On Nov. 13, 1969, then Vice President Spiro Agnew passionately denounced television news broadcasters as a biased "unelected elite" who subjected President Richard M. Nixon's speeches to instant analysis. Disagreeing with the views expressed by broadcasters like Walter Cronkite, Agnew argued that the president had a “right” to communicate directly with the people without having his words "characterized through the prejudices of hostile critics." When Agnew went on to call for greater government regulation of the media’s "virtual monopoly" on public information, Cronkite responded that such a call was "an implied threat to freedom of speech in this country."
Many have argued that President Donald Trump's administration has borrowed heavily from the Nixon-Agnew playbook. Trump referenced the “silent majority” throughout his campaign — a term that Nixon popularized in a 1969 speech. When Trump repeatedly attacks the press, calling the media the “enemy of the people,” it's easy to hear echoes of Agnew.
But while members of the Trump team draw on their predecessors, it would be a mistake to see a complete pattern match. One can only wonder what would have happened if Nixon had access to Twitter and we can only guess at the possibility of a Nixon-era Steve Bannon in the White House. While tabloid news like that found in the National Enquirer has a much longer history than today’s alt-news, we never have had such an open and obvious propaganda machine coming out of the White House.
Agnew referred to the press as an “unelected elite.” Trump's chief strategist Bannon raised him one and has described the press as the “opposition party.” Trump’s endless press slurs are too numerous to even list. And these are just the open and public attacks. As Carole Cadwalladr has chillingly recounted for The Guardian, the backstory is the way that big-data billionaire and Trump supporter Robert Mercer is waging war on the mainstream media. According to her, his goal is nothing short of changing the way the entire nation thinks.
The Trump attacks on the press are not just Nixon 2.0. In fact, they literally have no historical precedent.
Here’s the thing, though: These attacks should actually be good news for the press. Recall that well before Trump had any idea he was going to win, the public’s trust in the press was at an all-time low. A Gallup poll from September 2016 showed that Americans' trust and confidence in the mass media "to report the news fully, accurately and fairly" had dropped to the lowest level in Gallup polling history, with only 32 percent of those polled saying they had a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media. That number was down 8 percentage points from 2015.
Given the clearly unhinged ways that Trump, Bannon, press secretary Sean Spicer and senior adviser Kellyanne Conway make things up, attack critics and fumble with even basic parts of speech, the press should be having a field day. Then there is the ongoing question of Trump’s endless conflicts of interest. Add to that the blatant disregard for civil rights, the selection of Cabinet members who generally hate the mission of the departments they lead, the basic disrespect for any system of checks and balances, and it seems clear that the press should be well on its way to regaining public trust.
Trump is literally dismantling government before our eyes while spitting on the First Amendment. It’s an easy story to go after and it should be turning the press into our hero.
So far it’s not.
Sure, there is lots of good investigative reporting coming from independent news sources and even from some mainstream outlets, but the Trump era shows no signs of a Bob Woodward or a Carl Bernstein. And no one on mainstream television news comes close to Cronkite.
Remember when Stephen Colbert roasted President George W. Bush at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner in 2006? At that time news media outlets had largely swallowed the narrative offered them by the Bush administration. So Colbert chose to use his speech to roast the media as much as Bush. He started off saying, "Over the last five years you people were so good, over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn’t want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out."
Colbert reminded his listeners that the media had simply failed to fact-check the White House as the Bush administration led us into war, denied climate change and lowered taxes on the rich. He riffed on the idea that it seemed as if all media outlets did was repeat what the press secretary told them. He mocked media organizations, saying all they had to do was put White House comments “through a spell-check and go home.”
Colbert chastised the news media: “Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration? You know, fiction!”
If we weren’t watching carefully, we might think that today's press has finally listened to Colbert.
But certainly this is a news media that doesn't take everything press secretary Spicer says to be fact. If anything, the opposite is true. The news media seems ready to pounce on any and everything coming out of the White House.
That is just one of the many ways that the press is blowing it.
As Jon Stewart illustrated brilliantly in a cameo for “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” the press needs to “break up with Trump.” Despite the existence of what seems to be investigative reporting, what we really have is a mainstream press obsessed with each and every little thing Trump does.
Why does CNN report on Trump using tape to hold down a tie? Why does ABC follow his rants about Arnold Schwarzenegger? And how does the Associated Press defend publishing the email addresses of Mike Pence and his wife? It may not have been meant as doxing, but it certainly isn’t good journalism.
This means that when the White House chief of staff, Reince Preibus, goes after news media outlets and accuses them of “acting like Washington daily gossip magazines,” there is sadly too much truth to what he says.
The point is that members of the mainstream press have a chance to rescue their image and offer the public the truth in the midst of the most outrageously dishonest administration in history. Instead, they seem to be favoring the exact same sort of fear-based, hyperbolic, spectacle-heavy reporting we had during the Bush years.
To make it worse, even when news outlets cover an important story, they literally bury the lede. Rather than open stories on Trump by pointing out that he is once again going off the rails, they open with details of the actual rant.
Consider, for example, Trump’s baseless accusation that Obama wiretapped him. The Washington Post ran an AP story with this headline: "Trump Accuses Obama of Tapping His Phones, Cites No Evidence." When CNN ran the story, it opened with Trump’s claims and captured Trump’s tweets. It was only after several paragraphs that CNN reported quotes from experts who dismissed Trump’s accusations.
The point, as Gleb Tsipursky, an Ohio State University professor, has argued, is that only those who read deep into a story will get the true picture. Meanwhile the 6 in 10 who read only headlines will come away believing false information. He explained, “Thinking errors will cause the majority of Americans to develop a mistaken impression of Trump's wiretapping claims as legitimate, despite the lack of evidence.”
Another key problem is the accusation that the media is biased against Trump. Every single member of the Trump team makes this claim. In response, we see the mainstream news media attempt to suggest impartiality and ensure “balance” by assembling panels of experts with opposing views.
But it is not the news media’s job to be neutral; its job is to report the truth.
Before we wait for the press to pull itself together and offer the public the reporting that's needed, we would do well to remember that it may well be the case that we can thank the mainstream news media for Trump’s win.
As Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy reported in December, the press failed U.S. voters. The center found most coverage had been negative in tone and light on policy. An earlier study showed that in 2015 Trump received disproportionate coverage in the press, given his low status in the polls. During the primaries, Trump’s coverage was also generally positive in tone, and he received far more “good press” than “bad press.”
The Shorenstein center concluded that the volume and tone of the coverage helped propel Trump to the top of polls of Republicans: “Journalists seemed unmindful that they and not the electorate were Trump’s first audience.” And the center also pointed out that “Trump exploited their lust for riveting stories” and referred to Trump as the first “bona fide media-created presidential nominee.”
It turns out that the story of Trump as a whirling dervish of insanity may well perfectly fit the mainstream media’s desire for click-bait. But simply covering the next Trump meltdown is not what we need. What we need is accurate and fearless reporting of the issues that are important for the health of our democracy.
Rather than ask news media outlets to go after Trump, we should pressure them to follow Cronkite’s playbook and go after the truth.