Reporters Have Learned Nothing, Even While Being Attacked Every Day

by Neil H. Buchanan

Is the American press corps -- the very same reporters and editors whom Donald Trump has called "the enemy of the American people" who are supposedly inventing "fake news" to bring him down -- going to doom us all?  Is the wording of that question apocalyptic enough for you?  Even dialing it back a few dozen notches, it definitely is scary and depressing to see just how badly the press is doing its job in the Trump era.

In my column here on Dorf on Law yesterday, I criticized a specific aspect of the press's performance over the past year or so.  The news articles -- not editorials or op-eds -- that the major news outlets publish have fallen into a completely predictable pattern, offering desultory horse-race coverage of political issues that somehow manages both to be content-free yet also to reinforce a whole series of tropes that reporters use as crutches.

Perhaps the most puzzling of these tropes is the way that supposedly neutral and nonpartisan political reporting somehow manages always to make it seem that things are going wrong for the Democrats.  Even though Trump's polling numbers have for months meandered within a very narrow range that is historically terrible, it is Democrats who are portrayed as disorganized or worse.  If polling moves in the Republicans' favor, even by a little bit, we see breathless coverage of how things are worse for Democrats; but if the polls move in the opposite direction, the story is how Democrats cannot count on the good news continuing.

This is all in the context of a media environment that does not in any way seem consciously to favor Trump.  Republicans are wrong to complain that the press is against them, but there is certainly no reason to think that the major periodicals and non-Fox television outlets are actually trying to do the Republicans' bidding.  It is partially a matter of having been bullied into bending over backward to prove that they are not disfavoring Republicans, of course, but the pull of the conventional wisdom is turning out to be stronger than we might have ever feared.

Here, I want to explore a few ways in which the supposedly liberal press significantly assists the Trump/Republican narrative, beyond the horse-race reporting that I discussed in yesterday's post.  The bottom line is that reporters appear to have decided that nothing is different in Trump's America, and that they can therefore go back to doing things exactly as they have always done them.  This is both dangerous and irresponsible.

Although it now seems a distant memory, it was not even a month ago that the news cycle was being dominated by reactions to the White House Correspondents' Dinner, specifically the speech by the stand-up comedian Michelle Wolf.  As I wrote at the time, Wolf's remarks -- like Stephen Colbert's legendary speech at the same event in 2006 -- were not well received by the people in the room, for the simple reason that the people in the room were the targets of her biting comments.

What was depressing, however, was how quickly -- as in immediately -- the top-tier press joined hands with the Trump people to denounce Wolf as having been "inappropriate."  The chair of the correspondents' association wrote an obsequious apology the next day, and NYT reporter Maggie Haberman's completely inaccurate criticism of Wolf was joined by other elite reporters' tut-tutting responses.  Haberman's colleague Peter Baker, for example, lamented that the night had somehow been bad for journalism.

The person whom Wolf supposedly unfairly attacked was White House press flack Sarah Huckabee Sanders.  As quite a few people pointed out in reaction to the press's (and Republicans') pearl clutching, it was depressing in the extreme to see the people to whom Sanders has been shamelessly lying for the past year suddenly link arms with her because she supposedly had sat through a tough night with great dignity.

Did Sanders appreciate the support?  Perhaps on a personal level, but did it improve her relationship with reporters who were currying her favor, in a way that we can observe?  Has there been more transparency, less sneering at reporters' questions, direct engagement with legitimate inquiries, or even some simple honesty?  Please.

Within a couple of weeks of the big kerfuffle over Wolf, when the White House was in damage control after leaks about a staffer's tasteless joke about John McCain's imminent death from brain cancer, Sanders actually said this: "We have a respect for all Americans and that is what we try to put forward in everything we do, both in word and in action, focusing on doing things that help every American in this country, every single day."  This is the serial liar that the press rallied around, a person so disdainful of the news media that she says plainly disingenuous things like this to their faces and then snarls at them when they ask followup questions.

Long before the contrived controversy over Wolf, it was obvious that the press was trying to make Trump seem normal at every turn.  In March 2017, Trump's first speech to Congress -- a State of the Union-like address -- was greeted by the mainstream press with hosannas and garlands, and the moment was declared by more than one commentator as the time when Trump "became president" or some such rot.  Similarly, when Trump ordered missile strikes on Syria last year, the press treated the moment not as the strategy-starved grab for attention that it was but as evidence of presidential leadership.  I am not asking for negative coverage, just honest and skeptical coverage.

The worst part of this is that all of these toxic habits of the press's collective mind have been obvious for years, certainly long before Trump's rise a bit more than two years ago.  But when those habits were manipulated during the 2016 election in service of a press-hating autocrat, there was reason to think that maybe at least their own self-interest would lead news people to snap out of the lazy trance into which they had fallen starting in Ronald Reagan's presidency.

What habits am I talking about?  I found it interesting to go back and read the column that I wrote after the second presidential debate in October 2016.  As I explained there, I did not watch the debate while it was happening, choosing instead to read the live blog that the New York Times's four top political news reporters provided in reaction to the night's event.

My comments included:
"I saw in vivid relief an example of how political reporters think in real time, and more importantly how their particularly damaging type of groupthink happens.  And the lessons that I learned explain a lot about how the press's coverage of politics has become so distorted."
"Perhaps the best way to describe the experience is to say that, by the end, I was sure that Trump had had a great night.  When I later was able to get myself to watch the debate, I could not believe that I was watching the same thing that those reporters had been seeing.  (Fortunately, the vast majority of commentators and voters also thought that Trump's performance was horrible.)"
"I am not saying, in other words, that the reporters approved of Trump's dictatorial urges, but rather that their automatic response was to think, "How will this play politically?"  And their political lens is incredibly narrow, not even noticing whether a vow to end the rule of law might be politically explosive.  Instead, the response was very much about the trees and not the forest."
"The larger problem, as I noted after the first debate, is that the political reporters at The Times and elsewhere have decided that Trump's utterly absurd arguments about economics and international trade are winners.  ...  This bit of shared conventional wisdom among the reporters even came up during the live blogging on Sunday as well.  The reporters were impressed, somehow, by Trump's handling of the Clinton emails, and one wrote: 'Nailed it on emails the way he nailed it on trade last time. Just nailed it.'  Again, what is that guy watching, and what kind of grading curve is he using to say that Trump's comments are anything but lies and wishful thinking?"
That the ultimate consensus among all commentators and the public after that debate was in line with my views and not with those Times reporters' is only part of my point.  It was the clubby insider chat, the mean-girl sneering about Hillary Clinton, and the apparent belief that their job was to make the election seem more interesting and closer than it had any right to be that made it obvious that the top level of political journalism in this country had gone seriously astray.

Again, this is not a concern that only I have noticed.  Another Times political reporter, Amy Chozick, wrote an op-ed a few months ago in which she described how devastating it was to realize how the press had been manipulated by Russia's influence campaign to hack the U.S. election.

Chozick expressed contrition for her part in the whole mess, which is to her credit.  But even if she has learned some lessons, apparently her colleagues (at The Times and elsewhere) have not.  One of those live-blogging reporters was none other than Maggie Haberman, the same person who quickly distorted Michelle Wolf's joke about Sarah Huckabee Sanders.  More than eighteen months after the election, about the only thing that has changed in the press's handling of political reporting is that they occasionally allow themselves to use the word "lie" to describe lies.  Everything else, it seems, has settled back into familiar laziness and hunger for "access."

I will close with an of-the-moment example.  Because of Russia's pro-Trump hacking of the election, many people (including me) have stated that Trump's election was illegitimate and that he would not have won without the assistance of those illegal activities.  Recently, former director of national intelligence James Clapper agreed, saying that "to me it exceeds logic and credulity that [Russia's activities] didn’t affect the election. And it’s my belief they actually turned it.”

How will the press handle this important statement?  Washington Post opinion columnist Greg Sargent points out that reporters have followed the White House's spin in saying that the official assessments did not say that the Russians actually turned the election, but they (unlike the White House) admit that the official assessment was not supposed to reach a conclusion on that.  But the standard dodge for news reporters is to say that we cannot possibly know what would have happened without Russian meddling, so why bother asking?

But we do this all the time.  We ask whether the economy would have recovered even without the Obama stimulus plan, for example, even though we cannot go back and run a real-time alternative reality without a stimulus.  And the evidence is overwhelming that the stimulus was stimulative.

Moreover, as Sargent puts it: 
"But allow me to point out that journalists regularly suggest, on an even flimsier basis, that this or that Hillary Clinton failing caused the outcome. Yet even asking whether Russian interference — or, say, James B. Comey’s 11th-hour intervention — might have been sufficient to swing a relative handful of votes is regularly greeted with knee-slapping ridicule, even though, as Brian Beutler has noted, every journalist knows that it is absolutely plausible."
In other words, we see all kinds of nonsense accepted as conventional wisdom, such as Clinton having lost because she supposedly did not visit Wisconsin when she should have.  That is very much an untestable statement of what would have happened had the facts been different, yet every news reporter seems perfectly capable of reporting that people have said that Clinton's purported errors were the difference.
 Note also that Sargent describes the attitude among reporters not by saying that they will not discuss such a question but that even to bring up the possibility that Trump's win was caused by the Russians "is regularly greeted with knee-slapping ridicule."  This is exactly what I described in my piece about the second presidential debate.  Not mere reticence or a refusal to take a position but rather an affirmative decision, based on insider conventional wisdom, that the assertion that Trump would have lost without Putin's help is unworthy of coverage.

This, as I noted above, goes far beyond the horse-race issues that I discussed yesterday.  This is a group of people who ought to have been better at their jobs all along and who, much more surprisingly, cannot break a lifetime of bad habits even in the face of the biggest threat to press freedoms (to say nothing of American democracy) that they have ever faced.  Will anything wake them up, ever?