Only a few days into the Trump administration, and a “gang that doesn’t shoot straight” narrative is taking root in the media. From outright lies about crowd numbers at the inauguration, to fictionalized accounts of millions of illegally cast votes, to hashtag-ready assertions about “alternative facts,” it’s been a rough start, and the media is covering it all, exposing the dishonesty.
That, at least, is how I imagine the conversation is going in Washington, D.C., news bureaus. But while all that ink and airtime is being spent on the new administration’s distant relationship with reality, it’s not having any apparent difficulty moving its agenda. On the regulatory front, it has begun to freeze or roll back a host of recently developed federal safeguards while its allies in the House of Representatives have been working on a series of bills that would do further and perhaps greater damage to protections for our health, safety, and the environment.
In addition, the administration promises a balance-tipping Supreme Court nominee within a couple weeks, and only today has the media begun paying attention to the question of who might get the nod.
Back in November, I wondered aloud in this space whether the media was going to rise to the challenge of the Trump administration or fall into its trap. Because they’re pushing back on the president’s and his teams’ various lies about crowd numbers and the like, I’m sure a lot of journalists feel like they’re holding up their end. And I won’t quarrel with the importance of holding the president and his administration accountable for everything they say. Presidents and spokespeople shouldn’t be economical with the truth.
But I continue to fret that the media is being manipulated in a way that badly serves the cause of journalism and the public interest. While they’re chasing Trump’s lies about things that don’t really have policy implications, the administration and Congress are hard at work undoing all sorts of policies that protect the air we breathe and the water we drink, and guarantee the safety of the products we buy, the food we eat, the cars we drive, and more.
That’s where much of Trump’s lasting impact will be, and if journalists persuade themselves that they’re upholding the legacy of Woodward and Bernstein by going 15 rounds with Sean Spicer over crowd numbers, they’re going to miss the story. Trump’s lies and the lies of his subordinates are important to document, and important to call out. But the media can’t afford to let the Distracter-in-Chief divert them from covering the hard, substantive news that the American public desperately needs to hear.
To the media’s credit, coverage of Trump’s Cabinet nominees has rightly communicated their obvious conflicts and fundamental hostility to the missions of the departments they’ve been tasked with leading. But such substantive coverage that once might have triggered a national dialogue about policy implications has been overwhelmed by the “alternative fact” coverage. Meanwhile, we’ve seen way too little airtime and ink devoted to such destructive actions as the President’s freeze on federal funds that could support emergency response to environmental disasters, and his direction to the Commerce Secretary to find ways to make end-runs around environmental permitting.
I’m not saying the media’s job is easy in this new world. But for the sake of our democracy, they’ll need to figure it out.