For a lot of good reasons, the press in the United States has been seen as adversarial to President Donald Trump. In his waning days as a lame duck president and on the cusp of the Joe Biden presidency, my hope is that the press remains in that adversarial posture.
There are two huge caveats to make before I go further:
- There is a cynical nihilism out there that wants to flatten all politicians as all being liars and corrupt. And in so doing such a flattening, Trump is par for the course as a politician and a president. So nothing matters, and as such, Trump is not unique in how the press should treat him; therefore, the press having a unique adversarial footing is biased or unfair. But that’s all asinine: Trump is unique among politicians for the frequency of his lies and the manner of his lies, i.e., he lies about everything, big and small, consequential and inconsequential. Not all politicians are like that. The press pointing that out is not bias. It’s accurately reporting reality.
- A lot of people would frame the dynamic of the last four years as an adversarial relationship between the press and Trump. In some ways, this is true. Calling lies as “lies” and his racist remarks as “racist” both, while again, accurate reporting of reality, feel adversarial in a way new and unique to Donald Trump. But also, in many ways beyond the purview of this blog post lest it be a 10,000-word screed, the press actually is biased in favor of Trump. That seems impossible, right? Well, the press tends to take Trump’s inane ramblings and rantings and just how abnormal he is and filters it through normal, sensible channels for quotes in newspapers and soundbites on the evening newscast, like he was any other president. The duality is that Trump in some ways is treated as the unique oddity he is, and in other ways his uniqueness is flattened to the mean. In other words, arguably, the press hasn’t done a good enough job of demonstrating just how “out of bounds” the president is from normalcy or what we ought to expect of normalcy.
The press should be adversarial to the president of the United States. I almost take that as an axiomatic statement because the president of the United States is the most powerful human being on the planet, governing the most powerful country in human history, and the press, as a collective modus operandi, should have a healthy skepticism of power and those wielding it.
But, something that’s also darn near axiomatic is that it seems a lot of people don’t agree with what I just said, or at least, don’t view it as that important. I also, think anecdotally, if you were to dig into the “watchdog” question from that poll I linked, people on a basic level, don’t see the press’ job as being adversarial to the president, whether the president is a Republican or a Democrat. Maybe that flips depending on who is in power, i.e., the partisans out of power want the press to be adversarial to the partisans in power, and vice versa. But, generally, an adversarial posture is seen as unfair and biased. That’s because both the press (and it’s frustrating to even use “the press” or “the media” as a catch-all since there’s layers upon layers further complicating the story) and those consuming the press have disagreements about what “fairness” and “objectivity” mean and what the purpose of the press is, and if the press should even pursue lofty notions of “objectivity” at all. If there’s not a firm ground for the press to project these mission statements, then to be fair to the public, it’s obvious why they also have issues with understanding such terms and measuring their expectations as news consumers. That’s before even getting into the complicating questions of what’s “opinion,” “analysis,” “commentary,” “editorials,” and the other category of the fact-checking business. These are complicated, and can be a minefield for the press and readers alike.
Before I go down this rabbit hole too far, I’m not trying to do an autopsy on the deterioration in trust of the media, or even to go too deep on what all those terms I mentioned mean. That’s too big a discussion for the overall point I want to make, which is that the press should continue to treat the president in a healthy, skeptical fashion.
The press should hold the powerful accountable, and there’s no more powerful person than the president of the United States. That’s it. Ask tough questions. Persistently. That persistence is another thing that irritates the public; they see it as being mean and annoying and making the news about yourself to persistently ask someone in power the same question over and over again to get an answer. But if the person in power is obfuscating or refusing to answer the question or lying, then it’s the press’ job to highlight that and push back against it.
That includes Joe Biden when he becomes president. Since Trump set such a unique bar, but also a low bar, I worry that the press and public alike are going to pull our foot off of the gas on holding the president of the United States, as I keep hammering home, the most powerful human being on the planet, who is governing the most powerful country in human history, accountable for the power he wields. Life and death power, mind you, not just there, but the world over.
It would be a mistake. Not because bad faith actors in the conservative world expect that to happen to feed into their narrative that the press has a liberal bias and they expect the press to take a “vacation” for the next four (or eight) years, but because on its own merits, again, the press’ modus operandi ought to be adversarial to those in power.
Some of my colleagues in the profession might think so far the overall premise, again, has been axiomatic and of course the press is going to maintain being adversarial to Biden while he holds public office. You may argue the likes of Maggie Haberman, Kaitlan Collins, Yamiche Alcindor, and David Fahrenthold of the world, among others, who all have sort of made their mark during the Trump years, will continue to be adversarial and do great journalism. I don’t disagree. I respect all of them and others greatly for what they’ve done. I want to be like them, in fact.
But, my concern isn’t without merit. There was healthy (to use that word again) constructive criticism of the press during Obama’s eight years that they weren’t adversarial enough, and I can think of exceptions to that (deep reporting on drones by The New York Times, Jake Tapper back when he was a White House correspondent stood out among the others for his probing questions, etc.), but I know I was one of the voices wishing his feet were held just a little bit closer to the fire on a number of issues. And to be clear, I don’t think it’s a “liberal bias.” I think it’s a government power bias that pervades the press regardless of which party is in power.
Honestly, it’s hard to even imagine what the next four years in terms of the relationship between the press and the president is going to be like after these four years. I don’t know if it’s going to be like a bad hangover, and Biden will skate by because of that, if the press will indeed remain vigilant and adversarial, or something somewhere in between, but I’ll be curious to see.
What do you think? I know I went over a lot in a short post (relative to what we’re discussing), but I wanted to lay down a marker and a flag here of my expectations for the next four years.
Great article. The media have a duty to ask the questions we want answered and to call politicians out when they inevitably dodge those questions. Failure to do so makes them look weak and ultimately complicit, which in the case of Trump is a dangerous stance.
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Well-said, and thank you for reading/commenting!