From the minute Donald Trump descended the escalator, many a reporter, media outlet, and newsertainment venue offered themselves up as tools to be used and discarded as he saw fit. It was a Faustian bargain. Now that the unthinkable toll for those Trump-driven ratings spikes has come due, a journalistic culture that chafed under the omnipresent glare of Trump’s visage is turning on him in unprecedented ways. But what may begin as necessary pushback against the reflexive mendacity of the surging GOP nominee may fast become an overcorrection that may further erode trust in an already credibility-challenged industry.
The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza wasn’t alone in calling Donald Trump’s appearance last Friday “the greatest trick he ever pulled.” On Friday, after the candidate refused to disavow “birtherism” in a Post interview before disavowing birtherism through his campaign, Trump promised to clear up the confusion with a Washington, D.C. press conference. But there was no press conference. He held media cameras hostage as they focused on an empty stage at his newly launched hotel in the nation’s capital, where Trump did not arrive until 90 minutes after the anticipated start time. Trump plugged his new business venture and handed over the stage to a cast of veterans who proceeded to endorse the GOP nominee. Only after nearly an hour did Trump spend three brief sentences addressing birtherism, two of which were of extremely questionable veracity.
Members of the Fourth Estate were enraged by how brazenly the Republican nominee had misled them and used their microphones to promote his own commercial and political interests. They were also criticized heavily by the left who, spooked by a set of new polls that show Clinton falling behind, have demanded that the press take on an even more activist role when covering Trump’s candidacy.
The journalistic industry rose to their charge.
“Trump Gives Up a Lie But Refuses to Repent,” read the New York Times’ front-page headline. “No apology after five years of nurturing ‘birther’ issue to undermine Obama.” The article detailed how Trump had wedded himself to the idea that Barack Obama was not a natural-born citizen (even despite his mother’s citizenship) as recently as 2014.
“Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump on Friday acknowledged for the first time that President Obama was born in the United States, ending his long history of stoking unfounded doubts about the nation’s first African-American president but also seeking to falsely blame Democratic rival Hillary Clinton for starting the rumors,” the Washington Post declared.
“With each scripted speech, shift in policy and attempt to whitewash his past behavior, Donald Trump is brazenly betting that voters now settling on their choice for president are willing to shove aside all that came before his late-in-the-campaign recalibration,” read a strikingly hostile lead paragraph in Associated Press reporter Julie Pace’s dispatch on Trump’s tenuous relationship with the truth.
Journalists have a point. The pro-Trump corners of the media world are now busily engaged to cast Hillary Clinton as the surrogate author of the idea Barack Obama was born in Kenya. The campaign and its allies are also contending laughably that Donald Trump abandoned the birther issue in 2011 and had not been questioning the president’s citizenship for at least five years. Nobody appreciates being gaslit and the press is not responding passively to the Trump campaign’s effort to rewrite the history books.
It is, in fact, unfair to suggest that the press is only now getting tough on Trump’s remarkably opaque and factually challenged campaign, just as it would be unjust to claim that they’ve always scrutinized Trump in a manner he deserved. “It may not be good for America,” CBS CEO Les Moonves said of his industry’s penchant for giving the eyeball-grabbing Trump unfiltered and unjustified saturation coverage early in the primaries, “but it’s good for CBS.” That quote should haunt the reporters and media executives who amplified every word out of Trump’s mouth because of the eyeballs the spectacle drew. But the press—particularly print reporters—have been aggressively fact-checking Trump since the summer and often have gotten results.
To be too aggressive, however, is to appear to be overcompensating; particularly when media’s overt and stated motive is to strike a vengeful blow against the GOP nominee for playing them like a fiddle. It is one thing to call a lie a lie. The only problem with appearing vindictive in doing the noble work of fact-checking the GOP nominee is the hazard of appearing less than enthusiastic about fact-checking his equally mendacious opponent.
Outspoken liberals like the Atlantic’s Peter Beinart, among others, are demanding that the moderators of the coming debates take on an activist role and refuse to allow Trump to get away with rewriting history or whitewashing his record (as NBC’s Matt Lauer did a recent candidates’ forum). Not only would abandoning the referee’s chair be unscrupulous, but it would also almost certainly backfire on Hillary Clinton’s supporters by making a sympathetic figure out of the double-teamed Trump. It’s not a debate moderator’s job to do what Hillary Clinton can’t, and her supporters should stop trying to outsource the role of candidate to more capable figures.
Everyone will have some soul searching to do in 2017, but media has been uniquely resistant to reconciling with their role in the rise of two deplorably corrupting figures to lead their respective parties. Political media will not regain its lost credibility by waging a nakedly vengeful campaign designed to dismantle Donald Trump. Campaign coverage should not be retaliatory or aimed at supplementing for Clinton’s shortcomings, and the panicky left shouldn’t be dictating how the press does its job.