Donald Trump’s venomous attacks on the press—as an enemy of the people, purveyors of fake news, a failing institution—have taken their toll. Journalists are denounced at political rallies, trolled on social media, and subjected to racist and misogynistic taunts. Such assaults, together with the unforgiving financial climate in which they operate, have made journalists feel under siege like never before.
One result has been the development of a siege mentality. As they mobilize to defend themselves, have journalists lost their capacity for self-analysis and self-criticism? Self-acclaim more often seems the rule. National news organizations have adopted grand slogans like “Democracy dies in darkness” (The Washington Post) and “The truth demands our attention” (The New York Times). Top journalism watchdogs—the Columbia Journalism Review, WNYC’s On the Media, CNN’s Reliable Sources—rarely take on the elite press. Last year, the Times eliminated the position of public editor; this year, the four-part Showtime series The Fourth Estate lionized the paper, portraying its editors and reporters as unfailingly dedicated and idealistic and dismissing its critics as silly and self-serving.
In fact, the Times, the Post, and other top news organizations have done excellent work in documenting the outrages of the Trump administration and the damage it has done to the body politic. The exposure of Tom Price’s use of private jets as secretary of health and human services; the chronicling of the regulatory rollback at the Environmental Protection Agency under the recently departed Scott Pruitt; the reports on the separation of migrant children from their parents and the other cruelties perpetrated by federal immigration authorities; the cascade of revelations about contacts and possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia; the unrelenting scrutiny of Trump’s promises to “drain the swamp”—all exemplify the press’s aggressive coverage of a singularly divisive, xenophobic, mendacious, and volatile president. In many ways, the press has become the main check on Trump, holding him accountable at a time when Congress is paralyzed, Republicans are cowed, and Democrats are fractured. The media skewering he took after his awful performance at the summit in Helsinki with Vladimir Putin is the latest example.
Yet even as news organizations perform this valuable function, they have shown some serious weaknesses, including bias, insularity, groupthink, and condescension, which have provided ammunition to Trump and his supporters as they seek to discredit the press. More important, the news media have kept their audiences poorly informed about some important realities in the country. With Trump causing ever more havoc—from initiating trade wars and instituting travel bans to interning migrants and insulting our allies—and with the fruits of the Mueller investigation beginning to appear, this might seem an inopportune time to challenge the media’s performance. But unless some corrective action is taken, the same shock and dismay that coursed through newsrooms in November 2016 could occur again in 2020.