In the year since Donald Trump was elected president, the national news media has congratulated itself on a new golden age of accountability journalism.
And it’s true in many ways. The scoops have been relentless, the digging intense, the results important.
But in another crucial way, the reality-based press has failed.
Too often, it has succumbed to the chaos of covering Trump, who lies and blusters and distracts at every turn.
Of course, given the differences among news organizations, generalizing is a fraught exercise. Nonetheless, each news cycle is an exhausting, confusing blast of conflicting claims, fact-checking, reactions and outrage.
How big was the Inauguration Day crowd? What contact did Michael Flynn have with Russians? Why was James B. Comey fired? Is Puerto Rico being ignored after the hurricane? Did Trump insult a Gold Star widow when he telephoned her?
Trump drives the news, all day and every day, a human fire hose of hyperbolic tweets, insults, oversimplification and bragging.
Keeping track of it is hard enough. Making sense of it almost impossible.
“There’s a lot of he said/she said, so I believe maybe half of what I hear,” said Shannon Heald, one of the many outside-the-Beltway voters I’ve talked to about the news media.
A registered nurse who lives in Chautauqua County in western New York, Heald told me she sometimes tunes out the whole confusing mess.
I’ve heard other news consumers complain about the protective amnesia that sets in — “Trump Brain,” as some call it. They blame it on the relentless cascade of information.
Believing half of what the media tells you — and either tuning out or forgetting the rest — doesn’t sound like a golden age of anything.
“I don’t think we’ve figured out how to deal with the Trump noise machine,” said Daniel Dale, a Canadian who covers Washington for the Toronto Star, which gives him both an insider’s and outsider’s perspective.
“It’s hard to prioritize,” Dale told me. “The balance may be out of whack.”
And then there’s the huge influence of Fox News, which early last week was discussing hamburger emoji as the rest of the national media was reporting the indictments of Trump associates.
My colleague Monica Hesse — after writing about the sexual-harassment scandal sweeping the nation — fielded calls last month from several readers who said they had never heard of the famous “Access Hollywood” video on which Trump bragged about grabbing women by their genitals.
When there’s no agreed-upon reality — no Walter Cronkite as the most trusted man in America — we’re all in trouble.
This feeling of mistrust and disagreement on facts is backed up by public opinion polls: One reported last month that 46 percent of Americans believe the news media simply makes things up about Trump.
The president has been sowing those seeds of mistrust for many months, and cultivates them daily with extra-strength fertilizer.
Reporters “have so-called sources that, in my opinion, don’t exist,” Trump told Lou Dobbs of Fox Business recently. “They just ― they make it up. It is so dishonest. It is so fake.”
Of course, that’s not true. Reporters for legitimate news organizations do not make things up. Those few reporters who fabricate sources get fired and are driven out of the business.
News organizations have tried to push back with mottos and ad campaigns cropping up like mushrooms: CBS touts “Real News.” CNN trotted out “Facts First.” And the New York Times offered “The Truth is More Important Than Ever.”
They’ve struggled with whether to label Trump’s falsehoods as lies, and then sometimes made long lists of them.
These efforts are valiant, but they are pen knives up against machine guns.
One of the casualties of our shiny-object, tweet-chasing journalism is the relative lack of focus on matters of policy.
Last month, for example, as the news media obsessed for days over Trump’s phone call to the Gold Star widow Myeshia Johnson — Was Gen. John Kelly lying about Rep. Frederica S. Wilson? Is it inappropriate to question a four-star general? — Congress voted to take away a major consumer protection.
That didn’t get ignored, exactly; it did get drowned out.
There’s a basic problem here. The old ways just don’t work in the new environment.
“If nothing the president says can be trusted, reporting what the president says becomes absurd,” wrote New York University professor Jay Rosen. This runs up against the journalistic code: to respect the voters’ choice, to respect the office of the presidency and to respect what they do for a living.
And so, Rosen notes, journalists normalize. They report the lies, but they search for ways to “tell the good news about Trump” to balance that.
Which is why we have had round after round this past year of supposed “pivots” and “this was the moment when Trump became presidential.” There was no more embarrassing example than the president’s showy bombing of Syria in April, when the cable news pundits fell all over themselves to praise Trump’s gravitas.
Just after the election last year, I wrote a column urging journalists to scrutinize — not normalize — this new president.
As it turns out, we’ve done plenty of both.
There’s been great accountability journalism, but a very poor signal-to-noise ratio.
Citizens are left with a confusing, chaotic picture — one that many doubt is true, and many others have decided to block out.
That isn’t good enough.
As we enter Year Two of Trump’s presidency, it’s time to build on the successes and bear down, hard, on remedying the failures.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan