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How The Press Normalized President Trump: The First 100 Days

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How The Press Normalized President Trump: The First 100 Days

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Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters.

The 2016 presidential campaign broke political journalism, with too many reporters and pundits relentlessly feeding their audiences a dog’s breakfast of false equivalence seasoned with sensationalism. Then came the transition, which saw much of the press watching from the sidelines, parroting Donald Trump’s often-false tweets without sufficient context and failing to hold him accountable for his extreme Cabinet selections.

There has been no dramatic improvement since Trump took office, with press coverage of the first hundred days of his presidency marred by excessive normalization of a distinctly abnormal chief executive. Far too many members of the political press in the Amtrak corridor — the journalists and pundits with platforms at major print, digital, and TV outlets who set the tone for coverage of the president through their reporting and commentary on the news of the day — have kept the same methods, mindsets, and frames of reference under a very different type of president.

Some suggest that there is no need to change because Trump’s election means his presidency is normal by definition. “The states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania ‘normalized’” Trump, New York Times White House correspondent Glenn Thrush tweeted earlier this week. His colleagues in the political press cheeredhim on, scoffing at critics who have argued that papering over Trump’s violations of ethical norms and his history of racism and misogyny poses a threat to the health of our body politic by dramatically shifting our expectations for what is acceptable in public life.

I have sympathy for reporters who are active on Twitter — they must often feel like they are in a social media shooting gallery, their every word scrutinized by an ever-changing assembly of critics. I can see how being constantly exhorted not to normalize the president of the United States might quickly grow tiresome. But that does not make the argument against normalization any weaker, or excuse the ways that too many journalists have failed their audience.

There are any number of explanations for why the political press has not changed in response to Trump. The siren call of access to a president who is willing to grant interviews on a whim is constant. Decades of favoring coverage of style over substance have left the press viewing everything through the lens of optics, rendering them less capable of zooming out and seeing the bigger picture. It is unpleasant and difficult to dwell on the breadth of the president’s apparent stupidity and corruption. Political journalists at major outlets are overwhelmingly white men — a demographic group mostly not targeted by Trump’s extremism — creating “a dominant point of view in the press that … squeezes out other perspectives,” as Oliver Willis has noted. And Trump’s complete failure to pass legislation and his ineptitude in filling out his administration have rightfully consumed much media bandwidth.

But here’s where Trump has succeeded: He’s shattered political norms and reshaped them in his own image. He’s used the power of the White House to enrich himself and his family in unprecedented ways, with no meaningful separation between the interests of his corporate empire and the country. He’s repeatedly sought to delegitimize any institution — be it judges, or the press, or the bureaucracy — that stands in his way. He’s operated amid a legitimacy crisis, constantly fending off new evidence that Russian government efforts to influence the election were tied to his campaign. And he’s demonstrated a palpable lack of concern for his ignorance of world affairs while spending hours live-tweeting cable news broadcasts.

But faced with these unprecedented strikes at the heart of the democratic system, many reporters and pundits have frequently fallen back on a familiar trope from the campaign — constantly looking for, and claiming they have found, the elusive Trump pivot to normalcy. In their efforts to normalize Trump, the depth of his extremism and corruption is too often swept aside, as major stories are abandoned while reporters follow the shiny object.

To be sure, these conditions are not universal. There are bright spots throughout the major bastions of Beltway reporting. And investigative journalists have feasted on the wealth of conflicts of interest throughout the administration, and provided new and expanding insight into the investigations of Russian efforts to impact the 2016 election. I’ve also been impressed with the efforts by many journalists to correct, collate, and categorize the president’s many lies.

But as The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan has pointed out, “For every great scoop, there’s been an embarrassing moment of declaring the president statesmanlike for giving a speech without a history-making gaffe.”

Following the president’s February speech to a joint session of Congress, journalists rushed to proclaim that Trump had “hit the reset button” and, before their eyes, “became president of the United States,” in the infamous words of CNN’s Van Jones. Trump is still crowing about the praise he received from the press.

Five weeks (and numerous mishaps) later, pundits found a new reason to declare that the page had turned and Trump had “truly” become president after he ordered airstrikes against the Syrian government. Those rave reviews so impressed the president that we warned they may actually increase the chances of future military action.

And indeed, in mid-April the U.S. military dropped its most powerful conventional bomb on an Islamic State complex in Afghanistan, triggering a new round of obsessive, fawning coverage from the cable news networks.

These periods of over-the-top praise for the president have come even as the Trump administration frequently lashes out at the press in unprecedented ways. Over the past 100 days, the president and his top aides have declared the media to be the “opposition party” and “enemy of the American people,” blacklisted critical news outlets in favor of sycophantic ones, publicly berated individual journalists, and engaged in unusual efforts to deny access to the press.

News outlets — led by a White House Correspondents Association that at times seemed most interested in whether Trump would attend its annual dinner — have often proven unable to respond collectively.

Press coverage of Trump’s supporters also deserves criticism, whether it be the seemingly endless stream of articles coddling the Trump fans who still like him, or the pieces on the “alt-right” that demonstrate an ignorance of the way white nationalism and misogyny are intrinsic to their worldview.

NBC News has responded to Trump’s election by hiring and elevating conservative commentators who have accommodated him. CNN’s news hours are politics as sport, built around endless, fruitless debatesbetween fawning professional Trump fans hired by the network to defend literally anything he does, and everyone else. Fox News is almost entirely on the Trump Train, with a lineup dominated by the president’s most fervent supporters, their cheering carefully calibrated to bring in praise from and access to the most powerful man in the country.

The political press is still not rising to the challenge. They are still normalizing a fundamentally abnormal president. We deserve better.

Images by Sarah Wasko

 

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6 Comments

  1. secondclassguy May 1, 2017

    I see this like cocaine dealers and the DEA, without each other they both can’t exist. There’s a section of the media that got Trump elected, that would be the alex jones and AM radio. Trump became a parrot of that section that has brainwashed our beavis and buthead generation. So just as that section of the media can’t be cut off from other parts of the media, no more than an arm can be dismembered, it must be preserved like Trump. It’s like some cancers are just inoperable

    Reply
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  2. Dominick Vila May 2, 2017

    Trump’s behavior throughout the campaign, and during his first 100 days in office, only “normalized” Trump if the definition of that term is focused on demonstrable ignorance of relevant matters, and more troubling, signs of mental instability. His behavior is getting worse, not better, and that is a fact that should never be confused with normality.

    Reply
    1. Independent1 May 2, 2017

      Dominick, in maybe an interesting coincidence, there was article in yesterday’s Washington Post by Jennifer Rubin about Trump not being a ‘normal’ president. During the Obama Administration, Jennifer usually sounded like a very strong Republican, in that, many of her articles were very critical of Obama or some of his administrations actions. So it’s kind of interesting that now, like George Will, Jennifer is very antagonistic to Trump; and of course, rightly so as I think she sees him as virtually destroying the GOP brand.

      And in here article Jennifer Rubin does point out a number of Trump’s actions and positions that are not ‘normal’. If you haven’t read it, you might find it of interest in that the remarks are coming from someone who is essentially a Republican.

      Here are some excerpts:

      This is not a normal president

      Republican consultant Ana Navarro on CNN’s State of the Union aptly summarized events on Saturday: “You had Trump, President Trump in Pennsylvania, speaking to his base, feeding red meat to the base and being divisive. You had the press celebrating the press standing up for journalism and you had the resistance marching in sweltering heat in Washington for climate change and against Trump.”

      It’s normal for activists to march in favor of their causes (climate change was the issue this week). It’s certainly normal for the press to defend the First Amendment. What is not normal is for the president on his 100th day in office to rant and rave about the media in a campaign-style screed. It’s not normal for the president of the United States and leader of the Free World to declare:
      “Media outlets like CNN and MSNBC are fake news. . . . They are a disgrace.” It’s not normal for a president to stand in front of a crowd citing poll ratings — about the press. And it’s sure not normal to read the poem “The Snake” to describe illegal immigrants.

      It’s not normal to rack up a record 488 falsehoods in the first 100 days in office and to repeat the same falsehoods over and over again. It’s not normal for a president to continue to question a foreign power’s responsibility for its well-documented, comprehensive effort to sway our elections. Yes, he is still doing that despite what all his national security advisers tell him.

      During the first 100 days the Republic has survived, but the GOP, permanently we think, has been morally compromised and intellectually
      corrupted, just as many of us warned. “Everything Trump touches dies,” GOP consultant Rick Wilson is fond of saying. Trump’s victims now include a respectable Republican Party.

      For a bit that I left out, go here:

      https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/right-turn/wp/2017/05/01/this-is-not-a-normal-president/?utm_term=.f36d9f6e91ce&wpisrc=nl_popns&wpmm=1

      Reply
  3. FireBaron May 2, 2017

    By not holding Teflon Donnie’s feet to the fire (like they did Nixon, Carter, Clinton) they have effectively been treating him with the same kid gloves they did Dubya. In Dubya’s case, they knew the “Chief Decider” already had his decisions made for him by VP Cheney before he even knew there was an issue, so why take him to task for it. In Teflon Donnie’s case, they are afraid if they hold his feet too close to the fire, he will implode and we will be stuck with President Pence!

    Reply
    1. Independent1 May 2, 2017

      Yes, Pence as president is certainly a strong deterrent. I don’t think it took Pence an entire term as governor to turn Indiana into the nation’s 3rd most miserable state in which to live according to Gallup-Healthways. A state with relatively high poverty, high unemployment, high obesity rates because of so much poverty and joblessness, high uses of alcohol and drugs, high rates of people in depression; the number of people working for poverty level wages and on and on. And just think what he could do to the entire country if given 3 plus years to work at destroying it. The GOP is clearly caught between a rock and a hard place.

      Reply

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