Trump's criminal trials are accelerating the countdown clock on America's news media

The clock is ticking on Trump-age media

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published April 27, 2024 5:45AM (EDT)

Former US President Donald Trump sits in a Manhattan Criminal Court for his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments on April 19, 2024 in New York City. (Curtis Means - Pool/Getty Images)
Former US President Donald Trump sits in a Manhattan Criminal Court for his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments on April 19, 2024 in New York City. (Curtis Means - Pool/Getty Images)

The American news media is facing an extreme challenge as it prepares to celebrate itself tonight at the White House Correspondents' dinner. During normal times covering a presidential election is hard work. But the Age of Trump and the larger democracy crisis have made reporting and commenting about the news and current events even more difficult. How has the American mainstream news media as an institution met the challenge?

On one day the elite agenda-setting news media such as the New York Times and the Washington Post will publish excellent investigative reporting on subjects such as Donald Trump and his regime’s crimes, Jan. 6, and the authoritarian playbook of Project 2025 and Agenda 47. But as has been widely documented, in the interest of “balance” and “fairness” and a “diversity of opinion," those same elite media outlets will the next day feature op-eds and other commentary from Trumpists and MAGA people and others who oppose multiracial pluralistic democracy – the effect of which is to mainstream and normalize their anti-democratic beliefs. As journalist Nina Bernstein told Dan Froomkin in a 2021 interview, “Many reporters across the traditional news media are struggling against institutional tics and timidities that make ‘balance’ a false idol.” The consequence: “The inadvertent normalization of existential threats to democracy and public health by one party and its right-wing media echo chamber.

To that point, NBC News recently hired former Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, a Trumpist and Big Lie advocate, as a political analyst. After public outrage — and a revolt by several of MSNBC’s most prominent TV personalities — the offer of employment was eventually rescinded.

There is a focus on President Biden’s occasional lapses in memory – which mental health and other experts have concluded are normal for a man of his age. However, Donald Trump’s worsening and much more severe challenges in memory, speech, cognition, and behavior which may be indicative of an actual brain disease are often downplayed or ignored. Alternately, the mainstream news media tries to create a false equivalency between President Biden and Donald Trump’s challenges with memory and speech when they are in fact very different.

We need your help to stay independent

Slate magazine’s Alicia Montgomery recently reflected on her time working at NPR and how its leadership dismissed the mounting evidence that Donald Trump could win in 2016 and enforced a policy of normalizing his candidacy:

For most of 2016, many NPR journalists warned newsroom leadership that we weren’t taking Trump and the possibility of his winning seriously enough. But top editors dismissed the chance of a Trump win repeatedly, declaring that Americans would be revolted by this or that outrageous thing he’d said or done. I remember one editorial meeting where a white newsroom leader said that Trump’s strong poll numbers wouldn’t survive his being exposed as a racist. When a journalist of color asked whether his numbers could be rising because of his racism, the comment was met with silence. In another meeting, I and a couple of other editorial leaders were encouraged to make sure that any coverage of a Trump lie was matched with a story about a lie from Hillary Clinton. Another colleague asked what to do if one candidate just lied more than the other. Another silent response.

Public opinion polls and other research show that the American people have low levels of trust in the news media. This is in part a function of how malign actors such as Donald Trump and others on the right have for decades used disinformation and other propaganda tools to systematically undermine faith in the news media and other democratic institutions as part of their authoritarian campaign to create an alternate reality where the truth and the facts no longer exist.

But there is another compelling explanation for these declining levels of trust: The mainstream news media as an institution has been criminally late in consistently sounding the alarm about Donald Trump and the existential dangers that he and the MAGA movement represent to the country.

On this, philosopher Jason Stanley, author of "How Fascism Works," told me in conversation here at Salon:

It's surreal. No amount of reality will change them. I'm shocked, by the way the media is reacting to every new claim that Trump is a fascist as if this were news. Those like me, you, and a select group of others have been saying for years that Trump was a potential fascist dictator and there is a movement behind him. They dismissed us and laughed at us. Now instead of turning to those of us who were accurate and sounding the alarm years ago, the media is turning to people, supposed experts, who only now are realizing that we're facing a fascist, social and political movement. Such people should not be the ones turned to by the news media to be talking about the near-term future of Trump and this fascist movement and the danger. Why? They have quite clearly demonstrated total unreliability. For example, a person who is so late to this danger and reality can go back instantly to normalization. Who knows what someone who was so blatantly wrong for so long about social reality will believe or say? The current commentators were so far behind the fact that Trump is a fascist that they will not be able to properly comprehend such tricks. Most importantly, in 2023, they are just starting to think about fascism….

If you know how to read Trump correctly then you understand his intentions and plans. If you are just now realizing that Trump is a fascist, you're going to be looking for signs to assuage yourself that you are just being hysterical, because you spent so many years calling those of us who have been correctly describing reality, hysterical. The people who the media are turning to now as alarm sounders are not equipped to understand what is really happening.

Can the American mainstream news media fix itself?

Charles Sykes offers the following suggestions in his new essay at the Atlantic:

Are we going to get it right this time? Have the media learned their lessons, and are journalists ready for the vertiginous slog of the 2024 campaign?

My answer: only if we realize how profoundly the rules of the game have changed….

So what’s to be done? I don’t have any easy answers, because I don’t think they exist. Getting it right this time does not mean that journalists need to pull their punches in covering Biden or become slavish defenders of his administration’s policies. In fact, that would only make matters worse. But perhaps we could start with some modest proposals.

First, we should redefine newsworthy. Klaas argues that journalists need to emphasize the magnitude rather than simply the novelty of political events. Trump’s ongoing attacks on democracy may not be new, but they define the stakes of 2024. So although live coverage of Trump rallies without any accompanying analysis remains a spectacularly bad idea, it’s important to neither ignore nor mute the dark message that Trump delivers at every event.

The media challenge will be to emphasize the abnormality of Donald Trump without succumbing to a reactionary ideological tribalism, which would simply drive audiences further into their silos. Put another way: Media outlets will need all the credibility they can muster when they try to sound the alarm that none of this is normal. And it is far more important to get it right than to get it fast, because every lapse will be weaponized.

The commitment to “fairness” should not, however, mean creating false equivalencies or fake balance. (An exaggerated report about Biden’s memory lapses, for example, should not be a bigger story than Trump’s invitation to Vladimir Putin to invade European countries.)

Sykes concludes with a much-needed corrective about the dangers of political coverage as theater criticism:

In the age of Trump, it is also important that members of the media not be distracted by theatrics generally. (This includes Trump’s trial drama, the party conventions, and even—as David Frum points out in The Atlantic—the debates.) Relatedly, the stakes are simply too high to wallow in vibes, memes, or an obsessive focus on within-the-margin-of-error polls. Democracy can indeed be crushed by authoritarianism. But it can also be suffocated by the sort of trivia that often dominates social media.

And, finally, the Prime Directive of 2024: Never, ever become numbed by the endless drumbeat of outrages.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

Mark Jacob, former metro editor at the Chicago Tribune, has also been trying to hold the mainstream American news media to a higher standard in the Age of Trump. In a particularly sharp essay at his newsletter Stop the Presses, which merits being quoted at length, Jacob takes on the dictates of “neutrality” and “objectivity.”

Journalists aren’t bystanders in a democracy.

Democracy relies on them to take action – to fact-check political lies, expose wrongdoing, explain the issues, and warn the public about the consequences of their votes.

Our political system cannot survive without an informed citizenry that’s equipped with shared, verified facts. That means journalists are not passive members of the audience – they’re supporting actors in the drama.

I’m not saying they should be kingmakers, deciding which candidates they like and distorting the news to fit their personal opinions. But they must not shy away from exposing politicians who use lies and hate to threaten democracy. That’s not the media being unfair – that’s the media doing their duty.

Whether journalists realize it or not, they operate from a set of values – ideally, values shaped by deep concern for what’s important to the public. Yes, I said “a set of values.” Because no one in the news media is truly objective, and when they try too hard to appear to be, it sometimes compels them to do the wrong thing….

You see, the real problem in American journalism isn’t that some outlets have values; it’s that some outlets spread disinformation. The main reason Fox News is bad for democracy is not because it’s right-wing – it’s because Fox lies to support criminals.

In my four-decade career as a daily newspaper editor, I assigned reporters to cover plenty of stories, and I wasn’t objective. I chose stories I thought would benefit our audience and our community. I was undoubtedly wrong sometimes. But it’s impossible to be unbiased. The very act of assigning a story is a value judgment. Every story is shaped by multitudes of biases, from who gets quoted to how they’re described to what gets edited out. Pretending otherwise is, as McGowan put it, a fallacy.

Here Jacob aims a powerful light at the failings of the New York Times:

The publisher of the New York Times, A.G. Sulzberger, spoke recently to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, making the case for objectivity, or as he called it, “independent journalism.” He described it as “an insistence on reflecting the world as it is, not as you wish it to be.”

But the Times seems to wish it was 1983 and Tip O’Neill was cutting a bipartisan deal with Ronald Reagan. It has utterly failed to face up to the unprecedented danger of MAGA fascism. Either that or the Times thinks objectivity means not caring whether democracy survives. (I raised that issue in a recent newsletter.)

My friend Bryan Smith has a nickname for the New York Times — the Great Dumbfounded Paper, reflecting the news outlet’s tendency to protect its self-styled objectivity by pretending it doesn’t know why bad things happen. The Times prefers to blame “politics” instead of the people who are actually at fault. That supposedly makes the Times appear “fair.”

One of the most disturbing parts of Sulzberger’s speech was his dismissal of the idea of being on “the right side of history.”

“Simply put, journalists don’t serve the public by trying to predict history’s judgments or to steer society to them,” he said. “Our job as journalists is firmly rooted in the present: to arm society with the information and context it needs to thoughtfully grapple with issues of the day.”

While the New York Times often comes across as arrogant, that statement suggests the paper has a poor sense of its own power and potential. We’re facing an election that could plunge this country into a dictatorship and the folks at the Times aren’t worried about how history will view their role?

How terribly objective of them.

The institutional failings of the American news media in the Age of Trump are not spontaneous: they are the result of years and decades of poor decision-making, as well as market and political forces that are largely outside of the control of the rank-and-file reporters and journalists and other people who comprise “the media.” This means that fixing these deep problems will most certainly not happen over the next few months. But in the short term there is a better way forward — if the American news media chooses it. The countdown clock on the American news media in the Age of Trump and ascendant fascism has not expired but we are very close to that moment. Time is not a luxury that the American news media – or the American people and their democracy and society – has in abundance.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

MORE FROM Chauncey DeVega

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Age Of Trump Commentary Democracy Crisis Donald Trump Fascism News Media Republican Party