In the days since the Mueller Report was concluded and found no collusion between President Donald Trump and Russia, the attention has turned to the press and its perceived hyperfocus on the two-year-long investigation.
Questions about whether outlets like the New York Times, MSNBC or CNN, where I work, spent too much time speculating about the findings or wanting a certain outcome have abounded, and not just from Trump himself.
The Republican National committee complained about what it believes is an imbalance of coverage in an email blast, citing lopsided reporting on the investigation versus the renegotiation of NAFTA, “the Trump admin’s successful implementation of middle class tax cuts,” and the war against ISIS.
RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel has gone so far as to say the press owes the president an apology.
But it’s not just Republicans. The press coverage of the Mueller investigation is being questioned by some members of the media as well. Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi wrote, “WMD damaged the media’s reputation. Russiagate may have just destroyed it.” Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept has been vocally and consistently critical of the media’s focus on Russia for years. Michael Tracey catalogued similar grievances in the New York Daily News.
Self-reflection and an open audit of the way we cover this administration and all other things is always a good idea. It’s inarguable that some journalists — too many — did what they weren’t supposed to do, and openly rooted for an outcome in the Mueller investigation. That is exceedingly damaging to public trust. It also helps cement Trump’s dangerous, false narrative, that the press is the enemy of the people.
Among many, many others, however, there was a healthy probing of what might lay behind what to any reasonable observer were a series of puzzling interactions with Russia, a boatload of lies from the president’s campaign and administration about those interactions, and consistent displays of affection toward Putin by Trump, who has very few nice things to say about almost anyone else.
But there’s another way to view the relationship between Trump and the media. And maybe the question isn’t whether the press has been too adversarial to this administration.
Namely: Why wasn’t the press just as adversarial to all the others?
The most glaring example is also the most recent. Despite having a slim record of accomplishments upon ascending to the White House, President Barack Obama earned the quick adoration of many in the media. But, with some exceptions, had the press been as systemically suspicious of Obama as it is of Trump, we might not have needed to rely on whistleblowers to expose illegal drone wars, mass data collection or shoddy defense contracts, not to mention an inadequate response to a drug abuse crisis that’s now killing tens of thousands of people.
From the Truman administration to the Kennedy administration, a more adversarial press may have uncovered the full level of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War years earlier.
And as openly disapproving of George W. Bush as many in the media were, even that administration received the benefit of the doubt on far too many occasions for far too long, from the passing of the Patriot Act to the justification for the Iraq War.
No modern president, save perhaps Richard Nixon, who waged an outright war on the press, earned the scorn and suspicion that Trump has since the day he took office.
Let’s be crystal clear: Trump deserves scorn and suspicion. He is a liar and a huckster. But so too does every person in a position of immense power, because power is inherently corrupting, and because the decisions presidents make impact so many people’s lives.
So, yes, let’s learn some lessons from this episode — not just to be better at covering this president, but all future presidents. In fact, we can start right now, by bringing the same level of suspicion — the Trump treatment, as it were — to each of the Democratic candidates for president.
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