A few hours later, I was scrambling, like almost everyone else. Hands shaking, I managed to write a column condemning the media’s epic failure leading up to the election; after it went online, the word filtered down from the boss, Executive Editor Martin Baron, that I should write a second one about how the press must cover Trump in the months and years ahead.
That column wasn’t especially coherent or polished, but in it I conveyed a couple of decent ideas. One was that we must meet the moment: “Journalists are going to have to be better — stronger, more courageous, stiffer-spined — than they’ve ever been.” The other, something I’ve often reflected on, was the closing line — the kicker, as we journalists call it. I concluded that the press would not be able to avert disaster by itself: “We’re going to need some heroes.”
I’m still not quite sure what I meant. As I said, my hands were shaking. But it resonates for me anyway.
Something else from that night comes to mind. After deadline (or maybe between deadlines), reporters and editors stood around, trying to process Trump’s shocking win. One young Black editor had tears in her eyes, not saying much but clearly aware — rightly so — that Trump’s ascendancy was an existential threat, not just to her but to something much larger. She understood, at a visceral and an intellectual level, that a misogynist con artist who sympathized with white supremacists was about to do a whole lot of damage.
An older staffer (White, male and a former foreign correspondent) tried to counter her reaction by offering a bit of perspective — predicting, also rightly, that we were all about to have what every journalist yearns for: a “great story” to cover.
Now we know how it has played out. Now we know how we did.
We know whether tears were more appropriate than journalistic enthusiasm. We know whether our spines were stiff enough, and whether some heroes came along to help in pulling democracy back from the brink.
Since last week’s outrageous and deadly attack on the Capitol, incited by Trump, the gloves have come off. The language that journalists feel free to use is far more direct, far less mired in cautious respect for the highest office in the land.
As Roy Peter Clark wrote a few days ago, in a dissection of a front-page Washington Post report that used words like “saboteurs” and “attempted coup” to describe the MAGA marauders: “I am astonished . . . by an epiphany: Language that pushes the boundaries of traditional neutrality can be used in a responsible news report.”
Among mainstream news organizations, The Post has done as well as or better than any other in reporting the Trump story directly, skillfully and well. And many others have risen admirably to the challenge: the New York Times with its revelations about Trump’s finances; Vice News with its 2017 documentary on the white supremacists whom Trump would not convincingly condemn as they marched in Charlottesville; ProPublica with its audio recording of sobbing children at a Texas facility run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection where immigrant children — taken from their parents because of the administration’s inhumane policies — were housed.
I mentioned this reporting and other excellent work in an analysis in November just after Joe Biden defeated Trump, concluding that while the press fell dismayingly short in myriad ways, it was essential in giving democracy a chance to survive.
And non-journalistic heroes did emerge — the kind I was hoping for. Those who shored up our teetering republic were American patriots guided by a moral compass and a commitment to the truth, not by party loyalty or cynical careerism. A few names among many: Marie Yovanovitch, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, Christopher Krebs, Stacey Abrams, Mitt Romney, Anthony S. Fauci, the late Elijah E. Cummings, the late John Lewis, Emmet Sullivan (and other judges who stuck to facts and law). And thousands of election officials of both parties who worked resolutely, often under threat.
Trump leaves the nation in tatters and disgraced on the world stage. Because of his bungled response, more than 375,000 Americans have died of covid-19, and the pandemic — “it’s going to disappear,” he lied again in October — rages on.
What’s happened in the journalism sphere is complicated. Tragically, crucial sources of local news have withered, while the toxic media of the radical right thrives, even as Trump rewards one of its bigwigs, Rush Limbaugh, with a tainted Medal of Freedom.
The reality-based national press, though flawed and stuck for too long in outdated conventions, has managed to do its job — with dedication and with bravery, given the dangers created by Trump’s antipathy to what he calls “the enemy of the people.”
And that is a damn good thing because, without that digging and that truth-telling, we would be utterly lost.
In the wee hours of Nov. 9, 2016, I made the brief walk home, from the Post newsroom to my apartment, only a mile from the Capitol.
That couldn’t happen now. These days, because of covid, our newsroom has been empty for 10 months. And I would be more apprehensive now about stepping out into the darkness.
Yes, quite a memorable story we’ve covered.
As for my colleague’s tears? I’d call them prescient.
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