What might the post-Trump media environment look like?
It’s a question that’s bedeviling the leaders of many cable news networks and newspapers. According to the New York Times, “CNN and MSNBC thrived during the Trump years, reaching new heights in ratings and revenue while devoting countless prime-time hours to criticizing a White House antagonist their viewers just could not quit. Now faced with a Trump-less future, top executives at the rival cable news networks have summoned star anchors and producers to private meetings in recent weeks, seeking answers to a pressing question: What’s next?”
Evidently, not a lot of reflection about their industry. Setting aside the sleight-of-hand the Times is performing by suggesting that media outlets were merely giving their customers what they want (as opposed to creating narratives that mirrored the media’s own partisan leanings), at least this is a tacit acknowledgment that the press’ relationship with Trump, like Trump’s leadership style, wasn’t normal.
But media’s performance over the past few years does not inspire confidence in their ability to return to anything like normal. For the past four years, the mainstream media contorted facts (or ignored them) to suit a consistent—and consistently profitable—narrative about Donald Trump. Trump, in turn, responded by denouncing the media en masse, calling every story he didn’t like “fake news” and eventually turning on even his most loyal media outlets like FOX News.
In the month since Joe Biden’s victory, mainstream media outlets have given us a few hints of what the next four years might be like.
They might go all-in on the “nothing to see here” approach to any potentially negative story regarding the Biden administration; this worked to great effect during the campaign, with the mainstream media placidly accepting the many daily “lids” Biden’s campaign called and, much worse, actively suppressing and censoring negative stories about Biden’s son, Hunter.
Of course, any censorship will be done in the name of “healing” and putting the acrimony of the Trump years behind us, or as an effort to avoid the newly-recognized sin of “weaponizing” free speech. But this kumbaya approach to journalism is little more than a rationalization for avoiding negative coverage of politicians with whom reporters agree.
It also requires a sustained effort to memory-hole the press’s worst behavior during the Trump years, from the worst of the Russia-gate conspiracy theories to the media’s frequent “fact-checking” of Trump’s statements, like the “far-fetched” claim that we would have a COVID-19 vaccine before year’s ends. Ominously, that dubious, self-appointed arbiter of facts, Politifact, made its “lie of the year” the downplaying of the coronavirus. But the fact-checker primarily reserved its criticism for conservative media outlets and the president, conveniently forgetting how leaders on the left, such as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, also encouraged vaccine skepticism to score cheap political points.
Media’s new mission will also demand a lot of cognitive dissonance on the part of the American people. The Biden administration and its allies have no intention of dialing back the vitriol aimed at their opponents, even as they tell the rest of us that we should.
Partisan media personalities like Mehdi Hasan will continue to claim that the Republican Party doesn’t believe in democracy; others, like Jake Tapper, will give platforms to people like Stacey Abrams, who refused to concede her own shellacking at the polls, to talk about why it’s important for Republicans to accept the results of elections; and newspapers and magazines will publish flattering profiles about Biden staffers, like campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon, who recently said of Republicans such healing remarks as, “I’m not saying they’re not a bunch of f***ers. Mitch McConnell is terrible.” This was followed by claims that her boss, Joe Biden, knows that “we, as a country, need healing, and our politics needs that, too.” The glaring contradiction in these comments was left unremarked upon.
Such publications will also fail to acknowledge their own ongoing hypocrisy in praising working mothers when they are Democrats, like O’Malley Dillon, while describing Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s motherhood as “fetishized” in a piece with the headline “The Power—and Threat—of Mothers Like Amy Coney Barrett.”
With Trump gone, the mainstream media might default to a “villain of the week” approach—an attack on Sen. Mitch McConnell here, an excoriation of a Republican governor there—but this is far less satisfying than having a Twitter addict and uber-villain like Trump as a foil.
And so, the Biden years will surely bring an exacerbation of the identity politics game the media has been playing for years. This happened on a small scale recently with the overreaction and miniature outrage cycle the media encouraged after writer Joseph Epstein published an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal suggesting that Jill Biden should rethink her demand that everyone call her “Doctor” even though her degree is an Ed.D., not an M.D. or Ph.D.
Rather than take the essay for what it was—a gentle puncturing of a powerful person’s over-inflated ego—Biden loyalists in the media denounced the essay as sexist, and called for Epstein’s scalp. (Jill Biden, staying on brand, tweeted sanctimoniously from her @DrBiden handle, “Together, we will build a world where the accomplishments of our daughters will be celebrated, rather than diminished”).
Melodramas like these are regularly manufactured by the mainstream media to sustain the attention of viewers (and generate revenue). When Trump was in the Oval Office, reporters and cable news executives could cloak that financial imperative and their own partisan feelings in high-mindedness. They were only saving democracy, protecting the world from foreign interference in elections, or jettisoning objectivity for the sake of “moral clarity,” which conveniently produced narratives promoting the ideological projects of the journalists.
This is a problem that long predates Donald Trump. If you think that journalistic malfeasance ever produces soul-searching on the part of the media industry, consider this: The Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas-Austin recently announced the creation of a new journalism award “to recognize collegiate and professional journalists who overcome obstacles like stonewalling and harassment to speak truth to power.” The award is called the Dan Rather Medal for News and Guts and features a gold medal engraved with Dan’s face. (No word on whether Mr. Rather will be typing up the achievement certificates himself).
There will no doubt be many more self-aggrandizing books and speeches and written by our nation’s journalists praising themselves for their extraordinary achievements during the Trump years. The one narrative that most needs telling, but that the media will fail to acknowledge, is the story of a profession that sold its soul for partisan score-settling and profit, eroded the public’s trust in institutions, all while claiming to save democracy.