Eons ago — yes, way back before Jan. 20 — I urged the American press to “scrutinize, not normalize” the actions of the new administration.
Given the unusual background of President Donald Trump, and his campaign pledges to tear down government as we know it, that seemed a necessity.
Now, as the president’s first 100 days are being evaluated, it’s fair to ask: What about the news media’s first 100 days?
Granted, it’s a ridiculous question in some ways, because “the media” is hard to define or generalize about. (Are we talking about BuzzFeed or Breitbart News? The New York Times or Fox News or the Arizona Republic?)
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But because the answer matters, I’ll take a shot at it here, with the help of some expert media observers. We considered the mainstream media: the cable and broadcast TV networks, national newspapers, and some significant digital outlets, and to a smaller extent, local news organizations.
Overall, the coverage since Jan. 20 has been better than what we saw before Nov. 8. (While lifted by some excellent work, that pre-election coverage was indelibly marred by Acela Corridor insularity, hideous gobs of false equivalency, and a fatal addiction to hype over substance.)
On election night, I called the news media’s performance an epic fail on grounds of cluelessness alone. And last fall, when asked by Poynter Institute to grade campaign coverage, I handed out a D for early coverage and a C as the election neared. I won’t offer a grade this time, but maybe a handwritten note: “Shows improvement.”
We’ve scrutinized and normalized in almost equal proportion. For every great scoop, there’s been an embarrassing moment of declaring the president statesmanlike for giving a speech without a history-making gaffe
The best of it
Despite the president’s “enemy of the people” labeling, with its autocratic overtones, and chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon’s insistence that the press is the opposition party, most reporters have simply dug in and done their jobs.
“To a large degree, the press has responded to the aggressive, combative and sometimes abusive tone of the president with more resolve than we’ve seen in years - probably since [President Richard] Nixon’s second term,” said Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute. If the tone of the reporting seems alarmed, he said, that’s probably less about the reporters and more about the sources who are leaking to them - the Washington establishment, many of whom are Republicans.
“On background and off the record, these people are in something of a state of panic,” he said. “They are frightened and alarmed by what they perceive to real questions of competence in the Trump administration and to a lesser extent ideological extremism. And these sources are leaking to reporters at a volume I have never seen and with a candor that is striking even to the reporters.”
Russian meddling in the election, and Russian connections to Trump associates, are prevailing media topics. A Washington Post story on national security adviser Michael Flynn’s talks with the Russian ambassador about lifting sanctions led to his dismissal in February, and the Post, with others, has continued to unearth the Russian connections.
The New York Times, collaborating with investigative nonprofit ProPublica, provided an in-depth look at hundreds of appointments across the federal bureaucracy, noting that the list “is striking for how many former lobbyists it contains.” HuffPost’s crowdsourced project revealed an error-ridden donor report by Trump’s Inaugural Committee to the Federal Election Commission.
Fact-checking also has thrived, said George Washington University’s Nikki Usher.
“Institutional media - and CNN in particular - is doing a really good job making it obvious when Trump lies,” often with the use of chyrons, she said. (The Post Fact Checker has a 100 Days compilation of Trump’s false and misleading statements.)
Countering the deserved rap that journalism was out of touch with the heartland, news organizations have made some adjustments - staffing up bureaus, forming new desks and sending reporters out to do stories in places they undercovered before.
Usher again: “There’s been a fairly genuine attempt to figure out the blind spots that ‘missed’ the rise of Trump.”
BuzzFeed (whose publication of the “dirty dossier” on Trump remains a defining post-election media moment) has broken ground since on the rise of a left-wing conspiracy media.
And the Times had a standout report from Lebanon on the U.S.’s increasing footprint in the Middle East, under Trump, noting the lack of any clear endgame.
Local newspapers such as the St. Louis Post Dispatch did a good job of bringing home to readers the likely negative impact of the Republican health-care proposal. And USA Today’s network illuminated pocketbook issues, as in its report on how a new Trump tax plan would affect households.
The worst of it
Trump’s missile strike on Syria after a horrible chemical weapons attack was roundly seen as a sign of American strength - especially on cable TV - but the fulsome pundit praise was cringeworthy.
Similar televised effusiveness — without in-depth follow-up about broader foreign-policy implications — came after the dropping of the “Mother of All Bombs” in Afghanistan.
By contrast, a Trump-ordered drone strike in Yemen that killed civilians got relatively little scrutiny.
Rave responses (”this was the moment Donald Trump became president”) also followed Trump’s first speech to Congress. The heralded feel-good moment was immediately swept away by Trump’s unfounded claim that President Obama had wiretapped him.
TV news analyst Andrew Tyndall says that this dominated coverage for weeks; on the domestic front, it ranked second only to Trump’s only legislative initiative: the failed health-care proposal.
And speaking of normalizing, he told me that very little broadcast time was devoted to explaining Trump’s through-the-looking-glass Cabinet appointments, men and women who aim to dismantle the very agencies they run.
Broadcast coverage of Trump often lacks substance, Tyndall said - maybe because he really hasn’t done much.
“What’s being covered is the shock to the system, which gives a misleading impression of action,” he said.
No doubt, news media has been highly distractible, falling victim to shiny-object syndrome, especially by over-responding to Trump’s every tweet.
As Usher puts it: “In the quest for 24/7 news, what’s novel is more important than what matters. Context and nuance are lost.”
While strong on breaking news, the ever-paradoxical CNN still disappoints regularly by giving airtime to paid partisans such as Jeffrey Lord and continuing to use its ossified panel format.
MSNBC had a scoop, of sorts, with David Cay Johnston’s look at a leaked Trump tax return, though Rachel Maddow presented it badly.
And Fox News? With a few exceptions — most notably, the tough-minded Chris Wallace — it has become even more of a partisan cheering section, very close to being Trump’s house organ.
Searching for a bright spot there, I’m glad that Sean Hannity doesn’t call himself a journalist.
Dan Gillmor of Arizona State University offers a dim view of press coverage overall, though he admits that there has been “some astoundingly good reporting since the election — much more than before Nov. 8.”
But, he adds, there has been a lot of normalizing too. “It’s human nature to want some sense of normality, and journalists especially crave a sense of balance, but these aren’t normal times.”
Margaret Sullivan is a former public editor of The New York Times.