Far too many Republican officeholders have treated the press as capable of taking them down regardless of the facts. Even Reagan kowtowed to “the Fourth Estate” about certain things. George W. Bush started out well, on one memorable occasion openly telling the assembled barons of the media that he didn’t automatically assume that their reportage accurately reflected reality, but lacked the resilience to do so for his full eight years.
But there are new guns in town: Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway, Steve Bannon, and of course their boss Donald J. Trump, and their fully justified ferocity toward the media is already having a salutary effect:
The New York Times quietly issued a major correction to an editorial attacking the electoral college in December, admitting it has in fact defended the electoral college at a time when it was politically expedient for Democrats.
The paper ran the editorial calling for an end to the electoral college in December, when Democrats were harping on the fact that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton beat President Donald Trump in the popular vote, and calling for reforms to make the system more “fair.” Obviously seeking to avoid the editorial position as politically motivated, the editorial emphasized what turned out to be a false claim that the paper has opposed the electoral college system for 80 years....
But the next day, the NYTimes ran a correction that went almost entirely unnoticed, stating the paper had in fact supported the electoral college when President George W. Bush won the 2000 presidential election. “It failed to note an exception: in 2000, the board defended the college after the election of George W. Bush,” the correction reads, totally undermining the idea that its new opposition to the electoral college is not motivated by a distaste for Trump.
The debate over the moral validity of the Electoral College goes back many decades. In the usual case, objections to it arise from the losing side when the loser has garnered a popular-vote advantage. This counterpoise of the popular vote with the EC will never be completely settled, even though it was the explicit desire of the Founding Fathers to enable and defend exactly such a result.
However, my concentration for today is on the behavior of the ever more openly partisan Main Stream Media. Time was, no correction such as the one noted above would have been issued. That was the Media Way: The facts are what we report; if we didn’t mention it, then it didn’t happen. The emergence of alternatives to the broadcast and print media did make some inroads against such self-serving duplicity, but the pushback was never more than halfway sufficient.
What’s making the difference today is an Administration whose members – so far, at least – are ready, willing, and able to call the media out on its claims. That Administration enjoys sufficient popular support to withstand media counterblasts. Kellyanne Conway in particular has demonstrated this in her exchanges of fire with Chuck Todd and others.
Trump himself has taken some criticism, including from the Right, about his seeming need to “win all the battles,” including battles he, having “won the war,” supposedly need not fight. There’s some truth to this. Yet Trump’s exceptional combativeness, tempered by decades in the rough-and-tumble, utterly unforgiving New York Metro real-estate marketplace and joustings with its press, might be the indispensable emotional foundation for his and his lieutenants’ willingness to stick to their guns and keep on firing. If that’s the case – and given how heartened his supporters have been by his people’s consistent feistiness, I think it more likely than not – then on net balance that win-all-the-battles “fault” is really an asset.
Trump’s supporters are cheered, and rightly so, by every outcome of this kind. But I await the day an honest, responsible member of the media confronts the Times, the Washington Post, or some other Democrat mouthpiece with pretensions to “impartiality” with a question such as the following:
It will be a delicious moment. May it come soon!
[For an expanded treatment of the subject of media power and its partisan inclinations, I cannot recommend too highly The Flight From Truth, by the late Jean-Francois Revel. The chapter on the press is exceptionally illuminating. Read it!]
UPDATE: Much of political “journalism” is driven by a desire to maintain a particular, cherished status among media competitors. Read Roger Simon’s essay on this today:
[W]hy would anybody ever, by tradition or for any other reason, always get to ask the first or even the fifth question at a White House press briefing or conference?
Or, to drill down a little further, why does any media outlet get preference over any other when it comes to asking questions? Or still further, who determines what reporters and organizations get into the briefing room in the first place to sit forever in rows one or two?
Well, um... professionalism.
Oh, I see. Is that a degree from Columbia Journalism School? Hemingway didn't even go to college and could outwrite everyone in that briefing room by an exponential factor. Journalism isn't brain surgery or even anesthesiology. It's an occupation for ambitious hustlers with a gift for gab not so different from screenwriting, but not so high paying.
The truth is that those organizations are indeed there by tradition, a tradition of droit du seigneur and corporate thuggery that makes you yearn for the extension of anti-trust legislation.
You get the position, you keep the position. It's a game of rich, entrenched bullies that happen to be monolithic media companies anxious to preserve their monopolies.
Of course, sillier things have been done for even sillier reasons:
Tony: Alice, you talk as though only you could understand them. That’s not true. Why, every family has got curious little traits. What of it? My father raises orchids at ten thousand dollars a bulb. Is that sensible? My mother believes in spiritualism. That’s just as bad as your mother writing plays, isn’t it?
Alice: It goes deeper, Tony. Your mother believes in spiritualism because it’s fashionable, and your father raises orchids because he can afford to. My mother writes plays because eight years ago a typewriter was delivered here by mistake.
[From You Can’t Take It With You]