It is the worst of times; it is the worst of times. Forgive me, Dickensians, but this is a press column. Never have we faced the kinds of threats to the media’s role in protecting and defending our democracy that we face today.
For starters, we have two branches of government—the president and Congress—that view the press as little more than a nuisance, fit only to be manipulated for propaganda purposes when that’s possible and demonized and degraded when not. A radicalized Republican Party— encouraged by phony-baloney “both sides do it” reporting—is committed to denying reality and treating with contempt any truthful journalism its leaders find unhelpful. The Trump campaign doubled—nay, quadrupled—down on these tactics, employing physical and legal threats when it didn’t get its way. It banned press organizations it didn’t like, and had reporters arrested for trying to cover campaign events. The candidate himself repeatedly threatened to sue news organizations over stories that displeased him. He also egged on his violent, fanatical supporters to attack reporters—who were literally kept in stockades during his rallies. His campaign manager even attacked a female reporter while being filmed on video. Many of these same journalists were subjected to online threats and harassment by racist and anti-Semitic Trump supporters, which naturally served as a warning to everyone else.
As president-elect, Trump’s tactics have continued apace. He has repeatedly lied on Twitter and attacked news organizations that report honestly about his actions—thus inspiring new threats and harassment. He has dispensed with long-standing practices meant to keep the citizenry informed, such as providing for pool reporting, and hints darkly at further changes to come.
Many media organizations are doing their best to live up to their constitutional and professional responsibilities. But they face a number of obstacles, beginning with the fact that they have no experience covering an American president who doesn’t even pretend to care about truth. Mainstream journalists are used to collaborating with politicians to tell the truth a little bit at a time. Lies are accepted when they fit the master narrative, but they need to hover within an acceptable range of plausibility. At the very least, they require the pretense of evidence, however specious it might be.
American journalists simply don’t know how to report on a president who is also a compulsive liar. Wall Street Journal editor in chief Gerard Baker recently admitted as much when he explained to NBC’s Chuck Todd that by accusing a politician of having “lied,” journalists “run the risk that you look like…you’re not being objective.” Trump’s lie in question was the alleged celebrations by New Jersey Muslims on 9/11. Baker’s own newspaper had disproved this dangerous and potentially violence-inspiring calumny. And yet, like many news executives, he placed the appearance of “objectivity”—itself a self-serving fiction—above his responsibility to truth. (To make matters worse, Baker’s paper, which still boasts more than 2 million subscribers despite owner Rupert Murdoch’s debasement of its once-reliable news reporting, has undertaken a new advertising campaign that brags that Journal readers alone saw Trump’s election coming.)