We did a lousy job.
Doubtless, there are journalists who would disagree with that assessment of how news media performed during the 2016 campaign, but I’ve never met one. The consensus among those I know is that coverage of that campaign represents journalism’s biggest fail since the run-up to the Iraq War.
The culprit, of course, is our handling of the unconventional candidate who became president. Among our sins: failure to take him seriously enough early enough; relying too heavily on flawed polling; spending more time covering personality than policy, providing him untold hours of free advertising on certain cable news networks, and not even requiring him to show up in person to collect it.
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Perhaps most critically, we embraced a false equivalence. We behaved as if Hillary Clinton’s shifting explanations for the use of a private email server – troubling though they were – were somehow as ominous and potentially consequential as Donald Trump’s mendacity, crudeness, incompetence and overall unfitness.
In our defense, though, we had never seen anything like him and had no idea how to cover him.
Going on three months into his presidency, we are still figuring it out. But there is reason to be encouraged. Or does it not seem that news media are more willing to frankly confront Trump’s constant lying now than they were just a few short months ago? The whopper about Barack Obama bugging Trump Tower seems to have been the proverbial bridge too far.
Suddenly, Time magazine is out with a cover asking “Is Truth Dead?”
And when Trump’s White House cites Andrew Napolitano of Fox News as a source for his ludicrous contention that the British helped Obama wiretap him, Fox admits it cannot substantiate Napolitano’s claim and he is summarily disappeared from the air. Given how often in the past Fox pundits have blithely asserted the reckless and bizarre without a twitch of response from the network, this feels seismic.
That’s also a good word for last week’s Wall Street Journal editorial that describes Trump as clinging to the wiretap assertion “like a drunk to an empty gin bottle.” That visceral image of the president of the United States would be noteworthy from any newspaper. It is especially so from a conservative paper whose editor made news just a few months ago in defending the paper’s refusal to label Trump’s falsehoods as “lies.”
While it did not cross that self-imposed barrier, the Journal certainly left no doubt what it thinks of Trump’s credibility.
If there is to be a silver lining in the historical dark cloud that is Donald Trump, it’s that we might someday look back and say that he forced journalism to re-invent itself or, perhaps more accurately, to re-embrace itself, to remember what it is supposed to stand for. Maybe we’ll someday say that he forced us to abandon the fantasy that there is no moral component, no human judgment, involved in reporting the news.
That’s the kind of thinking under which Clinton’s email troubles are treated as equivalent to Trump’s grab-them-by-the-pudenda video or any of his many other epic transgressions of taste and truth. Trump has dragged journalism into a back-alley brawl, and we’ve been trying to fight it by the Marquess of Queensberry rules.
This era, though, will not allow us the luxury of such delusional niceties. It will require of us the guts to remember that truth matters. You see, our job is not to be anti-Trump, but, rather, anti-bovine excreta. Yes, you might say that has become a distinction without a difference.
But that is neither our fault nor our problem. It’s his.
Leonard Pitts Jr. can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.