Gary Abernathy is publisher and editor of the (Hillsboro, Ohio) Times-Gazette.
Just like our larger media counterparts, smaller news entities such as our paper in southwestern Ohio sometimes get criticized for being unfair or biased.
As an example, years ago I was editor at another small newspaper when the local congressman became upset with our columns and editorials. He called for a meeting with our publisher and me, bringing with him some important local advertisers. The message was clear.
Fortunately, our publisher held firm, and we continued to exercise our right to call it as we saw it. And we didn’t use our news pages to portray ourselves as martyrs for the First Amendment. Publicly, we ignored the incident.
I can already hear some saying, “But that’s not the same as being attacked almost daily by the president of the United States.” In a way, it can be worse. The fishbowl in which most small papers operate can make attacks by powerful local people pretty intimidating.
Unfortunately, when President Trump accuses the mainstream media of being “fake news,” too often the journalists being targeted don’t ignore it or merely address it internally. Instead, they react with public outrage, their popping veins nearly bursting through their thin skins.
Since the media, along with Congress, has approval numbers lower than the president’s, it’s hard to persuade most Americans to feel our pain. That there is relatively little organic reaction to the president’s criticisms outside of offended newsrooms is the best proof of the merits of Trump’s complaints.
Trump doesn’t deserve favorable coverage. All he deserves is fair and honest coverage. But even liberals can’t argue with a straight face that he’s wrong about mainstream media bias.
Coverage of the president’s overseas trip and participation in the Group of 20 summit offered numerous examples, with major media outlets focused more on minutiae — Ivanka sat in the president’s chair! — than on substance, giving comparatively short shrift to his powerful remarks in Poland and the important Syrian cease-fire agreement brokered between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
And later, the wall-to-wall coverage regarding Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a private Russian attorney was the definition of overkill, considering no one has brought forward any evidence to contradict the accounts of the participants that no substantive information was exchanged and there was no follow-up by anyone. But it was another opportunity to repeat “Russia, Russia, Russia,” the media’s magic words for conjuring, Beetlejuice-fashion, the genie they hope will vanquish their bogeyman.
During his visit to Poland, Trump dared to answer a question about the media with the same reply he has always given, “fake news,” but his remarks were reported with gloomy disapproval. “How dare he criticize the media while overseas?” reporters cried.
When the mainstream media explodes with Shakespearean sound and fury over Trump’s broadsides, conservatives scratch their heads. Their preferred information funnel, Fox News, has been the target of derision for years, including from presidents, with little objection from other outlets. Fox News usually answers the criticisms in a lighthearted way, when not ignoring them outright.
Not CNN. Trump’s tweeting of an old wrestling skit with the CNN logo superimposed on Vince McMahon’s head was brash, but harmless. CNN reacted as though Trump had set fire to its Atlanta headquarters. Americans were subjected to solemn sermonizing from CNN and other outlets over what were characterized as the president’s attacks on the First Amendment itself and an incitement to violence. Nonsense.
The president’s very personal comments about MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinksi were harsh, but “Morning Joe” has been trashing Trump in personal terms for a long time. Like it or not, Trump will be Trump. Instead of brushing it off, “Morning Joe” made Trump’s counterattack the focus of its program, another win for a president who loves generating a response.
News outlets, whether in big cities or small towns, are not synonymous with the First Amendment. We are organizations that depend on the First Amendment to do our jobs, but that hardly makes criticism of us — even aggressive attacks from the president of the United States — out of bounds.
On this point, Big Media could learn a lesson from Small Media. When I have responded to accusations of bias over the years, my answer was not to whine about the criticism, but to point to examples of coverage that I believed proved them wrong. I don’t see too many media organizations doing that in response to the president’s complaints.
If the day comes when members of the mainstream media can prove Trump wrong through the evidence of their work, the president’s attacks will lose their steam. That day is not here.