Scandals cascade over the Trump administration. With each news cycle comes another revelation of apparent malfeasance or ineptitude. Only four months into Donald Trump’s presidency, there is talk of impeachment or removal via the 25th Amendment. The Justice Department has appointed a special prosecutor. The president’s approval rating is down to an abysmal 38 percent.
Are they wrong?
As a candidate, Trump was a vulgar, mendacious, thin-skinned bully. His presidency so far, with some exceptions, has been about as sordid an experience as many of us feared. He is a witless and undisciplined embarrassment to the United States, and journalists have every reason to be diligent in reporting what goes on in the White House.
But diligent reporting is turning into a feverish pile-on, and you don’t have to be an indignant Trump apologist to notice it. Hard-hitting, accurate journalism is vital in a democratic society, particularly given the reach and power of government officials. The danger, especially when news coverage is being driven by outrage, is that “hard-hitting” overshadows “accurate.”
Many Americans today don’t remember the Iran-contra imbroglio of 1986, but for a time it was the most zealously pursued story in the American press. The scandal was an embarrassment to President Ronald Reagan, and it wasn’t hard to detect a note of giddiness in the press.
Just weeks after the story first broke, The Washington Post’s executive editor Benjamin Bradlee vented his glee: “This,” he remarked, “is the most fun we’ve had since Watergate.” Wrote Michael Kinsley, who was then editor of The New Republic: “Simple honesty requires any Washington type to admit that this is the kind of episode we all live for. The adrenaline is flowing like Perrier. . . C’mon, everybody, admit it. We’re high. . . The fall of Reagan is a laughing matter.”
Change the word “Reagan” to “Trump,” and the same elated confession could be published today.
The revelations — from firing James Comey to spilling “code-word” intelligence to the Russians to railing about “the single greatest witch hunt” in American history — are only the latest evidence that this president is way out of his depth. That is all the more reason not to go overboard in attacking him, and to be doubly sure that tendentious speculation isn’t being passed off as truth.
The Washington Post’s May 10 story on Trump’s reasons for firing Comey was a compelling read. But it relied on “the private accounts of more than 30 officials at the White House” — i.e., on anonymous sources. The New York Times report that Trump asked Comey to shut down the investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s Russia ties was a bombshell. But it was based on a memo the Times hadn’t seen — word of the memo came from anonymous sources, one of whom “read parts of it to a Times reporter.”
I am not suggesting that this is “fake news.” Most Americans (according to the latest Quinnipiac University poll) trust the news media to tell the truth more than they trust Trump. They are right to do so: The mainstream press is imperfect, and its liberal bias is plain, but serious news organizations don’t casually or purposely peddle lies. Politicians often do, Trump more than most.
Nevertheless, coverage of Trump is becoming a feeding frenzy, and frenzies are bad for journalism. It’s precisely because disdain for Trump runs so high that journalists should be bending over backward to avoid the appearance of wanting to wound the president. If only out of respect for their own integrity and reputation, news organizations must resist the urge to give in to the raging tribalism that dominates so much of political life.
In a book published 26 years ago, University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato wrote: “Ever since Watergate, most investigative journalists’ goal has been not just sensational revelation but the downfall of their target, a trophy head for their wall that is the (im)moral equivalent of Richard Nixon.” At its worst, he wrote, the furious press coverage of a politician tainted by scandal or outrage resembles “piranha in the water,” inflamed by the whiff of blood and the delirium of attack.
If that was a concern in 1991, it is vastly more so today.
The downfall of a president would plunge the nation into chaos. Journalists should seek neither to hasten that downfall nor to prevent it, but just to report out the facts and leave the politics to others. Trump and his myrmidons will label any report they don’t like as “fake news.” Responsible reporters and editors must be all the more conscientious about ensuring that it never is.