Just about everyone now concedes that the media have it in for Donald Trump. A survey of eight major news organs during the primaries, conducted by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy—one I cited in a previous post—showed that the press grew increasingly hostile to Trump, peaking at 61 percent negative to 39 percent positive at the end of the primary season. Even the conservative, Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal editorialized that he should consider quitting the race, and the normally cautious NBC Nightly News has turned reporter Katy Tur into a one-woman truth squad, correcting Trump whoppers.
If you deplore media cowardice, you might think this is a good thing, not because Trump is a mortal danger to this country, although he is, but because it means the press is doing its job. That is not, however, the way some media critics see it, and not just those with a stake in Trump’s promotion, like Howard Kurtz of Fox News, who has accused the media of “piling on” poor Donald.
There is now a debate over whether Trump-bashing is undermining media credibility. Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone, one of our most perceptive political journalists, warned in an essay last week that the mainstream media were getting perilously close to becoming partisan, pro-Democrat or pro-Republican, rather than ideological, tilting left or right, the way they used to be. And he felt the implications for the media were enormous. As he put it, “Once you jump in the politicians’ side of the pool, it’s not so easy to get out again.”
If accurate, this would be a big deal, but I think Taibbi’s analysis is based on two flawed premises. First, that the media are now arrayed in two camps: Republican and Democrat. And second, that Trump bashing (and Hillary bashing, for that matter) are the result of partisan side-taking and not of the candidates’ considerable flaws—in Trump’s case, that he is a bigot, a compulsive liar, an ignoramus when it comes to policy, and a demagogue who is already attempting to delegitimize our electoral system to explain his anticipated loss. In fact, far from being “in the tank” for the political parties, as Taibbi puts it, I think the media might finally be performing one of the services they are supposed to perform: holding candidates accountable for their words and deeds.
This is a good thing, and we may have Trump to thank for it.
Let’s look at the second charge first—that the liberal media have it in for Trump, which is exactly what Trump has been saying, even as he boasts about how much media attention he gets. (The “piling on” is the “worst in American history,” he tweeted on Tuesday.) In an essay this past week, Vox’s Ezra Klein, another brilliant political analyst, remarked on the media’s revulsion at Trump, and then went on to explain why they have abandoned any pretense of neutrality to go after him. He believes that the press has been liberated by the fact that many conservatives don’t much like Trump any more than liberals do (thus challenging Taibbi’s thesis), that Trump’s gross misinformation and disinformation insults the press in a “visceral” way, that the New York- and Washington-centric press has a “cosmopolitan” bias that works against a yahoo like Trump, and finally that the press feels both institutionally and personally, even physically, threatened by the prospect of a Trump victory.
Nothing Klein says is on its face untrue, and I am particularly sympathetic to his notion of a cosmopolitan bias—one I discussed myself in an earlier post—not because it is unfair to Trump, but because it skews coverage away from the disempowered and toward elites. Let’s face it, the media are self-serving.
But sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and it is important to note that whatever theories you can concoct for an anti-Trump bias, the simple truth may be that, if you are any kind of journalist, you cannot cover him honestly without rebutting nearly everything he says. For a journalist to correct Trump’s whoppers isn’t taking sides against him any more than a scientist would be taking sides against someone who declares the moon is made of green cheese. As Klein admits, you can’t treat Trump as if he were a normal candidate saying normal things because he isn’t one. The danger isn’t that reporters will gang up on him. The danger is that by not ganging up on him they will normalize the surreal circus he provides—a circus that is subverting our political life.
That brings me back to Taibbi. He isn’t critical of the media attacking Trump. His criticism is of a Trump-induced journalistic polarization that mirrors our political polarization and threatens our media the same way political polarization has threatened our politics. “We now have one set of news outlets that gives us the bad news about Democrats, and another set of news outlets bravely dedicated to reporting the whole truth about Republicans,” Taibbi writes, and goes on to report the result—namely that “we have no credible news media left.” He calls the current coverage the “worst case of journo-shilling we’ve seen since the run-up to the Iraq War.”
This endangers journalism, he says, because when you shill for a party, the way Fox News shills for the GOP, you lose credibility, even with your own viewers. All media take the hit. No one believes anything.
But is what Taibbi says about a binary media true? Conservative media actually are deeply divided between those who think Trump is the Second Coming (Fox News, Breitbart) and those who see him as the devil destroying ideological conservatism (The National Review, The Weekly Standard). CNN, which Taibbi places on the Democratic Party side of the divide, also pays former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, even though, reportedly, he continues to advise Trump. Meanwhile, CNN employs Dem operatives too, letting apologists from each side commandeer their air. The trouble with CNN may not be, as Taibbi says, that it is partisan, but that it is bipartisan, serving up both Republican and Democratic spin instead of journalism.
In fact, if, as Taibbi claims, this year’s election coverage is “unique,” it is not because we suddenly have Democratic and Republican news outlets (let’s face it, Fox News was always the propaganda arm of the GOP) or that Trump and the GOP are getting hammered by one part of the MSM and Clinton and the Dems by the other part, but that both candidates are getting very negative coverage across the board. In that Shorenstein study reporting Trump’s overwhelmingly unfavorable coverage in the final five weeks of the primary season, Hillary Clinton’s was scarcely better, and, for that matter, neither was Bernie Sanders.’ (By the way, the GOP losers—Cruz and Rubio and Kasich—got the worst coverage, suggesting a pro-winners bias.) And Shorenstein was looking across a range of the so-called MSM. Maybe things will look different when we get a survey of the post-primary coverage, but will that be because the presumed Democratic media were aligned against Trump or because he kept shooting himself in the foot? Will it be because GOP media were aligned against Hillary or because her emails kept popping up?
The media are banging away at both Trump and Clinton, and, if you exclude Fox and MSNBC, the way diving competitions throw out the low and high scores, the same outlets are often doing the bashing, neither an anti-Trump free-for-all nor a Republican and Democratic media schism. In fact, it may be a matter of the normal media bias toward negativity going mega-negative. The media really, really seem to hate everybody this election.
So both Ezra Klein and Matt Taibbi may be wrong about the state of the media in Campaign 2016. For all the havoc he has wrought elsewhere, Trump may have actually awakened some in the MSM from their long slumber. Sure, they are still too preoccupied with process to fasten on policy. Sure, they are still beholden to false equivalencies between Trump and Clinton. Sure, they are still likely to succumb to criticism and reverse course if they get accused of being too hard on Trump. But for all that, the media aren’t letting Trump get away with his self-contradictions, fabrications and bigotry, and they aren’t letting Clinton get away with her prevarications, political incest with contributors and attempts at misdirection.
Call it partisan bias if you like. I call it journalism. Maybe it’s just been so long since we’ve seen it, we can hardly recognize it.
This post was first published on BillMoyers.com.
Neal Gabler is an author of five books and the recipient of two LA Times Book Prizes, Time magazine’s non-fiction book of the year, USA Today’s biography of the year and other awards. He is also a senior fellow at The Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, and is currently writing a biography of Sen. Edward Kennedy.