Call it the revenge of the reporters over the pundits.
Tuesday night was a low point for “the media” — if such a multi-headed beast can be described in those two words — as cable-news talking heads gushed over President Trump’s address to Congress.
Will Oremus of Slate put it like this: Trump “managed to speak for an entire hour without sounding like an unhinged demagogue. For that, he was hailed by TV pundits across the spectrum who acted as though he’d just single-handedly defeated the Islamic State and restored the fortunes of the American middle class.”
On CNN, Van Jones’s assessment of Trump’s exploitation of Navy SEAL Ryan Owens’s death in a raid was especially memorable: “He became president of the United States in that moment. Period.” (Maybe he learned that construction from Sean Spicer’s assertions about the largest inaugural crowds ever. Period.)
But Jones, a liberal commentator, was far from alone. Trump had “pivoted.” He became “presidential.” His speech was “soaring” and “inspirational.”
Katy Tur of NBC, for one, was much more skeptical, pointing out that the raid in Yemen was not considered successful by Defense Department sources and that Trump had blamed Owens’s death earlier on the military brass. The fact checkers did their thing, and did it well. Not every news outlet felt the need to praise the president to the heavens.
But it was a bad few hours — an unfortunate departure for the news media, which has toughened up and developed something resembling a spine over the past few weeks. (CNN has done some of the best reporting in these weeks, and its Jake Tapper has been a standout interrogator.)
But as if to say that not all media are created equal, along came two blockbuster stories from two longtime rival newspapers.
First, on Wednesday evening, with an 8:01 news alert, the New York Times dropped its triple-byline blockbuster: that the Obama administration had scattered a trail of bread crumbs, evidently so that contacts between Trump’s associates and the Russians would not be lost to a coverup by the new administration.
Then, with a 9:04 p.m. news alert, The Washington Post published a shocker on the same general subject: that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had met with the Russian ambassador to the United States twice and failed to disclose that during his Senate confirmation hearings.
Because of dogged reporting, and to some extent on intelligence-community leaks that Trump has found so outrageous, both stories hit hard.
By morning, Democratic calls for Sessions to resign were being met by Republican calls for his recusal from any investigation. And Sessions, while insisting he did nothing wrong and was misunderstood, made his own statement that he would recuse himself as appropriate. (As Katherine Miller, politics editor of BuzzFeed, pointed out, it contained a non-sequitur: “I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false.”)
“When our business is at its best, it’s because of great reporting,” said Albert Hunt of Bloomberg View, who was a longtime Washington bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal and later of Bloomberg News. He added that the competition between the Times and The Post — “the two best newsrooms in the country” — reminds him of what happened during the Watergate era, except for the delivery mechanism: digital vs. print. “We used to rush to get the papers to see the latest,” he said.
There’s room, of course, in journalism for incisive commentary as well as just-the-facts reporting. But if we had to choose between the two, it would be an easy call.
The strength of the Wednesday reporting made the weakness of the Tuesday punditry easier to take for those who care about the media’s credibility.
And it showed once again that the journalistic basics at their best — digging, developing sources and connecting the dots — will always beat glib pontificating.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan