President Trump is absolutely correct that the news media is against him. There is simply no way to objectively look at how the vast majority of the press reports about him and not reach that conclusion. But he’s wrong to think this bias is the result of some animosity against him personally.
Lest we doubt that the press uniquely treats Trump badly, let’s look at the opinion pages of the nation’s two leading newspapers. Neither The New York Times nor the Washington Post have a single columnist on staff who actively approves of the sitting president. This is an unprecedented and even bizarre state of affairs. Never before in modern American history have the two papers of record failed to employ even one opinion writer who unequivocally supports the president.
Now, this is not to suggest that either of these esteemed institutions are failing, fake news outlets. In fact, it may not be a problem at all. Trump is so strange and unlikely a commander in chief that it would be odd if many journalists were friendly to his administration. Then there is the fact that this president has made the news media, rather than an opposing political party, his number one enemy.
But insofar as this is a new and unprecedented situation, it is worth examining. How did we arrive at a situation where none of the highest-paid and most prominent opinion writers in the country have a positive opinion about the man the American people elected president? What does this disconnect say about the state of affairs in the United States?
The Power Of Never Trump
My colleague Mollie Hemingway recently noted the outsized power that “Never Trump conservatives” hold in the news media (comments start around the 5:40-minute mark).
Mollie is, of course, correct. Newsrooms and television studios have seemed somewhat desperate to give time and attention to those brave conservatives willing to stand athwart Trump and even suggest Republicans should vote for Democrats to stop him. Despite their bravery, however, these conservatives represent a tiny, likely diminishing, sliver of the electorate.
Now, mind you, these pundits aren’t particularly displeased with President Trump’s policies. They like, or at least used to like, tax cuts and leaving the Iran deal and Paris accord, and they prefer (or preferred) conservative jurists and decreased regulation. Their problem with the president cuts much deeper than any of that. They think he is a bad person and a stain on the once-great office of the presidency.
That’s not an unreasonable position. There is plenty not to like about Donald Trump. It may even be a position that many people who voted for Trump share. It is not hard to imagine that many voters think Trump is a jerk and voted for him anyway. In their wisdom, many Americans may well believe that one can be a good man and a bad president, and also that one can be a bad man and a good president. But this nuanced position seems to be a bridge too far for the talented op-ed writers at our legacy outlets.
The Adversarial News Media
In a very real way, the news media’s animosity and adversarial nature towards President Trump should be looked at as a good thing. Last week, CNN’s Chris Cillizza tweeted this:
If you are cheering this, ask yourself what your life would be like with a media that only did things the president liked https://t.co/xkN2DvAcS6
— Chris Cillizza (@CillizzaCNN) July 13, 2018
Within moments pretty much every conservative on Twitter quoted this with some variation on, “I don’t have to imagine it, I lived through the Obama administration.” And they aren’t wrong.
Given the choice between a news media that abhors the sitting president and one that worships him, the former is no doubt preferable. We might even call this a golden age of accountability. When else has the news media ever held a president’s feet to the fire in the way they do with Trump? Maybe this is how it was supposed to be all along.
The Growing Bench
An important thing to understand about the work that columnists do is that ultimately it’s not ideology or hotness of takes that matters, it’s whether one can write. Some of this is natural talent, a lot more is training and practice. Most columnists for our leading papers come out of fairly rarified colleges and early journalistic careers. It’s a specific social ecosystem.
Within this ecosystem, Trump was absolutely anathema. Frankly, even if the Times and the Post wanted to hire pro-Trump columnists, who would they be? Would they even want the job? Right now, the answer may be no, but over time, that answer is likely to change.
It’s hard to imagine now, but eventually Trump will no longer be president. Whether that happens in two years or six years, short of an earth-shattering scandal of the kind that has been promised but not delivered, there will be honest disagreement amongst the right sort at New York City cocktail parties about his legacy. Some will view him as the savior of conservatism, others as a con-man. Some former prominent conservative writers may wind up as presidents of their local MoveOn.org chapters.
There will be defenders and critics of Trump. Many will be gifted writers who are fun to read. That we don’t have that balance now is not a cause for concern, even if it is a historical curiosity. The composition of center-right thought in the next decade or so is very much up in the air. What is hard to doubt is that it will be moving the levers of power.