Until recently, much of the mainstream media coverage of Donald Trump’s campaign had been largely positive. Yes, there was some early discussion about whether he’s a fascist, and plenty of stories about thuggery at his rallies — but there was also a lot of what we might call a fascination with the chaotic reality-TV show that is the Trump campaign. As the Washington Post‘s Paul Waldman wrote earlier this month, for much of the race there’s been an element of “Wow, is this election crazy or what!” in the reporting about Trump.
A recent Harvard study of Trump coverage in eight major outlets, including Fox News, concluded that the media basically propelled Trump to the nomination. In the year ahead of the primaries, “[m]ajor news outlets covered Donald Trump in a way that was unusual given his low initial polling numbers—a high volume of media coverage preceded Trump’s rise in the polls,” wrote the researchers, noting that the candidate “received far more ‘good press’ than ‘bad press.'” In those eight outlets alone, Trump’s coverage was worth roughly $55 million in ad buys. Estimates that his overall coverage had been worth as much as $2 billion to his barebones campaign “might well be correct,” wrote the authors of the study.
In recent weeks, there’s been a noticeable change in tone. At least some journalists appear to have slipped off their demagoggles (to borrow a term coined by Nicole Hemmer), and are increasingly covering Trump’s habitual falsehoods and stark appeals to white ethnic nationalism in plain terms.
After the Orlando massacre, Trump gave a speech doubling down on his call to bar Muslims from entering the United States. In a New York Times report the same day, Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns called Trump’s blather “rife with the sort of misstatements and exaggerations that have typified his campaign,” and went on to fact-check his claims on the fly. In a follow-up by Patrick Healey and Thomas Kaplan the next day, the Times reporters wrote that “Trump appears wholly focused on the idea that America has reached an existential moment and that only he can save the country, a classic tactic of demagogy.”
The Post‘s Philip Rucker, Jose A. DelReal and Isaac Stanley-Becker called it “a speech laden with falsehoods and exaggeration” and characterized Trump as “antagonistic and pugnacious, in stark contrast with his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.” They also fact-checked “a number of inaccuracies and overstatements.” (CNN has also been fact-checking Trump’s statements in its chyrons of late.)
According to the Harvard study, during the primaries, almost two-thirds of Trump’s coverage in the Times and the Post was positive.
Something happened in the past few weeks to drive this shift. If you still have faith in humanity, you might think it was Trump’s whiny, racist attacks on Judge Gonzalo Curiel and the ham-handed bigotry with which he responded to the Orlando massacre. A more cynical view is that Trump dissed the media one too many times — that he crossed a line when he de-credentialed the Washington Post over a critical story and held a rambling press conference in which he “spent most of the 40 minutes criticizing and insulting reporters — collectively and at times individually — as ‘dishonest,’ ‘not good people,’ sleazy, and among the worst human beings he has ever met,” according to CNN. Neither the bigotry nor the attacks on the press are new, but he turned both up to 11 in recent weeks.
In any event, some on the right are howling about the unfairness of it all, arguing that the “LIEbrul” media’s gone “unhinged” in their coverage of Trump. But they’re not alone. For instance, I know an experienced, center-leftish journalist who’s pretty disturbed by this new tone. He thinks the mainstream press is risking whatever credibility it has left with its new penchant for straight talk, and argues that loaded words signal a partisan bias even when they’re entirely accurate; he thought the media had good reason to be squeamish about describing the Bush administration’s interrogation policies as torture, even when they clearly were. (He declined to talk to me on the record about this.)
I think that only tells us how deeply entrenched the “view from nowhere” approach to journalism really is. Our government was torturing people, and calling it “enhanced interrogation” was an editorial decision that ultimately made the media complicit. Journalism’s ultimate purpose is to report the facts, even if it causes partisans to squawk about “bias.” As a reporter, you know they’ll complain no matter how cautiously you word your reports, so you might as well do your job.
But the bigger problem is that, for all their many faults, Bush and McCain were well within the political mainstream, and they lied like mainstream politicians. Trump’s a different creature. At the end of March, Politifact tallied all of its Trump fact-checks to date, and found that only three percent of the 117 statements it examined were true, and another six percent were “mostly true.” That’s a unique record of dishonesty, even compared to that of a pathological liar like Ted Cruz — 22 percent of Cruz’s fact-checks earned a ruling of “true” or “mostly true.”
It was media malpractice to give a toxic crackpot like Donald Trump a year of largely positive coverage. It’s possible that the shift we’ve seen of late was simply a result of Trump securing the GOP nomination and mainstream journalists realizing with justified dread that he could actually become president.
In an ideal world, the media would safeguard the fundamental principles of our democracy. Trump’s a serial norm-violator, and we should hope that the political press continues to report that out honestly.