For the past four years, the country's leading mainstream media outlets — among them The New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN — treated the Trump administration as an opponent and even an outright enemy.
This was fully justified — and not just because the president constantly lashed out at these organizations and individual journalists by name, accusing them of pedaling "fake news," of making up sources and facts out of whole cloth, and of putting their pursuit of ratings ahead of the good of the country. It was also justified because Donald Trump was an unprecedentedly inept and mendacious president who actively encouraged and rewarded corruption and lying. This required that the press remain on full alert for the entirety of the Trump presidency, ready and eager to file stories that exposed all manner of misdeeds.
Trump has been out of office for less than a week, but already the journalistic tone has changed dramatically. Consider a story that CNN published early last Thursday morning. "Sources" in the administration of just-inaugurated President Joe Biden told CNN's MJ Lee that the new president was starting from "square one" on vaccine distribution because the Trump administration's plan was "nonexistent." "There is nothing for us to rework," one of these sources said. "We're going to have to build everything from scratch."
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Within a matter of hours, this story had been shared very widely — repeated and amplified by prominent media personalities, journalistic outlets (including The Week), partisan pundits, and a range of high-profile Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, former first lady and presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, and at least one senior member of the Obama administration.
There was just one problem with the story: It wasn't true — at least according to Anthony Fauci, who flatly denied the story's key contention when asked about it at a press briefing that afternoon: "We certainly are not starting from scratch … We are continuing, but you're going to see a real ramping up of [vaccine distribution]." CNN updated its story an hour later to add these comments from Fauci. But by then it was too late. The line about Biden's people having to start "from scratch" had gone viral, helping to shape the news cycle on the administration's second day.
Spin is ubiquitous in modern politics. There is nothing new or shocking about it. Yet it is both noteworthy and troubling just how quickly CNN flipped from treating the previous president like a hostile occupying power to uncritically publicizing the brand-new administration's efforts to cut itself maximal slack. If the media has any hope at all of improving on its image and reversing the collapsing trust of readers and viewers, it will have to do better than this.
The point is not to try and convince the most hostile Republicans to tune back into mainstream media outlets. Many of them are unreachable by this point, showing less interest in doing or seeking out better reporting than in using accusations of double standards and hypocrisy to help build support for the right and attempt to tear down liberal institutions. Some go even further, to use the failings of professional journalism as a justification for pedaling deliberate distortions on alternative platforms. Those who take this position view all so-called news as a form of propaganda or information warfare and defend the deliberate promulgation of lies as a tit-for-tat response to the actions of their enemies: "If the left does it, then so should we, and with even less restraint."
But there are plenty of Americans situated between the burn-it-all-down hyper-cynical right and the journalists and Democratic Party politicos who naively or enthusiastically passed around the CNN story last week. Whether the right succeeds in persuading more and more people to join them in tuning out mainstream journalism will depend in large part on whether its accusations of dishonesty and bad faith look accurate to observers. Does the media seem fair-minded and scrupulous in what it labels news? Or does it seem highly invested in enhancing the power of one side in our country's deep political divide?
The fact is that the media spent the past four years running story after story from people inside the Trump administration anonymously making it look terrible. And then, a day after Biden's inauguration, a prominent news organization ran a story from someone inside the new administration anonymously making it look good, while a large number of journalistic outlets and political actors passed it around like gospel.
That's bad — though a very familiar kind of bad. In May of 2016, journalist David Samuels created waves with his blockbuster profile of Obama adviser Ben Rhodes for The New York Times Magazine. In the piece, Samuels detailed how Rhodes deliberately manipulated a slew of journalists to help build support for the Iran nuclear deal. He spun them masterfully — in large part because when it came to the Obama administration, they were eager to let themselves be spun.
To move from the media environment Samuels describes in his essay through the high-intensity antagonism of the Trump years to what we saw last Thursday with CNN's vaccine distribution story is to experience whiplash twice over. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that too many reporters and media companies believe that journalism means holding the powers that be accountable only when Republicans are in charge. When Democrats control the White House, it means something very different — more like acting as a de facto PR firm working on behalf of the president of the United States.
That can't be the way journalism works in a healthy democracy. This doesn't mean the goal should be going easier on Republicans than the mainstream media did over the past four years. It means applying comparable levels of critical suspicion to the Democrats.
It's time for journalists to prove the cynics wrong and start building back squandered trust.
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