The Trump presidency has made newspapers great again. That’s the thesis of a long “Vanity Fair” feature on the competition and current fortunes of America’s foremost newspapers, the Washington Post and New York Times.
In a business that’s supposed to be driven by the pursuit of knowledge, there is a stunning scarcity of self-awareness. This profile by James Warren is long on history, anecdotes, and congratulations, but short on analysis of how media completely missed one of the most gigantic stories of the modern era. It moves right past the part where the cutthroat competition, Jeff Bezos and Carlos Slim millions, great reporters, tech wizards, and all their literal and virtual shoe leather never noticed half the country was primed to vote for Donald Trump.
It doesn’t ask what that huge blind spot might mean for how they cover Trump’s presidency and the country that elected him. Instead, it moves right into a glorious tale of how cutthroat competition, Bezos and Carlos Slim millions, great reporters, tech wizards, and all their literal and virtual shoe leather are doing stunning, invigorated work like never before by reporting on President Donald Trump.
Had any other industry face-planted so spectacularly and publicly in its central mission, the forthcoming media coverage would crush it, not lionize it. But here we are, with the Times staff walking toward the camera in artistic black-and-white photos like lawmen at the ink-stained OK Corral. Here we are with tales of painfully obvious metaphorical motivational posters—a man on a precipice and burned-out vintage typewriter—hanging on editors’ walls, driving the brave staffs forward against all odds. There’s a newspaper owner framed as a modern-day Moses’ mama, “placing a newborn [the newspaper] in a basket and sticking it on the doorstep of somebody she hoped would clasp it to heart,” and grown men crying in the face of change.
Are we kidding, guys? Look, a lot of people missed the Trump Train coming. That’s life, and news, and America. I was in the “Donald Trump has a real chance, but a rather unlikely one” camp myself, but I’m also in favor of acknowledging that and soft-pedaling the plaudits.
Many of us have noticed the press is reinvigorated, churning out coverage that is at times a vital and correct check on an unorthodox and overreaching executive. But also coverage that is wrong and overhyped, and copy that reads like a project to punish the people and president who proved the industry so wrong in 2016. (Here’s today’s bizarre entry in this genre, which popped up as I was writing this.)
In this long exploration of the reams of great reporting that is making newspapers great again, there’s three-quarters of a paragraph about coverage of Hillary Clinton by the Post and about one sentence about Times coverage of her, with the stipulation some thought the Gray Lady’s coverage of Clinton was overwrought. Hey, she was only the head of an obviously corrupt political family with designs on the presidency and inclinations at least as shady as her opponent’s, but meh.
The Times, to its great credit, broke the story of Clinton’s private, personal email server. But Warren’s lack of enthusiasm for the paper’s coverage of Clinton mirrors that of the industry for covering her corruption. They did it, but the message is pretty clear. It’s not that kind of critical coverage that invigorates. It’s not that coverage that ennobles.
I grew up in a giant, decades-long daily metro newspaper battle that was at the center of my family life my entire childhood. There was near-daily reveling in my house at scooping the hell out of the Goliath chain paper looming over the family-owned David paper my father edited. My first journalism job was dictating local election totals from the courthouse chalkboard over the phone to the newsroom at deadline.
I’m particularly inclined to view a newspaper battle with excitement and nostalgia. Back then, it seemed competition was sharpening everyone and serving the public. Yet this tale of coastal “princelings” at the Times and privileged daughters at the Post fighting over who can hire the most Politico alumni to freak out over Donald Trump doesn’t do it for me.
The public service is too often swamped by self-regard. Scoops are big, competition pitched! Traffic is through the roof. But reserves of trust for the press are at all-time lows—sometimes lower than the president’s trust numbers in polling—and no one’s addressing that. It’s not just the president who has squandered credibility and needs to rebuild it. As with the president, ignoring that fact and publicly preening doesn’t fix the problem.
The Watergate envy is as palpable in this piece as it is in daily coverage of Trump. It opens with an obligatory nod to Bradlee and Graham and Woodward and Bernstein.
We are in an era of politics where everyone seems to be playing a stock character, and often the most cartoonish versions thereof. Trump is a reality showman, a theatrical WWE wrestler. Scaramucci was a supporting character from “Wall Street” or “Glengarry Glen Ross.” Reince Priebus an earnest extra riding the bench in an ’80s summer camp flick while Steve Bannon booby-traps his bunk.
The press thinks it’s just observing, but it’s also a character in this drama. It has a picture of itself, honed by none other than Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, speaking truth to power and bringing down a presidency for the good of the American people. During Democratic administrations, the kind that don’t beg for bringing down, the Redfords and Hoffmans of the press are content to take a few years quietly indulging in some small, indy projects, playing an important but smaller role in our democracy. When a Republican president is elected, however, they’re back to big-budget summer blockbusters all day every day.
What is this “Vanity Fair” feature, after all, if not a standard “Vanity Fair” feature usually reserved for an A-list box-office star? The press is happy to be that invigorated, energetic star again, now that America has elected the kind of power to whom it loves to speak truth. There they are, auditioning for “All the President’s Men” in their tasteful Anne Klein dresses and schlumpy suits. At least we are spared the wide ties and plaid pants.
I used to say during Obama’s presidency, one good reason to elect a Republican is because the press might care about abuse of federal power again and actually report on it. Trump gives them plenty to work with and Americans to be wary of. But I’d prefer they go about it with the recognition that not everything’s an 11 or necessarily a conspiracy, and with self-reflection instead of self-congratulation.
And let’s talk about the “sacrosanct values” of “fairness and independence” referenced repeatedly in this piece. Those values are the touchstone of these papers, come change and technology and economic crisis, so we’re told. Has one single person in media yet seen the Comey memos that have driven news coverage for at least three months this year? That is not a standard I learned in journalism school. It’s not a standard the Times would have accepted when reporting on a scandal about Obama. Sure, a guy calls up and says a fired member of Obama’s administration wrote a memo about some bad things Obama did once, and another guy is now going to read that memo to you on the phone, and the entire national press is going to talk about it as if it’s the gospel, verified truth for months without seeing a primary document? Right.
The article ends as if to purposely reiterate how little the industry is interested in learning: “In a recent exchange with the White House press corps, then deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders made hay over the retraction of a Trump-related story by CNN—an example of a news organization owning up to a mistake, as it should—and urged reporters to focus instead on a video by James O’Keefe, a right-wing provocateur whose work has been widely discredited.”
This paragraph embodies the problem. How is it that the media doesn’t realize it, too, has credibility to lose? It, too, has been repeatedly discredited—not just for one story, and not just in the eyes of angry Trump supporters. It should want to rectify that. But Warren ignores these mistakes just as the press itself often does. He gives them a giant pass on the job of understanding America in 2016 and a glancing mention of fabulist Jayson Blair. He congratulates them for doing the basics to correct a mistake, and then expects all Americans to laud the Redfords and Hoffmans while condemning the O’Keefes of the world.
The press is constantly saying this president is losing credibility without recognizing it is in the exact same predicament. New York Times editor Dean Baquet sits in his office adorned with “mock front pages…parting gifts from colleagues at the many papers where he has worked” while Trump roams his golf course properties admiring his mock Time magazine covers. These guys, and the institutions they head, have much more in common than they’d like to think. Stop admiring yourselves and deal with your problems.