There is almost no point in writing a lede to this piece, given how likely it is that President Trump will do something disgraceful before it can be edited and published—so instead let’s use that likelihood as the entire premise.
No politician in my lifetime has benefited more from his relationship with the media than President Trump, and that is in part because keeping tabs on the extent of his scandals is a Herculean task.
In MAGAland, the conceit that the media is biased against President Trump is the one creed that unites all factions. It is considered so self-evident that Trump supporters will dismiss my effort to present a counter argument as farcical trolling, not worthy of engagement. And a lot is riding on their unwillingness to listen. After all, if the first commandment of the Church of Trump is wrong, then what of the rest of its tenets?
But the notion of a vast media conspiracy against Trump is only unobjectionable on the counter-plane of reality inhabited by Trump’s supporters and enablers—one where mendacity, cruelty, racism, corruption, and buffoonery needed to be treated one pole of a two-sided debate that must be respected. (Even Trump himself seems to grasp that he benefits from the way the political press covers him, because every now and again, in his most boastful moments, he brags about it.)
It is true that on a personal level, national political journalists tend to be socially liberal and not only dislike Trump, but are ensconced in bubbles where nobody imagined voting for him. But this type of personal ideological bias distorts coverage of Trump much less than the avalanche of bullshit Trump and his allies unleash everyday. A mixture of fundamental human nature and incentives in journalism that reward recency, access, and “balance,” pressure reporters into treating President Trump with far more leniency than he deserves.
Take for example, his rally in Nashville, TN this week. Over the course of a typically meandering and unhinged speech he propounded and repeated several bald-faced lies, including his second favorite lie (the first is “No collusion!”) that Mexico is going to pay for a wall on the southern border. This lie touched off an international incident in which the president of one of our largest trading partners tweeted a formal rebuke at our own. Trump incited grievances against minority groups, bragged about his hand size, invented fake people who demanded policies that their real-life incarnations oppose, attacked John McCain who sits at home dying of brain cancer, cursed, attacked Jay-Z for cursing more than him, leveled absurdly false attacks against Democrats that lie well beyond the pale of normal political discourse, and, finally, advanced an insane conspiracy theory that Barack Obama infiltrated his campaign with a spy. Most of the above links come from Daniel Dale, a reporter for the Toronto Star who uses his Twitter feed to comprehensively fact check Trump’s speeches. But even someone who dedicates his professional life to documenting Trump’s lies understands that simply cataloging them is insufficient.. “One thing I still haven’t figured out well,” Dale added, “and I don’t think anyone really has, is how to capture Trump’s level of rally unhingedness in a regular article.”
And the evidence bears Dale’s point out. The Tennessean topped its article about Trump’s speech as if it were any standard campaign event: “At Rally for Blackburn Senate bid, POTUS calls Phil Bredesen ‘Tool’ for Democrats.” USA TODAY took a tongue-in-cheek approach that largely gave Trump a headline he’d want, “Trump Vows To Rebuild USA With His Big Beautiful Hands.” The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal didn’t give the speech any mention on their front pages, which wouldn’t be remarkable if Trump were giving an ordinary political stump speech, but reflects a depressing level of desensitization to what he offers instead. The president of the United States gathered supporters to incite racism, to spread lies and propaganda, to slander his political enemies, and the most important newspapers in the country didn’t think anything of it.
It’s unimaginable that any other politician would receive that type of coverage after delivering such a loathsome speech. The worst gaffe Mitt Romney made in 2012—the only one, I’d argue, that deserved sustained scrutiny—was his now-infamous remark that 47 percent of Americans are dependent on government, believe they are victims, and, thus, will never vote for Republicans. Imagine if Trump had slipped Romney’s remark, verbatim, between his call-and-response screed about “animals,” and the story about the imaginary San Diego mayor who wants him to build a border wall. Would the comment that the media made a defining issue in the 2012 campaign have even made it into the newspaper the next day? Would cable producers have bumped the wall-to-wall coverage of Roseanne for even a single segment?
The answer is obviously no. If the horrifying death toll of Hurricane Maria couldn’t break through, it’s hard to imagine that “what about your gaffes?!” would have
Through strategy, instinct, and horseshoe-up-his-ass blind luck, Trump has abused the media into grading him on the steepest of curves and giving him the benefit of the doubt when he has proven
time and again he deserves nothing but the most extreme scrutiny. Trump is employing a strategy that might be familiar to coaches of inferior middle school basketball teams: Foul your opponents on every play, because, by human nature, referees are not equipped to blow the whistle on every play for fear of seeming biased. They are going to let some plays go by. In politics, journalists are the referees. And because they give Trump a pass on so many of his fouls, he avoids scrutiny that politicians who play by the rules would be subjected to regardless of ideology.
During the campaign, this dynamic played out in ways that allowed Trump to avoid the most basic vetting journalists rightly expect all leading politicians to submit to. Every four years, presidential nominees authorize their doctors to divulge their otherwise-confidential health information so that voters have confidence they won’t elect someone in poor health to run the government. Recently, Trump’s former personal doctor revealed that Trump pressured him into releasing a letter, which Trump himself dictated, declaring Trump would be the healthiest president in history. The contents of the letter were facially absurd—an insult to sentient people everywhere. Trump should have been hounded for releasing an obvious forgery, for misleading the media and the public, and for hiding his true medical history. Instead, headlines unskeptically declared Trump to be in excellent health and reporters chased “stories” about Trump allies who were peddling a conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton had serious health issues, based on no evidence.
Another inherent media bias allows Trump to move on past old scandals as new ones come to the forefront.
Take his history of sexual assault. Over a dozen women have come forward to credibly accuse Trump of groping and kissing them without consent. But because they spoke out before the election, it is considered old news in many corners of the media. When Ronan Farrow broke news about Trump’s consensual affairs, one fact stood out: Trump approached those women at the same location, and using the same modus operandi, that Summer Zervos described in recounting the time Trump assaulted her. Here was incredible corroborating evidence that her allegation is true, yet because Zervos claims are old news, Trump hasn’t been pressed to address them since Farrow’s story ran, and his history of assault has faded from the discourse.
He’s also never been forced to repudiate old lies long after they’ve been debunked, allowing them to fester in conservative media and the minds of his supporters. When was Trump or his press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, last asked if the White House still maintains that the previous president tapped his phones—a debunked allegation that, if true, would have been one of the biggest scandals in American history? It’s been a while, and yet that manufactured conspiracy theory continues to percolate on the right as a plausible version of events.
As I write this, the president and his supporters continue to peddle the “SPYGATE” myth Trump ranted about in Nashville, but because it has been conclusively refuted outside of the pro-Trump alternate reality, many reporters believe their job is done: They have sought the truth and found it, but don’t see waging a battle against those who continue to repeat lies as their responsibility. Any other politician he would be unable to hold a press conference until he or she had backed down from the claim because reporters would not let any other message break through.
There are no shortage of excuses for this leniency. Take Trump seriously, but not literally! People knew what they were getting when they voted for him! That’s just the way people from Queens talk! Trump coverage is already overwhelmingly negative!
But here’s the thing: If the leader of the country is lying 100 percent of the time, then the coverage of his comments needs to be 100 percent negative. Trump uses the sense that coverage of the president needs to be balanced to avoid accountability. It’s why pundits lavish praise on him anytime he gives a speech that doesn’t include conspiratorial race-baiting, and have been quick to praise him for a nascent diplomatic entreaty with North Korea that, by any relative measure, has been messy and ad hoc at best.
Covering Trump is no doubt more challenging than covering past presidents. Some days reporters rise to the occasion and some days they don’t. But few reporters, and no major media outlets, have concluded that a president who lies systematically should be covered in a systematically different way than his predecessors. He routinely calls the maxim that there are two sides to every story into question. At the very least, he demands a level of fact checking that previously would have been considered absurd or gratuitous, and necessitates keeping “old news” in the headlines, even as new outrages pile up.
Trump has declared the media the enemy of the people, and the media has responded with no fresh tactics. He is fighting a war that uses the media’s own rules against it, and he is winning in a landslide.