Journalism needs to do a major post-mortem in coming months on its coverage of Trump
God willing, Donald Trump will no longer be our president after Jan. 20th. But as much as some of us in the media hope we can stop thinking about him and his presidency after that day, we must not allow ourselves to forget. We need to have a major post-mortem on how we covered him, especially in the early days of his campaign and administration.
And that is something a lot of major media players and institutions won’t want to do, because of the way their failures helped him become president. Turning the page is easier than admitting mistakes were made that helped a very dangerous person move into the White House.
It is easy to criticize someone like Joe Scarborough, co-host of MSNBC’s "Morning Joe," for the fawning and excessive coverage of Trump that he offered in the early days of the 2016 campaign. But virtually all of mainstream media, myself included, played into Trump’s hands even when we adhered to the traditional values often encapsulated in words and catchphrases like "objective" and "down the middle."
In 2018, I wrote a column headlined, "Covering Trump as media figure challenges my core journalistic beliefs more and more." It began, "I’ll be honest, some weeks I don’t know if I’m evolving to a higher ethical plane or losing my journalistic religion bit by bit as I struggle to communicate what I see as President Trump’s toxic effects on American media and culture."
One of the issues I cited in that column was the debate that started in 2016 and was still going on two years later about whether or not The New York Times should call Trump a liar. Yeah, we got downright Talmudic on that one, acting as if there really were two or more sides to the question. At the time, I facetiously said that he was such a liar maybe we should fact-check him backward: Assume everything he says is a lie and point out the few occasions when he says something true.
I have come to believe most of us had not systematically thought through what words like fair and balanced really meant. Did they mean anything if Roger Ailes, the right-wing political partisan and late CEO of Fox News, could successfully use them to falsely brand the Rupert-Murdoch-owned channel as a journalistic entity, when in reality it was anything but "fair and balanced"?
Two recent media moments have convinced me of the need for a serious post-mortem on our bedrock values when it comes to covering someone as transgressive as Trump.
One was the publication of an op-ed piece in The New York Times written this month by Univision anchor Jorge Ramos that included him revisiting a 2015 news conference in which he challenged Trump’s comments about immigrants.
"Excuse me, you weren’t called. Sit down, sit down. sit down, sit down," Trump demanded. "Go back to Univision."
When Ramos stood his ground, he was forced out of the room by a security guard.
"After my confrontation with Mr. Trump, several journalists expressed their solidarity with me," Ramos wrote. "And yet, strangely and dangerously, the incident failed to shift the media’s obsessive coverage of Mr. Trump, which over time normalized his rude, abusive and xenophobic behavior."
Amen. The racist and fascist behavior that would become hallmarks of Trump’s rallies and his presidency were on display in that exchange. Why didn’t we in the press respond more forcefully?
The second development involved the way anchors across TV news have been responding to Trump’s lies the last month about winning the presidential election.
Mainstream news channels have refused to play video of Trump’s false and dangerous claims about the election being "rigged."
On Nov. 6, after Trump started into a pack of lies about how he won the election, MSNBC’s anchor Brian Williams came on screen as Trump was still talking and said, "OK, here we are again in the unusual position of not only interrupting the president of the United States, but correcting the president of the United States."
On CNBC, Shepard Smith said, "Well, we’re interrupting this because what the president of United States is saying is in large part absolutely untrue."
Great, but why wasn’t TV news doing that years ago when we knew he was lying?
We need to acknowledge our failures and understand why our traditional journalistic values were not able to spare the nation the chaos of this presidency. We need to be able to say: Never again.
David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun’s media critic.