Donald Trump had occupied the White House for less than a month before he decided to launch an all-out attack on the easiest target possible: the media. The day after he held the most unhinged press conference since Richard Nixon went on national TV to declare he wasn’t a crook, Trump took to Twitter to blast the press as “the enemy of the American people.” A few weeks earlier, the president’s chief strategist had expressed the administration’s attitude in equally bellicose terms: “I want you to quote this,” Steve Bannon told The New York Times. “The media here is the opposition party.”
The thing is, “opposition party” is not a description that fits the self-conception of the establishment media. In the face of these unprecedented and incendiary declarations of war against the press, journalists and media pundits continued to preach the talismanic gospel of self-restraint and evenhandedness. In The Baltimore Sun, columnist David Zurawik bemoaned the media’s loss of centrist “balance” under Trump. “ ‘Down the middle’ has been a favored journalistic expression for decades,” he wrote. “But that’s getting to be an increasingly lonely place for journalists like me who still believe wholeheartedly in that value.” On CNN, media gadfly Michael Wolff chastised the press for being in alarmist mode since Trump’s inauguration. “Every situation,” he groused, “seems to be provoking an overreaction.” Fred Hiatt, the longtime editor of the Washington Post editorial page, likewise counseled cool-headed impartiality, with the prim, purse-lipped certitude of a practiced arbiter of elite political discussion. “The answer to dishonest or partisan journalism,” he assured readers, “cannot be more partisan journalism, which would only harm our credibility and make civil discourse even less possible.”
Some in the media establishment, including The New York Times, have ventured so far as to use the word “falsehood” in headlines to describe the administration’s knee-jerk tendency to make shit up. When these fearless publications catch some Trump flunky in a brazen whopper, they want us to know, they will boldly break the decades-long precedent of treating factual distortions from on high with euphemisms like “controversial” or “disputed,” and bravely call an official falsehood a falsehood, a Trump lie a lie.
But given that lying is pretty much the business model of Trumpism, and that a whole battery of senior White House aides, from Kellyanne Conway to Sean Spicer to Dark Lord Bannon himself, are enthusiastic masters of straight-faced deceit, it’s unlikely that this sort of semantic breakthrough will make much of an impression on the body politic. For one thing, the sheer volume of Trumpist prevaricating has created a perverse deadening effect; the news that the president and his minions are systematically lying to the American public is no longer exactly news. Besides, a good deal of Trump’s political appeal stems from telling conservatives the kind of lies they most want to hear. When Trump declared at his February press conference that “the leaks are real,” but “the news is fake,” he knew his audience. Trump’s backers not only can’t handle the truth; they don’t even want to know what it is.
In this sense, Bannon was right when he declared that journalists “do not understand why Donald Trump is president of the United States.” If Trump’s lies are what got him elected, and what will keep him popular, then the media’s allegiance to a noncommittal parsing of the blizzard of falsehoods now issuing from the Oval Office is woefully inadequate to our post-truth political environment—particularly since it’s now an article of faith among the Trump faithful that it’s the media, not the president, that’s doing the lying.
So here’s a crazy thought: What if, rather than reflexively assuming its defensive posture of “objectivity,” the press embraced this opportunity to go full-offense? In declaring the media the “opposition party,” Bannon may have actually done it a great favor, tacitly casting it as a worthy adversary to Trump’s newfound power. If the press can find a way to conceptualize itself as a true opposition party, then perhaps American journalism might stand for something that would be of value to readers and viewers. But to get a clearer fix on what that might look like, we need to revisit a time when the mainstream media engaged in effective, adversarial journalism that served the civic good.
Ask any journalism professor to name the era when the press functioned most vigorously to challenge the White House, and the almost universal reply will be the 1970s. Those were the days when The New York Times published the Pentagon Papers, and The Washington Post broke the story of Watergate.
But as those episodes from the golden-age-of-media lore suggest, the “opposition” part of the equation is tricky when it comes to the actual practice of journalism. Journalists best do the work of the opposition when they don’t explicitly know that they’re doing it. Put another way: When you understand that it’s actually your job to expose the government’s misdeeds, crimes, and lies, being the opposition means nothing more than doing your job. This is what’s so frustrating about the reflexive centrist lullabies peddled by old-media savants like Wolff and Hiatt: They mistake the work of reporting for partisan cheerleading. And this is why they are playing directly into the hands of the Trumpists.
In the history of Watergate, you can see the routine character of how journalists operate in the mode of a true, public-spirited opposition. The movie version of All the President’s Men paints a heroic, swashbuckling narrative of the Post’s coverage of the break-in. But employees who were there at the time tell a considerably more mundane story. Barry Sussman, the Post’s city editor who assigned the Watergate story to a young Bob Woodward, recalled years later that he thought the break-in was nothing extraordinary at first, and that there was internal hesitance among his colleagues in covering it. “Be careful,” they warned him, “don’t go overboard. These things happen in all campaigns.” Even Woodward later downplayed his role in Nixon’s downfall. “To say that the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit,” he said. “The press always plays a role, whether by being passive or by being aggressive, but it’s a mistake to overemphasize” the impact of media coverage. What mattered to the journalists who took on Richard Nixon wasn’t bringing him down—it was getting it right.
Conversely, when reporters set out to put a dent in someone and miss their mark, they risk public shame, accusations of ethical wrongdoing, and costly libel suits—as The New York Times did in 2008, when it ran a story that was thin on sources and heavy on innuendo alleging that then-presidential candidate John McCain had an affair with a lobbyist. It’s hard work, being the opposition party. And when you fail to do the work, it shows.
Effective media opposition needs to arise from entrenched, institutional habit. Watergate and the Pentagon Papers weren’t random scoops, but blockbuster stories born of a long-simmering hostility between the press and the government. The adversarial relationship began during Johnson’s presidency, when LBJ pledged “maximum candor” but turned Vietnam into a bright, shining lie. By the time Nixon rose to power and began a tradition of openly insulting the press, the media was already on high alert for deep-seated government malfeasance. Even though he was mean to the leaders of the news industry, Nixon was very good for its business model. Scandal sold more newspapers, and more newspapers meant more advertisements.
That’s no small thing. The collapse of any viable business model to support the work of journalism has made many of its self-appointed defenders distinctly pusillanimous. In a universe of perennially shrinking revenues, strongly oppositional (or indeed merely strong) reporting of any kind seems like a luxury our media can no longer afford. Rather than generating additional ad revenues, it’s seen as eating up resources.
It would be nice to think that the media could somehow relinquish its pompous air of self-regard and lay into the Trump administration with Seventies-era gusto. One could argue that Obama, a notorious and talented media manipulator in his own right, has set the stage for Trump, just as Johnson did for Nixon. But that would require the press to acknowledge the inherent flaws—passivity, narcissism, sycophancy, the urge to cling to “objectivity”—that stand in the way of it telling the government to go fuck itself. Until the news industry can find a business model to support a more vigorous and adversarial approach to government scrutiny, our greatest civic hope for disabling Trumpism resides in the supply side of the equation. Fortunately, there’s no apparent shortage of alarmed officials within the Trump administration frantically leaking all the damning information they can about their boss.
In his memoir, Ben Bradlee, the Post’s editor during Watergate, thanked Richard Nixon for his unintentional contribution to the media’s societal standing. “It is wonderfully ironical that a man who so disliked—and never understood—the press did so much to further the reputation of the press,” Bradlee wrote. “In his darkest hour, he gave the press its finest hour.” Today’s press may likewise one day owe Donald Trump a debt of gratitude—if only it can rouse itself to remember what its historic role should be.