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.
Prior to Trump’s election, the press was frequently criticized for its embrace of “he said/she said” journalism and the false sense of balance it imparted. Thankfully, this approach has been jettisoned in the Trump era, freeing journalists to forcefully call out the president’s falsifications and misrepresentations. But has the balance perhaps tipped too far in the opposite direction? A news organization like the Times derives its reputation by delivering the news “without fear or favor,” but sometimes there seems to be too much favor.
In reporting on Trump, for example, the paper often uses such tendentious words as “swagger,” “brag,” “boast,” “tirade,” “rant,” and—a particular Times favorite—“bluster.” A President Who Peddles Bluster Quietly Revives His Banter, ran a July 15, 2017, headline. Amid Bluster, White House Ponders Next Step, declared another on September 23, 2017. An article in May 2018 about Trump’s speech to the graduating class of the Naval Academy was headlined: Navy Officers Saluted With Bluster and Big Numbers. According to the article itself, Trump spent much of the address touting his efforts to increase the military budget and expand the armed forces. The headline would have been more professional—and informative—had it stuck to that fact, as the online headline actually did.
But the bias runs deeper than just headlines. On June 23, the Times ran a story contrasting the policies of the NBA and the NFL for dealing with player protests during the national anthem. To explain the NBA’s more lenient stance, the Times cited the greater star power of basketball players. According to the article, after the president withdrew an invitation to the champion Golden State Warriors to visit the White House because the team’s record-setting point guard, Stephen Curry, said he didn’t want to go, Trump “was met head on by basketball’s biggest star, LeBron James, who called him a bum. Other prominent players spoke out, too. The president slinked away, the way a bully does when faced with unexpected resistance.” Does such opinionizing belong in a news article?
Around the same time, the paper ran a story headlined Italy’s Economy Was Humming Nicely. Then Came Trump. According to the story, the Italian economy had been seeing brisk growth until Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, putting at risk some large Italian contracts, and imposed tariffs that could make steel more expensive, further endangering growth. But the Italian economy had been stagnant for years due to political paralysis, a massive national debt, and a banking sector hobbled by bad loans; though it has finally begun to rebound, major structural problems remain. While the Times article did mention the paralysis, it held Trump mostly responsible, something few Italian economists would do.
No less striking than the negativity of the Trump coverage has been its volume. On June 9—the day after a press conference that Trump held before leaving for the G-7 meeting in Canada—the Times devoted the entire top half of its front page to the president, along with all or parts of six inside pages. On some days, The Washington Post has a dozen or more stories about Trump and Washington politics, compared with just one or two about the rest of the country. When White House communications director Hope Hicks resigned, the press spent days pondering the implications of this second-tier figure’s departure. When Trump waited 48 hours to post a tweet criticizing the Red Hen restaurant for refusing service to press secretary Sarah Sanders, the Times ran a detailed analysis of what the delay said about the president’s opinion of her.
Such articles reflect the “Politico effect.” Since its launch more than 10 years ago, Politico has popularized a style of reporting that is (as Joe Pompeo observed in Vanity Fair) rapid-fire, fine-grained, gossip-filled, obsessed with who’s winning, and consumed by palace intrigues. “Scoop artists” are prized above all else. Among the Politico reporters who have gone on to work at other top national news organizations are Maggie Haberman, Glenn Thrush, Alexander Burns, Jonathan Martin, and Ken Vogel (now at the Times); Josh Dawsey (now at the Post); Manu Raju, Dylan Byers, and Hadas Gold (CNN); Tara Palmeri (ABC); and Gregg Birnbaum (NBC). Covering Trump has brought many White House reporters fame, with speaking fees in the five figures, Twitter followers in the six figures, and regular appearances on television.
The appetite of cable-news networks for Trump experts is so great that they have signed many reporters to exclusive deals. As Steven Perlberg reported in BuzzFeed, “print reporters—used to workmanlike life behind the scenes…have been cast as celebrities of #TheResistance.” The starting TV rate for reporters is between $30,000 and $50,000 a year; top reporters get $50,000 to $90,000; some big-name pros earn as much as $250,000. Appearing on TV magnifies these reporters’ influence and access to the White House. That, in turn, enhances their ability to get inside information, which further increases their TV desirability, creating a self-feeding loop that keeps the media Trump machine whirring and humming.
Seymour Hersh—one of the nation’s most celebrated investigative journalists—has expressed dismay about the workings of that machine. Speaking to On the Media, he cited a hypothetical Times reporter as an example: “I’m in The New York Times—I get a tip on a story…put it online for the Times, then go on MSNBC to talk about it…. A lot of tips and a lot of secondhand stuff is being run as serious stories, even in the good newspapers.” The Trump coverage, he said, “just doesn’t end…. I look at the cable news and I just think, ‘Have we really come to this?’”
Russian journalists have been similarly baffled by how their country is covered in the United States. Last summer, The New Yorker’s Joshua Yaffa asked more than half a dozen independent Russian journalists to assess the US coverage of Putin, Russia, and possible Russian interference in the American election. All of them said they were “bemused, frustrated, or disappointed.” One complained that the US press had made Putin “look much smarter than he is, as if he operates from some master plan.” In fact, this journalist added, “there is no plan—it’s chaos.” Over and over, the Russian journalists told Yaffa that “the U.S. media, in its reporting of the possible Russia ties of Trump associates,” veered “toward trafficking in the conspiracy theories that define so much of Russian coverage of the United States.” Elena Chernenko, who heads the foreign desk at Kommersant, tartly noted that “[t]he way the American press writes about the topic, it’s like they’ve lost their heads.”
The tone for the American media’s coverage of Trump was set two days after the election, when The New York Review of Books published a piece by Masha Gessen on its website titled Autocracy: Rules for Survival. Trump, Gessen declared, “is the first candidate in memory who ran not for president but for autocrat—and won.” Her first rule—“Believe the autocrat”—has been cited repeatedly ever since.
In February 2017, Susan Glasser published a front-page piece in the Times’ “Sunday Review” opinion section titled Our Putin. “Don’t worry too much about whether Trump and the Russian leader are working together,” advised the subhead. “Worry about what they have in common.” That same month, Timothy Snyder came out with On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century, a book (expanded from a Facebook post) in which he observed that “Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism.” Earlier this year, Madeleine Albright expanded on that theme in Fascism: A Warning, while Cass Sunstein edited an essay collection titled Can It Happen Here? Authoritarianism in America, the general answer to which was “yes.”
Andrew Sullivan, reviewing that book and another Sunstein volume (Impeachment: A Citizen’s Guide) in the Times Book Review, compared Trump and his movement to Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hungary’s right-wing Fidesz party. Though Trump “is not about to initiate a coup, or suspend elections or become a dictator,” his authoritarianism is likely to follow their models: “The dismemberment of a public discourse centered on objective truth is a key first step,” Sullivan wrote, “fomented by unceasing dissemination of outright lies from the very top, metabolized by tribal social media, ever more extreme talk radio and what is essentially a state propaganda channel, Fox News.” Next comes “the neutering of the courts,” with Trump already “well on his way to (constitutionally) establishing a federal judiciary whose most important feature will be reliable assent to executive power. Congress itself has far less approval than Trump; its inability to do anything but further bankrupt the country, enrich the oligarchy and sabotage many Americans’ health care leaves an aching void filled by…a president who repeatedly insists that ‘I am the only one who matters.’”
Had Sullivan published something like that in Turkey, he might have been arrested. Currently, some 70 journalists are in prison there, and most independent newspapers have been closed or bullied into silence. In addition, more than 100,000 Turkish officials and civil servants have been dismissed; at least 2,200 judges and prosecutors have been jailed pending investigation; and 11,000 teachers have been suspended. The repeated characterization of Trump, by Sullivan and others in the national media, as a full-blown fascist, an autocrat, a Putin, a Mussolini, or a Hitler itself refutes those claims. So, too, do the marches in the streets, the rallies on campuses, the grassroots activism, the filing of lawsuits, the bitterly contested midterm elections, and all the other signs of a fully engaged civil society.
Roger Berkowitz, the director of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College, which is dedicated to promoting Arendt’s legacy and ideas, became so exasperated with the facile way people have used her writings that he recently warned about the danger of “seeing fascism everywhere”: The “outbreak of civil unrest in the United States,” he noted, “is a good indication that the country is not fertile ground for fascism.”
In offering such bloated comparisons, America’s intellectual class has excused itself from the hard work of analyzing and explaining the peculiar and protean nature of Trump’s populism. It’s a strange mix of economic nationalism and cultural nativism, deregulatory zeal and protectionist impulses, common-man fanfare and plutocratic pomp, patriotic support for the military and isolationist antipathy to interventionism, inflammatory demagoguery, raucous rallies, unapologetic vulgarity, and racist inflections. Grappling with this stew, journalists and other members of the educated elite often seem at a loss.
In their rush to discredit all things associated with Trump, the media missed the potential historic significance of his summit with the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un in Singapore. Certainly Trump’s performance was open to criticism on many counts, including his failure to press Kim on his government’s brutality and the lack of details about any possible denuclearization agreement. Even so, the meeting represented a step back from the brink of war and could open the way to an end of hostilities on the Korean Peninsula. It was applauded by South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who told Trump in a phone conversation that it had “laid a great foundation for peace”; by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who commended the “courage and determination” of the two leaders; and by UN Secretary General António Guterres, who called it “an important milestone in the advancement of sustainable peace and the complete and verifiable denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula.”
The US press, however, was almost unanimously critical. Typical was On the Media’s Bob Garfield, who said that Trump had “spontaneously and unilaterally cancelled the military exercises that ensure readiness for regional security, always…conscious of the lenses and the lights and loving it all—ad libs, pronouncements, ceremonies, self-congratulation. In short, just another day covering Trump, only much farther away and at a far higher cost—all to document a moment of Trump diplomacy that would have been unnecessary if Trump himself hadn’t tweeted us into nuclear confrontation with a ruthless dictator.”
The derisive reference to Trump’s unilateral cancellation of military exercises is especially revealing. The temporary suspension of the scheduled joint exercises in South Korea seemed not only an understandable move from a diplomatic standpoint but also a welcome break from the hair-trigger readiness on the peninsula. Yet most American journalists rushed to condemn it. In an editorial headlined No More Concessions, for instance, The Washington Post chastised Trump for making this “gift”: “With backing from China and Russia, which seek to diminish U.S. strategic standing in Asia, North Korea has long sought an end to the exercises—and until Tuesday, this and previous U.S. administrations had flatly rejected the idea. Now, Mr. Trump has adopted it—and, remarkably, used Pyongyang’s language in describing the ‘war games’ as ‘provocative.’” The idea that Trump was adopting North Korea’s language by calling the exercises “provocative” was repeated over and over by American journalists, as if directed by a central committee.
The United States maintains nearly 800 military bases and other installations in more than 70 countries and territories—more than Britain, France, and Russia combined. That so modest a step as the temporary suspension of the exercises in South Korea met such broad condemnation can at least partly be explained by the fact that Trump was its author. (Of course, the negotiations with North Korea might go nowhere—in which case the exercises could resume.)
No precinct of American journalism rings more loudly and monotonously with denunciations of Trump than the nation’s opinion pages. At the Times, one can choose from among Paul Krugman (A Quisling and His Enablers), Gail Collins (Stupid Trump Tricks), Maureen Dowd (Trapped in Trump’s Brain), Timothy Egan (Trump’s Sellout of American Heritage), David Leonhardt (Trump Tries to Destroy the West), Frank Bruni (President Trump’s Perversion of Leadership), Michelle Goldberg (The Plot Against America), and, in a class by himself, Charles Blow. Since the start of the year, Blow has devoted 36 of 42 columns to Trump, many making the same points over and over again. (Trump, Treasonous Traitor was the headline on one of his most recent.) It would be good to see these columnists go out in the field more and test their ideas on the ground. I’d like to read Blow talking with opponents of immigration, Krugman interviewing factory workers fed up with NAFTA, and Goldberg speaking with evangelicals who support Trump.
In a bid to diversify its opinion pages, The Washington Post has added Gary Abernathy, the editor of The Times-Gazette in Hillsboro, Ohio. The Times-Gazette was one of a handful of papers that endorsed Trump, and twice a month Abernathy offers Post readers a view from southern Ohio. For the most part, though, the paper’s opinion pages are as monochromatic as the Times’, with traditional conservatives like Jennifer Rubin, Michael Gerson, and George Will outdoing even the liberals in their excoriation of Trump. (The Wall Street Journal is just as partisan and monotonous, but in a rightward direction.)
Based mostly in New York and Washington, these columnists sometimes write off entire sections of the population. For example, in a column headlined Obama Was Right: He Came Too Early, the Post’s Dana Milbank declared that Trump is “leading the backlash to the Obama years and is seeking to extend white dominion as long as possible, with attempts to stem immigration, to suppress minority voting and to deter minority census participation.” These “are the death throes of white hegemony. And they are ugly,” Milbank continued, citing “innumerable studies and regression analyses” that showed “that the main predictor of support for Trump is racial anxiety—far more than economic anxiety.” The “outcome of the struggle—fading white hegemony—is inevitable.”
Attributing Trump’s victory to a rear-guard effort to prolong white domination seems both one-dimensional and short-sighted. Thomas B. Edsall, writing in the Times in March, cited recent studies of the electorate by both the Pew Research Center and the Center for American Progress that found that white, working-class voters constituted a much larger share of the 2016 electorate than exit polls had indicated. For Democrats, Edsall observed, these studies “suggest that because the noncollege white vote remains highly significant, the party and its candidates need to prevent any further erosion in this constituency that went so strongly for Trump.”
Two issues were especially critical—immigration and trade. On the former, Edsall quoted William Galston of the Brookings Institution: “Denouncing citizens concerned about immigration as bigots ameliorates neither the substance nor the politics of the problem.” On trade, Galston noted that nearly two-thirds of working-class whites consider trade deals harmful on the grounds that they send jobs overseas and drive down wages. Overall, he observed, non-college-educated white workers “are experiencing a pervasive sense of vulnerability.” To be competitive in the Midwest in 2020, Edsall concluded, Democrats have to do a better job of addressing this vulnerability.
Since the election, journalists have worked hard to report on these matters, but their perception has sometimes been clouded by their antipathy to the president. Even manufacturing has become suspect in the age of Trump. In March, for example, NPR featured an interview with Danielle Kurtzleben, a contributor to its website, about how Trump’s policies on trade and manufacturing constituted an exercise in identity politics. Trump’s “whole political persona,” Kurtzleben said, “is about nostalgia, right? ‘Make America Great Again.’” He’s “a very backward-looking guy,” harking back “to this era—the forties, the fifties, the sixties, and the seventies—when manufacturing employment was on the upswing.” Looking back to those decades “isn’t just about…manufacturing” but also “a time when a particular group of Americans, white Americans, and white men, were really on top.”
In fact, about 30 percent of all workers in manufacturing are women, 10 percent are African Americans, and about 17 percent are Latinos. Black workers were especially hard-hit by the loss of jobs in manufacturing and in the auto industry during the 2008 recession. Under Obama, the government’s efforts to rescue the auto industry and boost manufacturing received generally favorable coverage; under Trump, those efforts have sometimes been met with disdain. With Trump’s erratic tariffs policy unlikely to provide relief to these beleaguered communities, there’s a need for a more effective response, but the latent discomfort with blue-collar America suggested by these examples shows how journalists continue to struggle in reporting on class.
More generally, condescension toward the less educated and less cultured has become a fixture of liberal commentary and satire. During the 2016 campaign, I enjoyed reading Andy Borowitz’s sly put-downs in The New Yorker of Trump and his supporters; however, after the election, I came to think that the joke was partly on us liberals, and that Borowitz might take an occasional poke at our cluelessness about what was happening in the rest of the country. Instead, he has continued to train his ridicule on the unwashed multitudes. A May 30 piece headlined Trump Addresses Rally of Ambien Users began as follows: “Donald J. Trump held a rally in Nashville on Tuesday night and addressed his most ardent supporters, people who take the sleep medication known as Ambien”—a reference to Roseanne Barr, who claimed she was “Ambien tweeting” when she made a racist comment about former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett. On late-night TV, meanwhile, the nonstop jeering of Trump by Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee, John Oliver, and Saturday Night Live has reinforced the belief among his supporters that the media are monolithically and hopelessly arrayed against them.
The prevalence of such repetitive partisan fare has a simple explanation: It’s good for business. Both the Times and the Post have benefited from the much-publicized “Trump bump” with a surge in digital subscribers. And with subscribers displacing advertisers as the main source of revenue for these papers, they are increasingly influential in determining what appears in them. As Times media columnist Jim Rutenberg observed in The Fourth Estate, “We’re in a mode right now: What do the readers want? We just want to give them what they want.”
Those who fail to do so must be prepared to face the readers’ wrath, as Nicholas Kristof has periodically discovered. One of the few Times columnists who regularly reports from the field, Kristof in April 2017 wrote about voters in Oklahoma who continued to support Trump even after learning that he wanted to cut public programs that had helped them. The reaction among readers was venomous. “I absolutely despise these people,” one woman tweeted. “Truly the worst of humanity. To hell with every one of them.” Another: “ALL Trump voters are racist and deplorable. They’ll never vote Democratic. We should never pander to the Trumpites, we’re not a party for racists.”
Such vitriol, Kristof wrote, seems “as misplaced as the support for Trump from struggling Oklahomans. I’m afraid that Trump’s craziness is proving infectious, making Democrats crazy with rage that actually impedes a progressive agenda.” Among the reasons that working-class Oklahomans cited for sticking with Trump: not only their opposition to abortion and support for gun rights, but also “the mockery of Democrats who deride them as ignorant bumpkins. The vilification of these voters is a gift to Trump.” Nothing he had written since the election, Kristof continued, had sparked more anger from readers “than my periodic assertions that Trump voters are human, too.” (Needless to say, plenty of ugly mail comes from the right as well.) While urging his readers to stand up to Trump and resist his initiatives, Kristof cautioned them to “remember that social progress means winning over voters in fly-over country, and that it’s difficult to recruit voters whom you’re simultaneously castigating as despicable, bigoted imbeciles.” The nation’s opinion writers, however, seem less interested in persuading others than in feeding the faithful.
The most irredeemable outpost of the national media is cable news. In the past, Fox News stood out for the nakedness of its partisanship and the purity of its ideology; now, both MSNBC and CNN are mirror versions of it, tailoring their programming to the demands of their Trump-loathing audiences. With their noxious talking heads, irritating breaking-news flashes, nonstop commercials (20 or more minutes out of every 60 on CNN), performative White House correspondents, paucity of reporting, and constant drumbeat of Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, watching these networks is a demoralizing and soul-sapping experience.
The one cable show I try to watch regularly is MSNBC’s Morning Joe—because it’s both livelier than most programs and more revealing of the current state of the news media. On most days, there’s at least some discussion of books and ideas; the usual pundits are joined by historians, diplomats, economists, and the occasional philosopher. Unfortunately, the cast is drawn from a very narrow sliver of society. In addition to hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski and Washington anchor Willie Geist, the regulars include Steven Rattner, a Wall Street investor (and former Times journalist); Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations; political commentator Mike Barnicle; the Post’s David Ignatius and Eugene Robinson; the Times’ Nicholas Confessore; the historian and journalist Jon Meacham; and the historian Michael Beschloss. They are mostly older white men residing in the Amtrak corridor.
The conversation is no less uniform. To get a sense of the thinking of the Eastern establishment, this is the place to go. Over weeks of viewing, I heard Michael McFaul, the former ambassador to Russia, declare that Putin’s actions are even worse than those of his predecessors in the Soviet Union’s final decades; Madeleine Albright warn that we’re on the road to fascism; Confessore attribute Trump’s support to anxiety over America’s disappearing white majority; White House reporter Peter Alexander remark that, “for this president, words don’t really mean much”; and Beschloss say that while Richard Nixon lied occasionally, the lying today in Washington is constant. (In fact, Nixon lied about his role in scuttling the 1968 peace talks with North Vietnam, his knowledge of the Watergate break-in, his payment of hush money to cover up that crime, the secret bombing of Cambodia, the CIA’s efforts to destabilize the government of Salvador Allende, and much, much more.) On the show, there are constant references to World War II, America’s role in liberating Europe, our unwavering commitment to democracy and freedom, and our longtime willingness to serve as the protector of the postwar global order.
That order, however, is undergoing a major transformation. With China, Russia, India, and the European Union emerging as new power centers, American influence is steadily declining. As Parag Khanna, a public-policy scholar in Singapore, observed in a January 2018 piece in Politico: “Trump, like Obama before him, is really just an accessory to what has been happening for at least the past quarter century: the rise of a truly multipolar world.” The global system “is underpinned by more powerful forces than either the whims of America’s president or even the country’s enormous military and economic weight.” Due to its unique geography and political history, Khanna continued, the United States “is probably the most self-absorbed country on the planet—and it’s been hard for American leaders to adjust to a world in which the U.S. is one star in the constellation and not the North Star of the entire sky.”
The same is true for the American press. Trump’s rise is part of an international right-wing populist wave that needs to be not only decried and condemned but also dissected and understood; resistance must be rooted in wisdom. Watching Morning Joe, I’m struck by how little curiosity its panelists show about the changes taking place outside the studio. There’s little recognition of the tremendous harm inflicted by the 2008 financial crisis, or of the many millions around the world who continue to feel disserved and displaced by the global capitalist system. And given the show’s proximity to the epicenter of that system, it’s no surprise that it rarely acknowledges Wall Street’s role in producing the disruptive forces that helped propel Trump to victory.
Our national newspapers have been similarly remiss. Journalists, while energetically exposing the venality, greed, and shady dealings of figures like Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner, and Ivanka Trump, have paid little attention to the activities of financial titans like BlackRock’s Laurence Fink, Elliott Management’s Paul Singer, Citadel’s Kenneth Griffin, Third Point’s Daniel Loeb, and Tudor Investment’s Paul Tudor Jones. While diligently revealing the money-grubbing practices of the Trump Organization, the press has been mostly silent about the operations of Blackstone, the Carlyle Group, Apollo Management, and other private-equity firms whose mergers, acquisitions, and “restructurings” have contributed to so many factory closings, layoffs, and outsourcings. Goldman Sachs, which was widely reviled as a “vampire squid” after the financial crisis, has regained its status as a respected member of the financial community, with the Times running personality-centered accounts of the competition to replace CEO Lloyd Blankfein. (The Next Goldman Chief Could Be a Banker Who Moonlights as a D.J., announced the headline over one article.) While journalists have creditably covered the efforts by Republicans to weaken the Dodd-Frank Act, they rarely discuss how the country’s big banks operate and whether they actually benefit the US economy.
In the end, Trump is both the product and the servant of an entrenched system—one that news organizations generally shrink from challenging. Why is that? Because writing about the way things really work would endanger journalists’ access to sources? Because it would provoke an outcry from powerful people? Because it wouldn’t produce enough traffic? Or is it a result of the “Trump effect”? The preoccupation with the president has pushed aside many urgent stories, not the least of which are the economic and political realities that propelled his rise and that, if not fully covered and addressed, could prolong his stay in office.