HILLSBORO, Ohio — Eager to watch President Trump’s campaign kickoff rally last week, I first tuned in to Fox News. After about a half hour, I decided I would flip over to MSNBC, then CNN. I was disappointed to discover neither carrying the event.
Well, it was just another Trump rally, the critics said. Maybe so. But the same can be said of just about any kickoff rally for candidates who merely repackage the stump speech they’ve been giving for weeks or months. Yes, Trump filed for reelection right after his inauguration. But a formal kickoff event by a president seeking reelection is news by any standard, whether newsrooms like what he says or not.
I read later that CNN carried a few minutes of the president’s rally before breaking away after the crowd broke into the typical “CNN sucks” chant. If this was truly cause and effect, it’s another example of a shockingly thin-skinned media landscape. Trump’s “fake news” mantra and his frequent attacks on news outlets should be brushed aside like a bothersome mosquito. Instead, too many in the news business react with bulging veins and defensive lectures, which is exactly the response Trump wants.
As a citizen, I wanted Trump to break Washington. As a longtime newspaper editor, I didn’t want him to break journalism. But while the former has proved stubbornly resilient, the latter has crumbled like old newsprint. After Trump’s victory, it was argued on high that new standards of reporting were needed to cover this president, a view that has served to badly undermine the practice of traditional, effective journalism.
Trump’s claims of fake news are wrong. The news is real enough. What’s inauthentic is a new style of journalism being employed to report it, including reporters injecting themselves into their stories to call the president a liar, rather than quoting other sources or referring to third-party fact checkers to refute a statement. Even when they’re right, the result has been predictable — a widespread perception that the media is out to get the president.
While Big Media has for decades leaned left, it still practiced a basic form of journalism that demanded at least a nod to fairness, balance and, just as important, detachment. The newspapers I edited were of the small-town variety, and I’m proud of that. By and large, small-town editors and reporters still apply traditional standards of journalism, and reader trust remains highest at newspapers such as those.
On Sunday, I watched the president’s interview with “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd, who, with his theatrical array of eye rolls, smirks and head shakes, hardly models himself after his most renowned predecessor, the late Tim Russert, who was the gold standard in tough but fair questioners. Discussing reports of serious problems at detention facilities for illegal immigrants, Todd implored the president: “Do something. Do something.” Great advocacy, bad journalism.
It’s not just the news media that has allowed its fury at Trump to produce self-inflicted wounds. Late-night comedy has suffered the same fate. An insightful article this month by Joanna Weiss in Politico magazine details how talk-show hosts have traded cleverness and wit for outrage and anger. As Weiss concluded, it’s hard to tell the difference these days between late-night comedians and Rachel Maddow or Sean Hannity.
When his media haters are being kind and not comparing Trump to Hitler, they compare him to President Richard M. Nixon. Nixon was brought down in part by historically great reporting of irrefutable facts that even Nixon’s loyal base could not ignore or defend. Why? The messenger was trusted. There is irony in the fact that the new journalism standards are having the opposite of their intended effect, serving to bolster Trump with his base rather than destroy him. It’s easy for Trump loyalists to shrug off the accusations of a declared enemy who is always on the attack, as opposed to a detached observer with a reputation for reporting favorably when circumstances warrant such coverage and commentary.
Partisan hysterics to the contrary, the republic is in fine shape under Trump. But journalism is in big trouble, mainly because many of its major practitioners have lowered themselves to engaging in a petty, personal war with the president, while installing new rules of reporting that militarize their fabled pens far beyond allegorical swords. Returning to the glory days of unbiased, dispassionate reporting depends on a recognition that the old rules still work best — not to mention a thicker layer of skin.
Good journalism is gasping for air. Do something.