With CNN Flap, Media's Trump-Era Identity Crisis Continues

Last year, Trump turned his opponents into cartoon characters. This year, it's us

U.S. President Donald Trump takes questions from reporters during a news conference announcing Alexander Acosta as the new Labor Secretary nominee in the East Room at the White House on February 16, 2017 in Washington, DC. Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty

Donald Trump's great talent as a politician – some might call it an anti-talent – is his ability to bring everyone down to his level.

In primary season last year, long-serving governors and senators began acting like heel wrestlers and carnival acts. Forced to compete with Trump on his home turf of schoolyard insults and reality-show skirmishes, his Republican opponents wilted.

The same thing is now happening with the news media, which is having the mother of all bad weeks.

Early in his presidency, Trump described the press as a kind of villainous monolith in the rolling WWE act that is his presidency – a blackguard he called "The opposition party."

Thanks to the latest seismic catastrophe to rock the news business, Trump's vision looks like reality. The blow came when CNN bollocked up a Trump-Russia expose so badly that its factual problems could be exposed by the likes of Breitbart and Sputnik.

The network, relying on a single anonymous source, reported that Senate investigators were examining the behavior of a close Trump adviser, former Goldman executive Anthony Scaramucci. Scaramucci was supposedly suspected of holding a secret meeting with a Russian investment fund, with the aim perhaps of discussing the removal of sanctions.

Scaramucci denied the story to CNN, saying only that he ran into a Russian official at Davos: "He came over to say hello in a restaurant, and I was cordial."

When challenged on this and other points by the loathsome Breitbart as well as the Russian-funded Sputnik, CNN, in a move that pain-wise must have been comparable to passing a string of gallstones, said it couldn't stand by its reporting. The network issued a retraction and an apology to Scaramucci, and three reporters, including a recent Pulitzer Winner, resigned. Trumpcore social media exploded in glee: #CNNIsFakeNews is still trending.

The episode came after another one in which four CNN reporters mistakenly reported that James Comey was expected in Senate testimony to dispute Donald Trump's account that he was not a target of an FBI investigation. CNN was forced to issue a retraction after Comey testified and the opposite turned out to be true.

Even worse, the villainous Project Veritas – the bête noire of right-wing gotcha journalism, whose James O'Keefe makes the late Andrew Breitbart seem like Edward R. Murrow – succeeded all of this with a CNN-targeted prank that turned out to be darkly related.

CNN has confirmed the veracity of a tape showing hidden-camera conversations between an O'Keefe plant and a producer from the network's medical coverage unit.

In it, CNN producer John Bonifield says the network has been focusing on the Russia story "because it's ratings." In another sequence, he explains that "Trump is good for business right now," and that higher-ups were ordered to return to the story after spending too long – a day and a half – covering the Paris accords.

After this nightmare hit the Internet, Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders – after kicking off a presser with a softball from Breitbart, whose former chief Steve Bannon is of course a key Trump adviser – recommended that America watch the sting video. "I would encourage everyone in this room, and, frankly, everyone across the country, to take a look at it," she said.

She then launched into a tirade against what she called a "constant barrage of fake news." This inspired Brian Karem, the editor of the Montgomery County Sentinel, to stand up and deliver a broadside against the Trump administration.

"What you just did is inflammatory to people all over the country," Karem said. "[People] look at it and say, 'See, once again, the president's right, and everybody else out here is fake media.'"

The White House press room had been turned into a Vince McMahon set. It started with a classically phony setup from a Breitbart plant, then moved on to stylized shouting matches between press and administration that inspired, as all good wrestling acts do, perfectly divided audiences. Some cheered, some hissed, but everyone watched.

The news media is now in its second year of a profound identity crisis. Across the business, reporters have struggled with how to cover Trump, a political menace who villainized and threatened the press and defied consensus pronouncements about factuality.

Eventually, many reporters came to believe Trump was so bad that the press should step out of its normal "detached" role and do more to stop him. But that might have played right into Trump's hands.

Not all the changes have been bad. Ditching some of the sillier old conventions of "objectivity" has been a good thing overall, as NYU professor Mitchell Stephens points out in a Politico article entitled, "Goodbye, Non-Partisan Journalism. And Good Riddance."

As Stephens notes, a lot of the old "objective" format had its origins in a commercial strategy from the last century, as networks sought ways to attract wider audiences:

"[News organizations] picked up the habit of reflexively pairing a quote from the Republicans with one from the Democrats. This is a variety of what the sharp-eyed and sardonic press critic A. J. Liebling once dubbed, 'on-the-one-hand-this, on-the-other-hand-that' journalism."

The parsing instinct became so ingrained that media organizations began to feel terror at the idea of having opinions about anything. This was symbolized by the ludicrous evolution of the house editorial at daily newspapers, which often involved nameless editors spinning 700 words in a rhetorical circle before dismounting in an ass-covering question: "Should we do X, or should we do Y? Only time will tell."

Today, few serious journalists believe in "objectivity." Every story is filled with editorial choices. Is the article on the front page, or buried inside? Is the headline alarmist, or are horrible things sanitized via a misleadingly academic tone? And are you using words like dissemble when you really mean lie?

It's that last point that triggered the recent sea change. Stephens traced the laborious path that mainstream news organizations took to get to the point where they could say something as simple as, "Trump lied."

Traditional outlets spent the campaign season tiptoeing toward reality, as if afraid to wake it. They went in stages, first skirting Trump-lying stories more or less completely, then experimenting first with terms like "false" and "falsehood," then finally congratulating themselves when they at last progressed to using what they unironically called "the L word" (lie) in a headline.

All of this was surely absurd, and it's good that we're mostly past it. But in the Trump era, the new threat is that we're replacing one bad commercial formula with another. This is borne out in the unsettling fact that media companies are suddenly awash in cash, despite public confidence in our work being at an all-time low. As Variety explains:

"Viewership for the primetime schedules of CNN, Fox News and MSNBC increased 55% to 4.8 million viewers in 2016, while daytime cable viewership grew 36%. In the first half of this year, viewing levels have not shrunk."

Instead of seeking out broad audiences by selling vanilla coverage and phony "balance," big media companies today are abandoning hope of being credible in both directions, and instead aggressively hunting for demographics. Being a quasi-official White House outlet like Breitbart or Infowars that targets Trump fans sells, but so does being "the opposition party."

In an attempt to explain the high primetime viewership among the key 25-54 demographic, Variety described the tenor of recent news programming:

"Due to the controversies swirling around the Trump administration, many nights feel as momentous for the future of the country as Election Night."

This emergency feel to coverage keeps concerned adults glued to the screen. Some of this is because events like the Comey firing demand that kind of reporting. But in the dead spots in between breaking stories, there is now enormous pressure to keep generating head-shot scoops.

That pressure is exacerbated by rebranding campaigns. The Washington Post's "Democracy Dies in Darkness" motto, for instance, is bold and high-risk marketing, but it creates audience expectations that they'll be reading the rescue of democracy with their morning coffee. These La Resistance expectations are hard to meet, and can lead to reporting misses.

For all the flaws in the business, reporters used to have few existential concerns. It wasn't our job to save democracy. We were taught that our only job was to get things right, and that it was up to others – politicians, activists, voters – to do the fixing. To be useful all we had to do was give people better information with which to make those decisions.

That's all changed. Journalists for two years now have been trapped between two nefarious forces pushing them out of their natural roles – Trump, and their own profitability model. Both evils have pushed us into this horrid WWE stage of our existence, where reporters too often have been baited into becoming half of a very profitable clown act.

I agree with professor Stephens that we shouldn't romanticize journalism's past. But being on nobody's side wasn't such a bad thing, either. On top of everything else, Trump has ruined this job.