During a press conference on August 2nd, 2017, CNN White House Correspondent Jim Acosta and Senior White House Policy Advisor Stephen Miller traded heated remarks regarding the Trump Administration’s proposed plan to restrict certain types of legal immigration. The dust up — which certainly wasn’t Acosta’s first — was typical of the type of dramatic flare-ups between reporters and Republican politicos that have become so common since President Trump took office.
We should be troubled by that trend. We should be troubled by the fact that the top reporters in our country have experienced a crisis of credibility and identity so debilitating that they’ve resorted to crying wolf on a daily basis and trying to pick televised policy fights with whatever Republicans they can, whenever they can. That’s never been their role, and yet, that’s what it’s become.
So it’s time to ask: what should be the role of the press in the Trump era?
The obvious answer is that the press’s role should be to report the facts and give everyday Americans access to honest information. But the suggestion that the press at large is even remotely close to filling that role is a joke. We live in an era when even “Fact Checkers” can’t reasonably be deemed actual checkers of fact; popular fact checking site Politifact uses a sliding scale of truth, by which politicians’ claims can be rated anything from “Pants on Fire” to “Half True” to “True.” On FactCheck.org, claims can be arbitrarily marked as “distorts the facts” or “lacks context.”
It’s nonsense; claims, within their contexts, are either true or false. It should speak for itself that the folks at Politifact have unironically invented a sliding scale of truth, and still, so many reporters can’t see why average voters don’t take the press seriously.
So, then, should the role of the press be to hold the powerful to account, as Kathleen Parker has argued? Many in the press have justified their hostility toward the Trump administration as part of a well-intentioned effort to keep tabs on our nation’s leaders and expose hypocrisy.
But that, too, is self-aggrandizing nonsense. Who appointed these individual reporters to that position of authority? Their bosses? Have the American people entrusted them with this task? If so, by which processes?
In a democracy, the ballot, not the pen, holds the powerful to account. It is the role of the people — not the press — to keep those in power in check. If the press is able to assist the populace — as it should be — by effectively educating it, great. That idea’s been in the mix pretty much since the beginning.
But there’s no precedent for the press acting as the people’s proxy and doing battle with government officials in misguided attempts to make them eat their words, admit hypocrisy or relinquish power. Only the people possess that authority in a democracy; when it comes time to hunt for hypocrites, the press’s role is to help the populace hold the spear, not be it.
So what about embracing sheer, naked aggression? Should the press simply take a permanently adversarial disposition toward political leaders of all stripes, as Andrea Mitchell has suggested? After all, not one of her colleagues batted an eye at her “devil’s advocate” framing of the role of the press (though plenty of them did grow hysterical only a few months earlier when White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon basically said the same thing).
That could maybe work, except for the press’s total lack of credible consistency. The suggestion that the mainstream press, aside from Fox News, was consistently “adversarial’ toward the Obama presidency is completely unserious, and there is no good reason to believe that members of the press have any real interest in constantly opposing The White House regardless of its occupant. When President Obama lauded his own administration for being “historically free of scandals” — despite the Fast and Furious gun running scandal, the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups and his administration’s shameful attempt to blame the Benghazi attack on a YouTube video — The Washington Post counseled its readers that “scandals are in the eye of the beholder” and refused to rate the President’s claim true or false. No, really.
So it looks like until the press recovers from its shellshocked state and fully rededicates itself to educating the public by reporting strict, verifiable facts, its ongoing role in America’s daily theatre of the politically absurd will continue to cement itself. Get ready for a sustained onslaught of pointless smackdowns between self-insistent reporters and the White House staffers who delight in shouting them down from the podium. That’s the news, at least for the foreseeable future.
And if members of the press ultimately do decide that their role really ought to be limited to reliably educating the public, they should be aware that they’ll be undertaking that renewed mission in a divisive environment that they had a massive hand in creating. They’ll face the same amount of skepticism as the Boy Who Cried Wolf would face if he, years after the fact, decided to pursue a career as a wolf-crier.
The longer the press abdicates its responsibilities to our democracy and continues to showboat, lecture and preen, the longer their journey back to relevance and respect will grow.