Trump transition has made me particularly concerned for how the media will evolve. A certain amount of hysteria is normal whenever Republicans take power, and some of the coverage — like the suggestions that Betsy DeVos is about to turn U.S. public education into Calvin’s Geneva, say — has been almost reassuring in its familiarity. Perhaps there have been more sneering headlines and poorly-sourced claims about Trump cabinet appointees than about past Republican administrations, but I remember the “theocracy” panic of 2004 and I don’t want to judge the current freak-out too harshly.
In places where Trump is clearly abnormal, however, the media has become abnormally credulous as well. There is no question, for instance, that Trump’s racist forays and racist supporters deserve attention; from the start this has been one of the most troubling aspects of the Trump phenomenon. But since November there has been a kind of service journalism for alarmism on this issue, in which lavish attention for far-fringe white nationalists who wear button-down shirts and host D.C. press conferences is paired with reports on a Trump-fueled hate crime wave whose scope may be overstated and whose most vivid illustrations have a way of being less than true.
Then there are Trumpworld’s possible ties to Russia and the possible Russian attempts to exert influence on his behalf. This is an incredibly serious business, but it has not produced incredibly serious journalism. Instead there has been a rush to publicize all manner of dubious claims, from the midsummer reports of a secret server supposedly linking to Trump Tower and a Russian bank to more recent stories exaggerating Russia’s penetration of the U.S. power grid and accusing a variety of normal left-wing and right-wing websites of being Kremlin pawns.
This pattern peaked (so far) with BuzzFeed’s decision to dump a dossier of completely unverified rumors about Trump’s Russian connections on the internet, with a shrugging, “decide for yourself if it’s true” note accompanying the release. That dossier may well include some dark truths, but the way they were delivered to American news readers was effectively self-discrediting, more likely to help Trump brush aside legitimate allegations than to pin him or his circle to the wall.
The problem is that all of this alarmist journalism, no less than the really fake news churned out by pro-Trump trolls and cynics, has commercial imperatives behind it. There is a large and frightened readership looking for confirmation of its darkest fears in every “unprecedented” (but often, not really) move that Trump and his administration make. These readers trust liberal-leaning mainstream outlets to deliver them the truth. But their clicks and shares will reward those outlets when they make rumor seem like certainty, or make the truth more alarming than it is.
The danger for the established press, then, is the same danger facing other institutions in our republic: that while believing themselves to be nobly resisting Trump, they end up imitating him.
Such imitation will inspire reader loyalty and passion — up to a point. But beyond that point it’s more likely to polarize than to persuade, which means it often does a demagogue’s work for him.
Fellow journalists, don’t do it.