COMMENTARY

Some in media are supposedly "going hard" on Trump — but it's too little and too damn late

A few weeks of slightly tougher Trump coverage, now that he's a loser? That's just media herd mentality in action

By Dan Froomkin
Published December 6, 2020 12:10PM (EST)
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks about Operation Warp Speed in the Rose Garden at the White House on November 13, 2020 in Washington, DC. The is the first time President Trump has spoken since election night last week, as COVID-19 infections surge in the United States. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks about Operation Warp Speed in the Rose Garden at the White House on November 13, 2020 in Washington, DC. The is the first time President Trump has spoken since election night last week, as COVID-19 infections surge in the United States. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

This article was co-produced with Press Watch, an independent site that monitors and critiques American political coverage. Please consider supporting Press Watch by making a donation.

"AP not mincing words," said the viral tweet from Queens College radicalization expert Amarnath Amarasingam.

He linked to the Associated Press story from last Wednesday by Aamer Madhani and Kevin Freking, which started off:

Increasingly detached from reality, President Donald Trump stood before a White House lectern and delivered a 46-minute diatribe against the election results that produced a win for Democrat Joe Biden, unspooling one misstatement after another to back his baseless claim that he really won.

Washington Post media writer Paul Farhi tweeted: "As a colleague put it, this is @ap going hard in the paint."

Author and scholar Peter W. Singer tweeted: "The second paragraph of this article might be the harshest thing the Associated Press has written since it was formed in 1846." The paragraph in question:

Trump called his address, released Wednesday only on social media and delivered in front of no audience, perhaps "the most important speech" of his presidency. But it was largely a recycling of the same litany of misinformation and unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud that he has been making for the past month.

Keep in mind that the AP's political reporting has been hugely inconsistent in recent times. I have seen some tough-as-nails analyses of Trump here and there ever since I launched this website more than a year ago — but also a lot of remarkably credulous breaking-news accounts that simply quote Trump's lies for paragraphs and paragraphs on end before some rebuttal lamely attributed to critics.

For instance, back on Nov. 19, Julie Pace, the AP's Washington bureau chief, wrote a simply scalding analysis that opened this way:

President Donald Trump is trying to turn America's free and fair election into a muddled mess of misinformation, specious legal claims and baseless attacks on the underpinnings of the nation's democracy.

The resulting chaos and confusion that has created isn't the byproduct of Trump's strategy following his defeat to Democrat Joe Biden. The chaos and confusion is the strategy.

I cheered! But that very same day, reporters Ed White, David Eggert and Zeke Miller filed an egregiously empty-headed and credulous report on Trump's outrageous attempt to browbeat Michigan legislative leaders into going along with his attack on the integrity of the election. Their lede:

President Donald Trump summoned Michigan's Republican legislative leaders to the White House for a meeting Friday amid a longshot GOP push to overturn the certification of Democrat Joe Biden's victory in the battleground state.

Contrast that with the New York Times's now-famous headline: Trump Targets Michigan in His Ploy to Subvert the Election.

As it happened, the Times' important word choice in that headline — using "subvert" instead of, say, "overturn" — set the tone for the more aggressive, accurate coverage we've seen almost everywhere since. The AP even updated its own lede, using the very word.

And yes, even NPR, which has been one of the most egregious abusers of false equivalence, is no longer treating Trump's lying as a matter of debate.

Consider notoriously both-sides NPR host Steve Inskeep's inordinately proud Dec. 2 tweet:

But let's go back to that AP story I mentioned at the top, which got so much attention. It was certainly tougher than we'd grown to expect. But was it tough enough? Not according to Matt Negrin,senior digital producer for "The Daily Show With Trevor Noah," who has also emerged as an astute media critic on Twitter and elsewhere. He tweeted:

Indeed, even in "fact checks" like this one by Hope Yen and Jill Colvin, the AP still uses euphemistic language about Trump's outrageous lies and subversions — lamely writing that he "clung to false notions" and "failed to cite specific evidence when repeatedly asked to do so."

Calling out Trump's lies should have been job one for political journalists starting well over five years ago. There have been countless occasions in which the press failed in the interim, none more crucial than in their willingness to promulgate Trump's dangerous and willful ignorance about COVID-19 and spiteful misinformation about voting.

Even now, these theoretically emboldened mainstream political reporters still stop short of calling out Trump's enablers in the Republican Party for the same kind of lies and misinformation.

That's what is really going to matter going forward, as Trump become increasingly irrelevant but the Republican Party is still in a position to block progress in bad faith.

Heck, this alleged journalistic toughness hasn't even extended to Trump's closest aides and family members, all of whom bear enormous responsibility for his destructive words and acts.

Consider the puff piece Washington Post reporter Ashley Parker wrote on Thursday about departing White House communications director Alyssa Farah. Parker wrote that "Farah largely played a behind-the-scenes role in the White House, earning a reputation as a hard-working professional who generally had a strong relationship with the White House press corps."

This even though, as Parker noted: "Much of Farah's final months focused on the coronavirus pandemic, which has left more than 275,000 Americans dead as the nation heads into a winter that experts predict will be especially brutal with the death toll continuing to spike."

Consider the tongue bath the Washington Post's Jacqueline Alemany gave Ivanka Trump this week, writing that  "Ivanka Trump has always been a business executive with a keen eye for marketing," and "those who know the family say she could soon embark on a new venture: selling herself to American voters."

Ironically, this came just as Ivanka was being deposed by the Washington, D.C., attorney general's office as part of its lawsuit alleging the misuse of inaugural funds — and as the New York Times reported that Trump has discussed whether to grant Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, among others, pre-emptive pardons.

A few days earlier, Elizabeth Williamson of the New York Times had penned a sympathetic examination of where Ivanka and Jared might live next. In spectacularly poor taste, the initial headline referred to the couple so deeply complicit in Trump's treatment of immigrants as "well-to-do refugees." It was eventually changed.

Acting with courage and integrity would have entailed news reporters and organizations calling Trump out when they would have taken some heat for it, rather than now, when Trump is quite literally a loser. It would not reserve truth-telling for the leader alone, but for his entire movement.

Let me tell you that from my own observation and experience that for our elite political reporters, kicking a president when he's down is not actually an act of courage at all. It's purely reflexive.

All the formerly glowing press coverage of George H.W. Bush suddenly went profoundly negative after he threw up in the lap of the Japanese prime minister in January 1992.

Political reporters treated George W. Bush like a hero until he sat idly by as New Orleans filled with water in 2005. Suddenly he was a goat, and always had been.

These days, of course, Dubya is widely considered some sort of benevolent elder statesman, not just because of the contrast with Trump, but because our political media has forgotten about all his extraordinary lies.

A few weeks of somewhat less mincing coverage of Trump means nothing. It does not mean lessons have been learned. It is no cause for optimism.


Dan Froomkin

Dan Froomkin is Editor of Press Watch. He wrote the daily White House Watch column for the Washington Post during the George W. Bush administration, then served as Washington bureau chief and senior writer at Huffington Post, covering Barack Obama's presidency, before working as Washington editor at The Intercept.

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