It was a cross between Poynter.org and “The Five.” Today at a journalism conference titled “Covering Trump” and organized by the Columbia Journalism Review, a Breitbart editor faced off against representatives of four news organizations that — well, let’s just say that their one-time leader is not now a top adviser to President Trump. John Carney, financial editor for Breitbart, asked his fellow panelists, “Do you think you have enough people who understand and sympathize with Trump’s worldview in your news organizations or do you think you are predominantly staffed by people who view Trump’s point of view as not just wrong but probably also evil?”
To which, New York Times Washington Bureau Chief Elisabeth Bumiller responded, “Do you have enough people in your organization who disagree with Trump’s point of view?”
Carney responded by citing the following story, which spoke of the imminent nomination of Andrew Puzder to serve as Trump’s labor secretary: “Trump Expected to Tap Labor Secretary Who Prefers Foreign Labor to American Workers.”
The back-and-forth — moderated by CJR’s Kyle Pope — was triggered by Bumiller’s account of how the New York Times’s Washington bureau has responded to the ascent of Trump. “In these tough times, we’re adding reporters,” said Bumiller. “I think what’s happened in the Washington bureau is this enormous sense of mission and people are energized. They are working like they’ve never worked before because suddenly everything is clear and our mission is to hold the administration accountable — cover the administration fairly and thoroughly but also hold it accountable.”
In no way was Carney going to allow those comments to go uncontested: “I have a question about this,” he said. “Because I think it’s extraordinary that the press sort of woke up after Donald Trump’s election to a moment of clarity about its job. I think that’s one of the things that actually people find alienating. It looks like and I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t true, perhaps not of anybody on this stage or maybe everybody except me, that … fundamentally most journalists don’t agree with the worldview of Donald Trump. They can’t hear the phrase economic nationalism without thinking that this is bad. They come from a, I would say, a globalist-secularist point of view and the idea of a president who uses the phrase ‘America First’ strikes them as disturbing. They like to come up with the idea that Trump is the closest analogy is McCarthy. In other words, let’s pick a demon out of the past and paint the president with that color.”
Panelist Jelani Cobb of the New Yorker interjected, “They had the same mentor.”
Very entertaining and illuminating chatter:
For a look at Carney’s imperative about having people who understand and sympathize with Trump, we needn’t think in terms of hypotheticals. CNN provides a fine test case. Once Trump started roaring in the primaries, CNN hired a number of contributors who both understand and highly sympathize with Trump’s ideology, such as it is. Jeffrey Lord, Kayleigh McEnany, Scottie Nell Hughes and several others were brought on to make sure that CNN’s airwaves properly represented the Republican front-runner.
We know the results. These folks have poisoned CNN transcripts with all manner of illogic, nonsense and hypocrisy in defense of Trump. The embarrassments have spread out beyond CNN content, too: Hughes said in a radio interview after the election,”There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts.” She’s no longer with CNN. And McEnany “interviewed” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an event that she kicked off by leading a cheer for DeVos.
Those examples matter, because the suggestion that Carney offers is troublesome for news organizations. President Trump’s No. 1 platform item — the thing on which he has been most consistent, most insistent — is contempt for the media. We needn’t here detail all the various things he has done to smear and delegitimize it. The implication is that media outlets seeking to hire Trump sympathizers must do business with people who favor — or at least make apologies for — reducing the credibility of news providers to the point that when they publish something damaging on Trump, no one believes them. How does that work?
In assessing the plea for understanding and sympathizing with Trump, Cobb said that there’s a big distinction between those two things. People are criticizing Trump precisely because they do understand him and his motives.
So let’s not pretend that filling the masthead with Trump-sympathizing voices is as facile as doing likewise for, say, the presidencies of Bill Clinton or George W. Bush. There’s a reason CNN found that its existing stable of commentators couldn’t be relied upon to defend candidate Donald Trump.
That said, there’s a great deal of merit to what the Columbia Journalism Review (with partners the Guardian and Reuters) did in this instance, which is to put opposing voices in small spaces. Carney blasted media outlets for proceeding with “selective credulity about false stories about Donald Trump” and cited, in part, the error of a Time magazine reporter about the bust of Martin Luther King Jr. allegedly being removed from the Oval Office in the initial moments of the Trump presidency. It wasn’t, in fact, removed; Time magazine corrected the mistake and apologized.
Brian Stelter, the CNN host of “Reliable Sources,” opined that Carney was “cherry-picking” a journalist’s “stupid” mistake. Carney pushed back by saying that “this fit in with journalists’ view of who Donald Trump is and therefore they were willing to believe” it. Trump backers have a point here — that MLK bust thing was more than just a stupid mistake.