SAN DIEGO – In keeping with the recent meme of recognizing bad behavior “on many sides,” there was something that was painfully obvious during last week’s improv news-conference-like-no-other in the lobby of Trump Tower: President Donald Trump and the media deserve each other. Both are driven by ego and take criticism personally. Both will twist the facts to defend themselves and push their agenda. And both love to wrestle in the mud.
Americans are fed precooked narratives by the Fourth Estate. We’re told what’s important and what isn’t, what to focus on and what to ignore, and – above all – what to think.
Last week’s serving was that Trump is providing aid and comfort to a loathsome bunch of misfits – neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klansmen and white supremacists.
Nevertheless, for my money, the more important takeaway from that no-holds-barred presser was that we have entered scary and uncharted territory in the relationship between the president and the media. It’s open warfare, but it’s also very personal.
First, the media narrative. We’re told the president sympathizes with bigots and hate-mongers, that he’ll only criticize his peeps-in-sheets as “repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans” if he’s forced to read a script in a hostage video, and that his true feelings come out when he draws a moral equivalency by claiming that left-wing thugs with bats were just as responsible for the unrest in Charlottesville as right-wing thugs with bats.
There’s no evidence behind the terrible accusation that Trump is in league with white supremacists. When he declared in his Monday remarks from the White House that “racism is evil,” I bought it. Besides, is there anyone who thinks racism isn’t evil – depending on how they define it?
I wish the story had ended there. Instead, the very next day, Trump – who hates being told to eat his vegetables – spit up most of what he had been forced to say earlier blasting white supremacists. This time he insisted there were “very fine people on both sides” of the racial chasm in Charlottesville.
It’s worth asking: Why is that such a controversial statement?
Let’s remember that the issue that sparked the melee in Charlottesville wasn’t racism; it was the planned removal by city officials of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a public park. And so we’re presented with a basic logic puzzle. It’s a safe bet that all the white supremacists opposed the removal of the statue, but it does not follow that everyone who opposed the removal of the statue was a white supremacist.
In fact, if you imagine those same words – “very fine people on both sides” – coming from a moderate Democrat like former Vice President Joe Biden or former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, at a different time and place, there wouldn’t even be a story here.
But because it’s Trump – who has a spotty record on race and racial issues – and because he said those words just 24 hours after excoriating white supremacists, this was bound to blow up. And it did.
And yet, at the same time, Trump is right to complain about how he never gets any credit for doing the right thing because the media and the rest of his critics are always waiting to pounce on him for doing the wrong thing.
As I watched how unprofessionally the reporters at the disastrous Tuesday presser were behaving – the shouting, the groans, the bickering, the sarcastic “gotcha” questions about whether Trump backed the confederacy or whether he had made race relations worse or why he believed neo-Nazis supported him – I was disgusted. I was also embarrassed for my profession.
All I could think was: The media have lost their collective mind. They used to be content to just tell us what to think. Now, in the era of Trump, they go further and tell us not to trust what we see with our own eyes or hear with our own ears. They’re so blinded by their contempt for Trump that they’ve abandoned journalistic standards and become comfortable with misreporting facts if it’ll make him look bad.
Not that Trump needs help in that regard. He does a superb job of getting in his own way, and turning every policy disagreement into a junior high school fistfight.
Still, the last few days have been excruciating for me. Not because I have any affection for Trump or neo-Nazis or white supremacists. I don’t. The country would be better off without the lot of them. However, I have become – over the last quarter-century of plying my trade – quite fond of journalism.
I sure miss it.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.