With Donald Trump becoming the first American president to be impeached in his first term, while holed up in the White House tweeting endless attacks around the clock like some internet troll, 2019 should have been the year the Beltway media finally shed its signature timidity and forcefully stood up to him. This should have been the year the press worked up the courage to disband the pointless protocols newsroom had established for covering Trump (he's not a "liar," he's not a "racist"), and simply started telling the hard truths about him. And while there were some welcome flashes of truth-telling, especially surrounding the Ukraine scandal and impeachment, for the most part the D.C. press still hasn't signaled that's it's ready, or willing, to take the necessary steps needed to cover Trump.
There continues to be a collective reluctance to grapple with today's difficult reality. Unfamiliar with covering authoritarian regimes or how to respond to them, many news outlets remain committed to treating Trump's spectacle as a reality TV show.
So much has been written about Donald Trump’s debasement of rhetorical norms and his gleeful contempt for truth that there is no need to cite examples or quote studies that count the profligacy of his lies. Trump’s attacks on journalists—“fake news,” mocking a disabled reporter’s body movements—are contemptible. They undermine citizens’ trust in news media, a serious menace to democracy and civil society.
Less noticed is how major news organizations, incensed by the president’s trolling, have debased themselves to Trump’s moral level. American journalism used to adhere to strict standards. Though impossible to achieve, objectivity was paramount. At bare minimum, reporters were expected to project an appearance of political neutrality.
Truth only derived from facts—verifiable facts. Not conjecture and never wishful thinking. Sources who wanted to be quoted had to go on the record. Anonymous sources could flesh out background but could not be the entire basis for a story.
From the start of Trump’s run for president—before the start—Democratic-leaning media outlets abandoned their own long-cherished standards to declare war on him. Every day during the 2016 campaign The New York Times led its coverage with its forecast of Hillary Clinton’s supposed odds of defeating Trump. Setting aside the fact of the Times’ embarrassing wrongness—the day before Election Day they gave Clinton an 85% chance of winning—it cited odds rather than polls. Maximizing a sense of Clintonian inevitability was intended to demoralize Republicans so they wouldn’t turn out to vote. The two figures might mean the same thing. But 85-15 odds look worse than a 51-49 poll.
It’s downright truthy. And when truthiness goes sideways it makes you look really, really dumb. 51-49 could go either way. 85-15, not so much.
The impeachment battle marks a new low in partisanship among media outlets.
The Press Doesn't Have—or Won't Use—the Proper Language to Describe Today's Radical Republican Partyby Eric Boehlert | December 9, 2019 - 8:12am |
Extreme times call for extreme measures, but the Beltway press just isn't willing to make that move in the Trump era. As a consequence, the news media fail to accurately capture the radical changes now underway in the country, and how today's Republican Party has become purposefully untethered from reality.
Donald Trump remains a resolutely radical player who has eviscerated decades of protocols and traditions. Yet so much of the press refuses to cover him that way, opting instead to cling to Beltway traditions for how presidents are normally covered (i.e. We can't call him a liar!). But as the high-profile impeachment hearings confirm (along with Trump's recent disastrous and embarrassing trip to the NATO summit), new and bolder language is needed to accurately describe what's transpiring.
Under Trump, we're all in uncharted territories, and that includes the press. We have never had a major political party in this country, for instance, that openly condones seeking help from foreign powers in order to win domestic elections, the way Republicans now do. We've never had a political party that essentially absolves the president of the United States of all crimes and misdemeanors, simply because he has an 'R' next to his name. Meaning: The press has never before faced the challenge of how to cover and describe what was once a mainstream political party but has since evolved into a deeply radical one. For now, much of the news media is simply pretending that historic GOP shift hasn't taken place, and therefore there's no need to dramatically adjust the coverage.
But it has, and there is.
The media's stubborn failure to adjust is now advertised daily. For instance, last week CNN's John King and a roundtable of Beltway pundits expressed complete shock at a new poll that found 53% of Republicans said that Donald Trump is a better president than Abraham Lincoln was. If those pundits had closely followed the radical evolution of the GOP in recent years and been honest with news consumers about its descent into cult worship, there's simply no way they would be utterly bewildered at Republicans' belief today that Trump's a better president than Lincoln. But if you've strained mightily to pretend Democrats and Republicans are mirror opposites of each other and advocate equally mainstream, fact-based positions, than yes, you'd be shocked by the Lincoln finding.
It's the same reason that the percentage share of Republicans who say presidents could operate more effectively if they didn't have to worry about Congress and the courts increased 16 percentage points over the past year, according to the Pew Research Center.
.......The impeachment saga poses the most obvious challenge for the press as virtually the entire Republican Party now backs absurd lies about Ukraine. "The inchoate and unproved nature of the Republican case against Ukraine has not prevented several GOP leaders from taking up the cause," The Washington Post recently reported, as the paper examined the Republican Party's embrace of the "incendiary conspiracy" that Ukraine worked to try to get Hillary Clinton elected in 2016.
With "inchoate and unproven," the paper clearly tried to convey the sense that Republicans were peddling untruths— without unequivocally stating that Republicans now lie about almost everything, including the garbage Ukraine claim, which has been pushed publicly by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Fact: No U.S. intelligence community report has ever accused Ukraine of interfering in the election. Trump, of course, is accused of using $400 million in United States military assistance to pressure Ukraine to investigate his political rival, Joe Biden.
"Some Republican lawmakers continue to misleadingly say that the government of Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election on the same level as Russia, despite the GOP-led committee looking into the matter and finding little to support the allegation," CNN's Jake Tapper recently wrote. But again, we're not talking about Republicans trying to artfully spin a story in their favor by being "misleading." We're talking about Republican making stuff up, plain and simple. And the press should say so.
If journalism is the first draft of history, the press is missing three of the biggest stories of our time. Of course, the Democrats’ inability to articulate anything like a coherent message doesn’t help. Let’s take a look at what they’re missing.
Republicans’ blockade of legislation
Mitch McConnell’s legislative blockade has gotten some attention, although nowhere near as much as it deserves. As of July of this year, the House had sent over 49 major bills, including such popular measures as lowering the cost of prescription drugs, protecting people from being dropped by insurance companies for preexisting conditions, insuring fair elections, requiring background checks for gun purchases, climate legislation – the list is extensive and important. Yet each of these – which are supported by the vast majority of Americans – has been blocked by McConnell and his Republican Senate.
As bad as McConnell’s do-nothing Senate has been, it is only a symptom of a much more serious disease. Specifically, Republicans know little about governing, and care less. This is because they are essentially anti-government.
One of the most dangerous failures of the press is to label as extreme, that which is merely prudent, particularly when the majority of Americans support it. Indeed, one wonders how things like the Green New Deal or Medicare for All or increased taxes on the rich can be called extreme when they are supported by the overwhelming majority of Americans. An extremist position is defined as an outlier – as furthest from the center -- so who, exactly is it that gets to define ideas with 60, 70 or more percent support – the very definition of the center -- as “extreme?”
The answer, of course, is corporations, the rich, and the politicians and mainstream media who are owned in whole or in part, by them. The absurdity and extremism of America’s “wealth not health” care system is best captured by the reaction of British folks of all stripes when they learn of the costs of that system to real people.
But the press ignores both McConnel’s malfeasance, and the larger issue of a significant portion of the country electing anti-government extremists to …well … govern.
Anyone who’s been paying attention should get the picture by now. Overall, in subtle and sledgehammer ways, the mass media of the United States—owned and sponsored by corporate giants—are in the midst of a siege against the two progressive Democratic candidates who have a real chance to be elected president in 2020.
Some of the prevalent media bias has taken the form of protracted swoons for numerous "center lane" opponents of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. The recent entry of Michael Bloomberg has further jammed that lane, adding a plutocrat "worth" upwards of $50 billion to a bevy of corporate politicians.
The mainline media are generally quite warm toward so-called "moderates," without bothering to question what's so moderate about such positions as bowing to corporate plunder, backing rampant militarism and refusing to seriously confront the climate emergency.
The disconnect between voters and corporate media is often huge. Meanwhile, with fly-on-the-wall pretenses, media outlets that have powerfully distorted proposals like Medicare for All are now reporting (with thinly veiled satisfaction) that voters are cool to those proposals.
The Washington Post, owned by one of the world's richest people Jeff Bezos, has routinely spun Medicare for All as some sort of government takeover. In a prominent Nov. 30 news story that largely attributed Warren's recent dip in polls to her positioning on healthcare, the Post matter-of-factly—and falsely—referred to Medicare for All as "government-run healthcare" and "a government-run health plan."
Such pervasive mass-media reporting smoothed the way for deceptions that have elevated Pete Buttigieg in polls during recent weeks with his deceptive "Medicare for All Who Want It" slogan. That rhetoric springboards from the false premises that Medicare for All would deprive people of meaningful choice and would somehow reduce coverage.
In late September, with scant media scrutiny, Buttigieg launched an ad campaign against Medicare for All that has continued. Using insurance-industry talking points, he is deliberately confusing the current "choice" of predatory for-profit insurance plans with the genuine full choice of healthcare providers that top-quality Medicare for everyone would offer.
Mainstream media outlets are ill-positioned to refute such distortions since they're routinely purveying such distortions themselves.
Last winter, CNN for weeks stood by its extraordinary and inexplicable decision to hire Sarah Isgur Flores, a career Republican Party operative with absolutely no journalism experience, to be the network’s political editor. A hardcore partisan, Isgur spent her career spinning for Republicans such as Ted Cruz, Mitt Romney, and Carly Fiorina. Until last year, Isgur worked as a spokesperson for then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ Department of Justice. CNN staffers were reportedly demoralized by the Isgur move—and for good reason, since CNN political editors should be journalists, period.
If CNN wants to hire conservatives like Isgur to go on camera and bolster Trump talking points, that's the network's choice. But to hire someone with Isgur's resume to work behind the scenes and oversee campaign coverage remains a baffling decision to this day. "Her Twitter includes fact-free invectives against liberals and repeatedly rails against the ‘abortion industry,’" The Daily Beast noted at the time.
By March, CNN acknowledged the controversy and announced that Isgur "is no longer taking a job as a political editor in the Washington bureau. Instead Isgur will be a political analyst at the network, sharing her insights through television segments like many other commentators do."
But now, more questions are being raised about why CNN ever even considered hiring an openly partisan operative for a key campaign coverage position. The questions come as CNN continues to struggle with trying to balance its desire to employ conservative voices for political balance while also maintaining common-sense standards at the network.