Throughout Donald Trump’s presidency, his detractors have complained bitterly that he was being enabled, or “normalized,” by the mainstream media. For the extremely online Resistance in particular, Twitter became a place to rail against the press for failing to point out that Trump’s every utterance, gesture and action was an outrage against decency and a threat to the republic.
“Trump has been at war with an unraveling America for years,” wrote the liberal press critic Eric Boehlert a day after Trump supporters staged a deadly riot inside the Capitol. “The parallel reality has been that the American press corps has not figured out how to deal with that frightening scenario. It hasn’t properly grappled with the idea that our commander-in-chief would purposefully try to harm America's security and undo its democratic traditions.”
Boehlert’s not wrong. A year into Trump’s presidency, I took The New York Times to task for what I saw as its overly passive, both-sides approach, which I contrasted with The Washington Post’s sure-footedness.
And yet I find that I’ve grown impatient with these complaints, mainly because I can’t see how a different, harsher approach would have changed the course of the last four years. Never mind the 2016 campaign, which was a travesty of anti-Hillary Clinton bias that helped propel Trump into office. Overall, mainstream coverage of Trump’s time in the White House has been good enough, which is the most we can expect of a diverse, flawed institution.
Trump has been historically unpopular, yet a weirdly large minority continues to say he’s doing a good job no matter what. Take FiveThirtyEight’s average of approval ratings. The Battle of Capitol Hill sent Trump’s ratings sharply downward. But as of Tuesday afternoon, he was still at nearly 41% — pretty much where he always is.
Politically, at least, the story of the Trump years has been simple: He’s detested by a majority of the public, and they voted him out by a decisive margin the first chance they got. Explaining this isn’t rocket science.
Does anyone really believe that the mainstream media haven’t been largely negative in their coverage? Yes, there have been moments when The Times has been overly deferential, as befits a news organization that still thinks of itself as the nation’s paper of record and the presidency as an august institution. But investigative reporting by The Times, The Post and The Wall Street Journal have kept Trump back on his heels continuously for the past four years.
There have been a few exceptions — The Times on occasion and, sadly, NPR consistently. All too often I’ve turned on NPR and thought President George H.W. Bush was still in office and that the Democrats were working to stymie his legislative agenda. Last fall, NPR’s mild-mannered public editor, Kelly McBride, went so far as to complain that “there are moments, like the coverage of the first presidential debate, when NPR's presentation is so understated that some in the audience feel they've been handed a distorted picture.” No kidding.
And yet another public media outlet that I had long criticized as a bastion of false equivalence, the “PBS NewsHour,” somehow managed to find its voice during the Trump presidency. Anchor Judy Woodruff, White House reporter Yamiche Alcindor and congressional reporter Lisa Desjardins rose to the moment, chronicling each day’s events with a calm but pointed devotion to seeking the truth and reporting it.
Through the Mueller investigation, Ukraine, impeachment, COVID-19, Trump’s blizzard of lies about the election results and now what looks very much like a failed coup attempt, mainstream coverage has, for the most part, been appropriately critical.
The one massive media failure has been something the mainstream can’t do anything about — the weaponized pro-Trump propaganda put out every day and night by Fox News, which more than anything has kept Trump’s approval rating from cratering. Fox now seems determined to get its mojo back after losing some of its audience to the likes of Newsmax and OANN, as it has switched from news to opinion at 7 p.m.
And let’s not overlook the role of Facebook and Twitter in amplifying Trumpist lies — a role with which the social-media giants are now rather ineptly coming to grips.
Longtime media observer Jay Rosen of New York University recently gave the media some credit for asserting themselves in recent months and warned that a slide back into the old paradigm of giving weight and authority to both political parties would prove disastrous.
“Trump screwed with the ‘both sides’ system by busting norms and lying all the time, but that has only increased the longing to have the old constructs back,” he wrote, adding that the press “will have to find a way to become pro-truth, pro-voting, anti-racist and aggressively pro-democracy. It will have to cast its lot with those in both parties who are reality-based. It will have to learn to distinguish bad actors with propagandistic intent from normal speakers making their case.”
The rise of what may become a sustained right-wing resistance — a Tea Party armed with guns and brainwashed by QAnon — pretty much guarantees that the media won’t be able to slide back into their old habits once Trump is gone and the exceedingly normal President-elect Joe Biden takes his place.
As for whether the media are up to the challenge, I think we ought to take heart from the Trump era. Much of the press did what it could to hold Trump accountable and to shine a light on his repulsive words and actions. I’m hopeful that they’ll bring the same energy and sense of mission to covering whatever is coming next.
GBH News contributor Dan Kennedy’s blog, Media Nation, is online at dankennedy.net.