And, sometimes, it gets the better of us.
Two media stories have broken through in recent days. One involves an effort by high-profile Trump supporters to mine the old social-media postings of journalists at top outlets in the hope of publicly attacking them and undermining their employers. This has been met with condemnation by many journalists.
The other story broke overnight, and it involves conservative New York Times columnist Bret Stephens raising a fuss about a George Washington University professor who called him a “bedbug” on Twitter. Stephens wrote the professor a personal email, copied his boss, compared the insult to what “totalitarian regimes” do and quit Twitter. The reaction, particularly among liberals and left-leaning journalists who have long derided Stephens, has been one of gleeful ridicule.
But while many mock Stephens for his apparently thin skin, we shouldn’t avert our gaze from our own. For all the truly righteous indignation we’ve summoned in response to President Trump’s treatment of us, we’ve also put ourselves on too much of a hair trigger when it comes to denouncing criticism and scrutiny.
Jack Shafer summed it up nicely in a piece for Politico, in which he fought back against the criticism of scouring journalists’ social media accounts:
As much as I would like to sympathize with my fellow journalists, it doesn’t strike me as unreasonable to ask them to own or repudiate vile or impolitic things they might have stated in the past. Nor is it remotely unfair for the president’s supporters to demand that journalists, who are forever denouncing him as a racist (because he is), be held accountable for their bigoted speech, on Twitter or anywhere else. Journalists don’t deserve a get-out-of-bigotry-jail free card just because they’re journalists. If their past tweets, however ancient, undercut their current journalistic work or make them sound hypocritical, they can’t blame their diminished prestige on Trump’s allies. It’s like blaming a cop for writing you a ticket for speeding in a school zone.
The Times’s publisher issued a memo about the effort to expose journalists, in which he labeled it a “coordinated campaign … to attack hundreds of journalists in retaliation for coverage of the administration.” The memo added: “This represents an escalation of an ongoing campaign against the free press.”
This is a great example of how the media’s response to Trump can sometimes be over the top. There are many ways in which Trump’s attacks on the media are beyond the pale, including his repeated threats to open up libel laws, his frequent labeling of us as the “enemy of the people,” his revocation of press passes (including of The Washington Post when he was a candidate) and his and his aides’ serial dishonesty with us.
But there is also a tendency to label most every criticism of the media an attack on “the free press.” That makes it sound like Trump is attacking our very freedoms and our right to criticize him, when often he’s just complaining about coverage. (It’s an important distinction, but it’s a hard one to make in the case of a president who has stated his desire to erode some press freedoms.)
Attacking coverage is something every president does, even if no recent ones have done it to the extent Trump has. We should point out when those attacks — from Trump or any other subject of coverage — don’t make sense or fly in the face of the facts, but lumping that in with calling us the “enemy of the people” dilutes the severity of the latter.
And more broadly speaking, we need to be wary of looking like we think we’re immune from not just criticism but also scrutiny. It’s 100 percent true that the Twitter mob can blow things out of proportion, and these Trump supporters clearly hope to weaponize that. But this is mostly a question of how the companies that employ the journalists involved are going to respond to those uproars. And the more times this tactic is tried, the less effective it’s going to be. (We also need to recognize the mere presence of this threat is surely meant to “work the refs” and influence our coverage, as much as to punish us at some later date.)
No journalist wants to be the subject of this kind of scrutiny, and many of us entered this business probably thinking we would never be on the receiving end of it. But we’ve been forced into a situation in which we’ve often had to become the arbiters of presidential behavior, and with that responsibility comes scrutiny of our own moral high ground. When that scrutiny is presented in unfair and overzealous ways, it will hopefully be dealt with as such. But let’s not clutch our pearls too tightly.