The president of the United States constantly attacks any writer or news-reader who is not a sycophant of being a purveyor of Fake News and an Enemy of the People, and joyfully predicts their imminent unemployment. But Donald Trump has had another pernicious effect on the fourth estate: He’s got journalists yelling at each other about how to do their jobs in light of his poisonous ways.
Journalists are mean enough to each other without any incitement from Trump; it’s probably a product of shrinking job opportunities and pressure to generate high-value content on ceaseless demand. “Shoe-leather” or “investigative” reporters often contemptuously dismiss everyone else as a “pundit” or “clickbait chaser,” while opinion journalists tend to spend too much time talking to each other on Twitter. That great middle ground of “political analysis” is often ignored by both tribes as too abstract or too tedious.
Trump has made the atmosphere of mutual recrimination much worse, thanks to his ubiquitous presence and his endless norm-shattering lies and cruel taunts. In the shadow of the big bad wolf, how are we supposed to write about all the piggies trying to survive his rapacious huffing and puffing?
It was enough to drive veteran political writer Peter Hamby to distraction in a rant for Vanity Fair, in which he excoriated journalists for paying attention to Joe Biden’s “gaffes”:
In recent weeks Biden confused Vermont with New Hampshire, tripped over his campaign’s text message number on a debate stage, and blurted out that “poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids.” Biden confuses facts and dates, he exaggerates, he rambles …
[But t]his is 2019, which made the Biden episode so confounding. Donald Trump is president, and he reportedly wants to drop a nuclear bomb into a hurricane. He is toying with the global economy because of a long-standing personal grudge with China. Seven immigrant children have died in U.S. custody under Trump administration detention policies. The Amazon rainforest is burning. Russia and China are continuing to meddle in our political process. With the stakes so high, why is the press still assigning such news value to gaffes?
At another point, Hamby suggests that actual voters don’t care about Biden’s gaffes, in which case, you have to wonder if coverage of them really matters. And he concedes that assessment of Biden’s cognitive powers reflects “reasonable” concerns about the septuagenarian’s age and fitness for office. But still, he fears a double standard:
“In the Trump era, gaffes should be weighted differently because he isn’t just a monumental liar, he’s also a 24/7 gaffe machine who displays a complete ignorance of geopolitics, history, global economics, you name it, on a regular basis,” said John Huey, the former editor in chief of Time, Inc. “But while the media is now inured to his barrage of misstatement, it’s still news when Joe Biden mixes up Vermont with New Hampshire in a campaign speech, or confuses some time sequence of events. To ignore these mistakes leaves you open to charges of bias, but it creates a genuine double standard dilemma.
Hamby wanders off into a long tangent about the history of gaffe coverage in presidential politics, and sings a predictable dirge for the newsrooms of yore, when reporters had integrity and perspective and weren’t blowing on tiny sparks of controversy in pursuit of momentary readership. Maybe he’s right. I was on the consumer side of political news back then, and all I can say is that there sure was a lot less variety before those great honorable newsrooms lost their oligopoly over the biz. But Hamby never really answers the question he raises about how to cover non-Trump political phenomena in the Great Barbarian’s era, other than this bit of wishful thinking:
If news organizations, as flawed as they are, don’t redouble their efforts to separate noise and nonsense from the consequential, who else will? Politicians, propagandists, entertainers and hackers will happily fill the void. The news business has to find a way to remain sober and credible even as every incentive pulls it in the wrong direction.
Sure, we should all endeavor not to give much attention to “noise and nonsense,” but if Trump’s monstrous behavior makes everything else insignificant then how, mechanically, are Democrats supposed to choose someone from among a field of more than 20 candidates to drive him from office in 2020? Biden’s “gaffes” get attention not just because journalists are lazy, but because his main credential for becoming Trump’s opponent is “electability,” which is mostly a matter of style rather than substance. This makes his style rather relevant, aside from the questions of age and fitness that even Hamby deems “reasonable.” It would get tedious pretty fast if instead of reporting on Biden’s gaffes (or his health-care plan, or his paeans to bipartisanship, or any other element of his candidacy), journalists told us which Trumpian thing Biden (or Warren or Sanders) did not do in the course of a day on the campaign trail.
Yes, of course, there’s always a peril of false equivalency when one of our two major parties is led by a former reality-TV cartoon character whose entire M.O. is to validate his supporters’ worst impulses and insult and intimidate everyone else. But can’t the proper balancing of the scales await the comparative part of the election cycle? Don’t Democrats deserve their own little contest, in which Biden is compared to his rivals without fear that The Enemy Is Listening and will indirectly batten on Uncle Joe’s suffering like an energy vampire?
I don’t think the Democrats paying most attention to campaign coverage right now are in any danger of thinking less of any of their candidates than they do of the incumbents. And while “telling the truth” is the ultimate mission of political journalists, we have responsibilities more specific than pointing at Trump ten times a day and shouting: Unclean! Five times a day should suffice. Which should leave plenty of time to cover the policy positions and governing strategies — and yes, the styles — of the Democrats running for president with shoe leather, opining, and analysis.