But they are also pragmatic answers, because a journalism that conspicuously shades the truth or tries to hide self-evident realities for the sake of some higher cause will inevitably lose the trust of some of the people it’s trying to steer away from demagogy — undercutting, in the process, the very democratic order that it’s setting out to save.
I think this has happened already. There were ways in which the national news media helped Trump in his path through the Republican primaries in 2016, by giving him constant celebrity-level hype at every other candidate’s expense. But from his shocking November victory onward, much of the press adopted exactly the self-understanding that its critics are still urging as the Only Way to Stop Trump — positioning itself as the guardian of democracy, a moral arbiter rather than a neutral referee, determined to make Trump’s abnormal qualities and authoritarian tendencies the central story of his presidency.
The results of this mind-set, unfortunately, included a lot of not particularly great journalism. The emergency mentality conflated Trumpian sordidness with something world-historical and treasonous, as in the overwrought Russia coverage seeded by the Steele dossier. It turned figures peripheral to national politics, from Nick Sandmann to Kyle Rittenhouse, into temporary avatars of incipient fascism. It invented anti-Trump paladins, from Michael Avenatti to Andrew Cuomo, who turned out to embody their own sort of moral turpitude. And it instilled an industrywide fear, palpable throughout the 2020 election, of any kind of coverage that might give too much aid and comfort to Trumpism — whether it touched on the summertime riots or Hunter Biden’s business dealings.
Now you could argue that at least this mind-set achieved practical success, since Trump did lose in 2020. But he didn’t lose overwhelmingly, he gained voters in places the establishment did not expect, and he was able to turn media hostility to his advantage in his quest to keep control of his party, even in defeat. Meanwhile, the public’s trust in the national press declined during the Trump era and became radically more polarized, with Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents maintaining a certain degree of confidence in the media and Republicans and Republican-leaning independents going very much the other way.
This points to the essential problem with the idea that just a little less media neutrality, a little more overt alarmism, would put Trumpism in its place. You can’t suppress a populist insurgency just by rallying the establishment if suspicion of the establishment is precisely what’s generating support for populism in the first place. Instead, you need to tell the truth about populism’s dangers while convincing skeptical readers that you can be trusted to describe reality in full.
Which brings us to Joe Biden’s press coverage. I have a lot of doubts about the Milbank negativity algorithms, both because of the methodological problems identified by analysts like Nate Silver and also because, as a newsreader, my sense is that Trump’s negative coverage reflected more stalwart opposition (the president we oppose is being terrible again) while in Biden’s case the negativity often coexists with implicit sympathy (the president we support is blowing it, and we’re upset). But still, there’s no question that the current administration’s coverage has been pretty grim of late.
But it’s turned grim for reasons that an objective and serious press corps would need to acknowledge in order to have any credibility at all. Piece by piece, you can critique the media’s handling of the past few months — I think the press coverage of the Afghanistan withdrawal was overwrought, for instance — but here’s the overall picture: A president who ran on restoring normalcy is dealing with a pandemic that stubbornly refuses to depart, rising inflation that his own White House didn’t predict, a border-crossing crisis that was likewise unanticipated, increasing military bellicosity from our major adversaries, stubbornly high homicide rates in liberal cities, a party that just lost a critical gubernatorial race and a stalled legislative agenda.