Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

"Trump may be waging a war on the media," writes vanden Heuvel, "but many of his enemies are still committing media malpractice as they did in 2016, when the extreme dearth of policy coverage helped propel Trump to the White House." (Photo: WhiteHouse.gov)

On Trump, The Media’s Malpractice Continues

One of the great ironies of the political moment is that President Trump’s sworn enemy has become, if not exactly an ally, an enabler of his agenda. For all of Trump’s griping about “fake news,” the mainstream media’s prevailing focus on palace intrigue and White House scandals has come at the expense of substantive policy coverage, allowing Trump and the Republican Party to advance harmful, hugely unpopular policies without the scrutiny they deserve.

Take climate change. This month, Trump officially announced the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, joining Syria and Nicaragua as the only countries to reject the landmark agreement. While Trump has espoused denialist views in the past, claiming that climate change is a Chinese hoax, his decision to withdraw was made more likely by the media’s utter failure to press him on his position dating back to the campaign. Not only was there not a single question about the issue in last year’s general election debates, but also the watchdog organization Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) recently noted that Trump has not been asked “a single question about climate change in any interview or press conference” since taking office. Twelve separate outlets that Trump has granted on-the-record interviews have simply failed to bring it up.

Or consider health care. Recent polls have identified health care as Americans’ No. 1 concern, but it has not been treated that way in the media. Since the House’s initial failure to pass a bill this spring, coverage of the issue has dwindled, with the exception of a brief spike when Republicans hastily pushed through a bill in May. Now, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) secretly maneuvers to gut the Affordable Care Act — without holding hearings or releasing any legislative details to the public — many in the mainstream media have responded with a collective yawn. Even as reports of McConnell’s machinations emerged last week, The Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times each determined, for two consecutive days, that the rising likelihood of a bill passing did not warrant a front-page story.

At the same time, the wall-to-wall coverage of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s bumbling testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee was just the latest example of the media’s myopic obsession with all things Russia. While the investigations into Trump’s campaign and the president’s possible obstruction of justice are clearly newsworthy, they have denied oxygen to other issues that have a far greater impact on Americans’ daily lives. (On the day Sessions testified, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) urged his Twitter followers to focus 90 percent of their attention on health care.) The fervor has also led to instances of overzealous reporting, including unsubstantiated claims of Russian hacking in France’s presidential election in May.

These are just a few examples of the media malpractice that continues to corrode our political discourse. Others include the fawning coverage of Trump’s unauthorized missile strikes in Syria, the virtual blackout on television of Republican steps to unravel Wall Street reforms, and the “cancer of false equivalence,” as media columnist Eric Alterman of the Nation recently called it, that still infects the reporting of our most prestigious and influential news organizations. Indeed, it is the same blind worship at the altar of “balance” that leads to troubling and dubious decisions, such as CNN employing dishonest Trump mouthpiece Jeffrey Lord or NBC allowing Megyn Kelly to put conspiracy theorist Alex Jones on its airwaves.

As I have written in the past, one of the primary drivers of this behavior is simple. In a corporate media environment where ratings are prized above all else, the reality is that sensationalism and scandal play better — and, therefore, pay better — than substance. CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker recently admitted as much, saying, “2016 was the best year in the history of cable news, and 2017 is going to be even better. There is no evidence that the interest in [Trump] is waning in any way.” Zucker’s comment echoed CBS Chief Executive Les Moonves, who said last year that Trump’s political ascent was “damn good for CBS” and bragged that “the money’s rolling in.”

And, of course, the corporate media could benefit from more than higher ratings under Trump; they also stand to gain from policies that give even more power to the massive conglomerates that already dominate the media ecosystem. As Lee Fang reported at the Intercept, that was Moonves’s message to investors in February, when he said that he was “looking forward to not having as much regulation” and that Trump’s appointment of Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai would be “very beneficial to our business.”

Trump may be waging a war on the media, but many of his enemies are still committing media malpractice as they did in 2016, when the extreme dearth of policy coverage helped propel Trump to the White House. Perhaps they simply learned the wrong lesson from the campaign: that keeping the American people shocked, rather than informed, is the easiest path to the ratings they crave. Either way, it’s toxic to our democracy.


© 2021 Washington Post
Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel is an American editor and publisher. She is the editor, publisher, and part-owner of the magazine The Nation. She has been the magazine's editor since 1995.

 

... We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

Critics Warn Biden 'Summit for Democracy' Will Highlight Democrats' Failures at Home

"President Biden can't champion democracy across the globe without fulfilling his promise to protect our voting rights at home."

Jessica Corbett ·


'Like a Teenager Promising to Clean Their Room in 30 Years': Biden Net-Zero Climate Goal for 2050 Ridiculed

"2050 is an extremely weak goal for the federal government to free itself from climate-heating pollution. It ignores existing technology and adds decades to GSA's own commitment to 100% renewable energy by 2025."

Brett Wilkins ·


Biden Should Cancel Student Debt or Watch $85 Billion Evaporate From US Economy: Analysis

Far-reaching cancellation enacted by Biden could add more than $173 billion to the nation's GDP in 2022 alone.

Kenny Stancil ·


Given Cover by Red-Baiting GOP, Corporate Dems Rebuked for Tanking Biden Nominee for Top Bank Regulator

"If you think that Senate Democrats rose up to [Republicans'] shameful display of modern McCarthyism by rallying around President Biden's nominee or her ideas that banking should work for the middle class, then you don't know the soul of today's Democratic Party," wrote one columnist.

Julia Conley ·


'S.O.S.!': Groups in Red States Nationwide Plead With Democrats to Pass Voting Rights Bill

"We can tell you firsthand that our Republican senators have no interest in joining this effort."

Jake Johnson ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo