Donald Trump at a news conference Tuesday where he raged against media coverage he saw as unfair. But it’s exactly the kind of coverage we need more of. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)
Media Columnist

How should the media cover the presidential candidates over the next five months?

Reporters and editors should “bend over backward” to be fair to Donald Trump, Alan Murray of Fortune said last week, echoing an admonition that the Wall Street Journal’s top editor, Gerard Baker, reportedly issued to his editorial staff.

Of course, a considerable amount of bending over already has taken place.

Media outlets have given the likely Republican presidential nominee something like $2 billion worth of free exposure and, in many cases, let him get away with blatant falsehoods — even about something as basic as whether he did or didn’t support the U.S. invasion of Iraq. (Trump says he clearly opposed it, but as Ben Smith of BuzzFeed noted, there’s evidence of just the opposite.) Or that President Obama wants to admit 250,000 Syrian refugees, when the real number is 10,000.

On those occasions when journalists have held Trump accountable — as with The Washington Post’s reporting on his claims of charitable donations or its revelations about Trump University — he has responded with insults and threats, as he did last week at a news conference. He was enraged by the notion that the media’s job is to hold candidates accountable on behalf of the public.

Fairness is of utmost importance, no doubt, whether the reporting is on Trump, Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. But what, exactly, does it mean in campaign coverage? It should mean keeping an open mind, not bringing preconceived ideas to one’s reporting, and listening seriously to candidates’ explanations.

It should never mean false equivalency, where equal time and emphasis are given to candidates or dissembling is allowed to go unchallenged. In fact, this perceived need to push for “fairness” for Trump — as if he has been mistreated or put at a disadvantage — baffles me. Trump gets far more media attention than other candidates, if only because he says such outrageous things, commanding the daily news cycle over and over.

News outlets ought to rethink the purpose of their campaign coverage. It’s not to be equally nice to all candidates. It’s to provide Americans with the hard information they need to decide who is fit to lead the country.

But that’s not the focus.

“It feels like the TV networks have decided that the reality show is the story,” said Richard Tofel, president of ProPublica, the investigative news organization. Meanwhile, he noted, Trump is the first candidate in the modern legal era to say that established press rights should be fundamentally changed.

Wayne Barrett, the investigative reporter who has been covering Trump for 40 years (and whose reporting brought about Trump’s first federal grand jury investigation) told me in an interview: “The great failing is not in print media. But the campaigns occur on the screen.”

In a new introduction to his 1992 book, “Trump: The Deals and the Downfall,” Barrett exposes the ugly heart of the problem: “News broadcasting and sports broadcasting are now indistinguishable, promoting the very games they cover, living by ratings alone.”

They are driven by a deep fear of losing access to one of the biggest ratings drivers of all time: Trump. And speaking of fairness, Barrett isn’t seeing much of that, anyway.

Many hard-hitting stories from the New York Times, The Washington Post, the Daily Beast and elsewhere have received little follow-up on TV — “not one minute of air time that I’ve seen” — but the slightest hint of a new angle on Hillary Clinton’s email practices can occupy most of a news cycle. (An exception was TV’s attention, last week, to complaints about Trump University.)

Jay Rosen, the New York University professor and author of the PressThink blog, is concerned about how this concept of fairness might play out. “Does it mean ‘we can’t take sides,’ or does it mean ‘let’s treat unequal things equally’?”

The latter, which he called “distortion toward the middle,” ought to be prevented, he said.

“This situation is kind of extreme and calls for creativity that news executives are reluctant to contemplate.”

And he offers this unassailable truth: “Rethinking fundamental assumptions is not a strength of the press, especially the political press and even more especially the campaign press.”

There have been encouraging moments: CNN’s Jake Tapper pushing Trump hard for clarity on an endorsement from former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. Fox’s Megyn Kelly (before she went all fan-girl) asking a searing question about Trump’s treatment of women in a Republican debate. The Times’s investigation into Trump’s hiring of foreign workers at his Florida club, Mar-a-Lago. The Post’s reporters pushing so hard for answers on Twitter about claimed charitable contributions to veterans that Trump found it necessary to hold a news conference.

We need much more of this in every medium. Every day, in every news cycle.

Rather than promoting the same treatment for each candidate, how about this: rigorous and sustained truth-telling in the public’s interest. Citizens deserve some fairness, too.

It’s time for tough follow-up questions, time for TV news to pick up on some of the hard-hitting reporting being done elsewhere, and maybe — radical notion alert! — it’s even time for news organizations to get together and prepare to defend themselves.

That won’t come naturally to these highly competitive outfits, but given the assault on press rights that surely would come with a Trump presidency, strength in numbers is a far better idea than providing even-handed, nonconfrontational coverage.

We’ve never seen a candidate like Trump before. Like all the candidates, he needs to be held accountable.

For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan