To merely make it through the day with one’s sanity intact is no small task during Donald Trump’s presidency. There are so many moving targets, and they proliferate so quickly, that it’s all but impossible to maintain any kind of equilibrium between outrages.
The phenomenon I find most difficult to stomach is Trump’s genius for upside-down attacks on the media. CNN spent the last two years sucking up to him, giving him billions of dollars’ worth of free airtime and hiring “analysts” whom Trump was paying to lie for him—and he nonetheless accuses the network of spreading “fake news” on those rare occasions when it actually reports real news. To Trump, it’s the real news that is “fake news,” and vice versa. Every day is Upside-Down Day.
Mainstream-media institutions have no idea how to deal with this situation. They know how to treat a president “respectfully,” saying things like he “misspoke” or, in extreme cases, “asserted, while failing to provide evidence,” when presidents lie. But they don’t know how to cover a pathological liar who has convinced himself of the truth of those lies and who is able to get millions of gullible Americans to believe them too. Trump may be Frankenstein’s creation, but the media long ago lost control of their monster.
Among the institutions trying to find their footing in our newly dystopian democracy, none is more influential than The New York Times. And none does a better job, or even comes close. The Times was among the first newspapers to call the president’s lies by their proper name, and much of what we know about Trump’s various machinations is due to its energetic reporting. But significant problems remain. They will not be easily fixed, since they’re tied to the paper’s DNA. The Washington bureau is a particular problem: Its reporters and editors see themselves as part of the country’s ruling establishment, along with politicians, lobbyists, and various hangers-on. They can’t shake the old habits that continually allow the Times’s pages to be manipulated by the liars and charlatans who now run our government.
Last month, the paper’s public editor, Liz Spayd, published a thumb-sucker about the proper use of anonymous sources. In it, she quoted “Peter Baker, an accomplished veteran of White House reporting,” acknowledging the Washington bureau’s overuse of them. That same day, however, the Times ran a story co-authored by Baker and Maggie Haberman in which an anonymous White House source was invited to defend how the replacement of former national-security adviser Michael Flynn is being handled. This is simply wrong. Whistle-blowing, on occasion, requires anonymity. Flacks should be required to use their names.