With Donald Trump becoming the first American president to be impeached in his first term, while holed up in the White House tweeting endless attacks around the clock like some internet troll, 2019 should have been the year the Beltway media finally shed its signature timidity and forcefully stood up to him. This should have been the year the press worked up the courage to disband the pointless protocols newsroom had established for covering Trump (he’s not a “liar,” he’s not a “racist”), and simply started telling the hard truths about him. And while there were some welcome flashes of truth-telling, especially surrounding the Ukraine scandal and the impeachment, for the most part, the D.C. press still hasn’t signaled that’s it’s ready, or willing, to take the necessary steps needed to cover Trump.
There continues to be a collective reluctance to grapple with today’s difficult reality. Unfamiliar with covering authoritarian regimes or how to respond to them, many news outlets remain committed to treating Trump’s spectacle as a reality TV show.
Trump remains the most deeply radical player in American politics, yet the press corps is still trying to cover him as a traditional political figure, which means if the president of the United States makes some sort of public statement on a pressing issue of the day, you quote him under the assumption that he’s telling the truth and not just making stuff up. But he’s not, and he is. Trump in 2019 continued to benefit from press coverage that obediently pretended that he’s an honest broker. Wash, rinse, repeat. This, while Trump maintains his dangerous campaign to paint the press as the “enemy of the people.”
Oddly committed to normalizing Trump by scrubbing off his hateful and dangerous rough edges, many in the Beltway press continue to play a strange game in which they refuse to describe what they clearly see in front of them. Whether it’s the fear of Trump Twitter attacks or the nearly five-decade-long GOP campaign to demonize the “liberal media,” newsrooms today nearly uniformly refuse to address the mounting, obvious signs that Trump is a deeply unstable man. Journalists watch Trump hole up in the White House spamming Twitter on some weekends with hundreds of illogical posts and then politely look away.
This represented one 48-hour period in 2019:
He quoted a rabid conspiracy theorist radio host who declared that Israeli Jews love Trump as if he were the “King of Israel” and “the second coming of God,” while Trump himself accused American Jews of “great disloyalty” if they voted for Democrats. He attacked the prime minister of Denmark (“nasty”) because she will not sell him Greenland and she mocked the very idea as “absurd.” He suggested he might serve more than two terms in office. He slurred his words while reading a speech off a teleprompter. He accused journalists of trying to ruin the U.S. economy. He claimed Google had “manipulated” millions of votes in Hillary Clinton’s favor during the 2016 election. He suggested giving himself a Medal of Honor. He said doctors in El Paso, Texas, left their operating rooms mid-surgery in order to greet him during his visit there following a local gun massacre. And he referred to the NRA as if it were a co-equal branch of the federal government.
Compared to all previous American presidents, that would have easily surpassed the irrational missteps they made during an entire time in office. For Trump, it was just his vacation week. Yet the press remains consistently timid in dealing with Trump’s blatantly unstable behavior. Newsrooms today nearly uniformly refuse to address the mounting, obvious signs that Trump remains a deeply troubled man.
What does it mean for the most powerful leader in the free world to be acting in a bizarre and often seemingly schizophrenic fashion? And how is every administration official who appears on television not immediately and repeatedly asked whether Trump is mentally fit to hold office, and whether he poses a danger to this country? If the same journalists watched a foreign leader behaving as erratically as Trump does, that would be the first question they posed to officials.
The fact that a sitting president has unleashed so many bizarre public performances, punctuated by so many incomprehensible nonsequiturs, means his stability and capacity ought to be questioned—and it ought to be a constant news story. But it’s still not.
Of course, 2019 was the year that White House press briefings were officially canceled. In a move that once would have been considered an unthinkable act by any White House, the Trump team simply pulled the plug, leaving White House reporters with extremely limited access to officials who are willing to answer even the simplest questions about the administration’s policies and agenda. In the face of that drastic action, news outlets took no collective action in response. They could have used their clout to send a powerful message if they had pulled their reporters out and signaled they weren’t going to be used as props for the press charades the White House plays.
Instead, reporters dutifully gathered outside the White House to shout questions at Trump during his so-called “Chopper Talk” sessions as he approached the presidential helicopter on the White House grounds. The controlled chaos of those sessions, where reporters yell simplistic questions, allows Trump to pick and choose reporters at random, and to ignore questions he doesn’t like. He’s also immune from follow-up questions and is free once again to lie indiscriminately, without being held accountable. All of which cable news outlets air in its entirety under the guise of “news.”
And that’s when the press wasn’t being willingly duped in 2019 by Trump’s team, and especially his attorney general, William Barr. In a signature press failure for the year, reporters for days played along with the Department of Justice propaganda about the Mueller report and how it had supposedly exonerated Trump. But the only person claiming that at the time was Barr, who wouldn’t allow reporters to see the full report. Undeterred, journalists simply took Barr’s untrustworthy four-page press release and treated that as the full report. The New York Times rushed to report that Trump had been exonerated and that Mueller’s conclusions had provided Trump with a “powerful boost” toward re-election. Reminder: Nobody at the Times had read a single page of the Mueller report. News outlets everywhere scrambled to produce pro-Trump headlines based on Barr’s propaganda: “Mueller finds no conspiracy” (The Washington Post), “Mueller finds no Trump-Russia conspiracy” (The New York Times), “Mueller finds no Trump-Russia conspiracy” (Politico), “Mueller doesn’t find Trump campaign conspired with Russia” (The Wall Street Journal), “Mueller finds no Trump collusion, leaves obstruction open” (Associated Press).
They all soon discovered the obvious reality: Trump and his team had simply lied about the contents of the Mueller report, hoping (knowing?) that the press would fall for the false spin, which too many outlets did.
The key to covering Trump isn’t some deep mystery for news organizations, and it doesn’t require much sacrifice. It simply demands honesty and a willingness to be clear about what’s happening in this country. Sadly, that was lacking in 2019.
Eric Boehlert is a veteran progressive writer and media analyst, formerly with Media Matters and Salon. He is the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush and Bloggers on the Bus. You can follow him on Twitter @EricBoehlert.