Breaking news: President Trump tweeted. He’s feuding with a foreign leader — or a football team. Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is investigating the administration.
In today’s media environment, these “breaking” political news alerts are nearly constant. They dominate cable news and serve primarily to agitate rather than inform. Though the tendency to focus on spectacle over substance is not a new media phenomenon, it has noticeably worsened under the influence of a president who has devoted his public life to making a spectacle of himself. And as recent events have shown, it is leaving little to no oxygen for important issues that have real consequences on the American people’s lives.
Perhaps the most brazen example is the media’s neglect of hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico. Last month, a new Harvard study estimated that 4,645 deaths can be linked to the storm and its immediate aftermath, a toll far higher than the official estimate of 64. If accurate, that’s more than the number of Americans killed on 9/11 or during the Iraq War. Yet on the day it was released, the study was treated as an afterthought on cable news, which instead dedicated hours to the controversy over Trump-supporting actress Roseanne Barr’s racist tweets. Worse, as James Downie wrote in The Post, “On the major Sunday talk shows — the purest distillation of what the media and political establishments consider worth discussing — not once was Puerto Rico mentioned. That is a disgrace.”
This malpractice is part of a broader problem of media, led by the cable networks, failing to pay attention to the lived experiences and struggles of millions of Americans. On occasion, stories such as the recent wave of teacher protests in red states, including West Virginia and Oklahoma, manage to break through the noise, but they are the exceptions. Meanwhile, the ongoing assault on organized labor and workers’ rights, rising health insurance premiums resulting from Republican sabotage and the far-reaching effects of climate change barely register in the overall coverage. The situation has gotten so bad, some Democrats have actually stopped trying to spread their message through cable news. “It’s impossible,” one Senate aide told the Daily Beast, “unless you want to talk about Russia.”
Indeed, more than a year into the special counsel’s inquiry, the Trump-Russia story continues to receive a disproportionate amount of the media’s attention. There is no question that several actual developments in the investigation have been newsworthy. But the same cannot be said of the unsubstantiated rumors and wild speculation that receive breathless coverage day after day, adding nothing to the country’s knowledge and drowning out stories that matter. During a six-week stretch in 2017, for example, the Intercept found that MSNBC host Rachel Maddow “covered Russia not just more than any other issue, but more than every other issue combined.”
Despite these shortcomings, some in the media are making contributions to the public debate. For instance, MSNBC host Chris Hayes’s recent coverage of the impact of Trump’s immigration policies has been invaluable, offering a powerful example of what cable news in the Trump era can be. (Disclosure: Hayes is a former Washington editor and current editor at large for the Nation.) Hayes has also made a concerted effort to get out of the media bubble, hosting town halls with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in such places as McDowell County, W.Va., and Kenosha, Wis., and forums on gun violence and racism in Chicago and Philadelphia.
Beyond cable, investigative journalists at several newspapers and many smaller regional publications are working tirelessly to uncover wrongdoing by those in power and give voice to the vulnerable. The nonprofit publication Reveal’s exposé on injuries suffered by Tesla car-factory workers and the Cincinnati Enquirer’s deep reporting on the impact of the opioid epidemic are models of the dogged journalism that is too often overshadowed by the focus on Trump. Amid the collapse of local newspapers, excessive media conglomeratization, the obliteration of the line between news and entertainment and threats to the First Amendment that began during the Barack Obama administration — seen most recently in the Justice Department’s seizure of a reporter’s phone and email records — such efforts are especially important.
This isn’t to suggest the Trump’s administration’s pay-to-play scandals and abuses of power do not warrant coverage. But to truly hold the president accountable, there has to be more distinction between news that affects people’s lives and the daily outrages that often distract from the issues. There has to be a better balance between coverage of Trump’s personal tics and tantrums and of the citizens who are struggling under the weight of his policies. The only person who benefits from the Trump show is Trump.