In Friday’s New York Times, the paper’s White House bureau chief, Peter Baker, tut-tutted the “normalization” of Donald Trump’s presidency – as if he himself, along with his colleagues, weren’t among the people most responsible for it.
In a “White House Memo,” Baker wrote about the damning things former national security adviser John Bolton says about Trump in his new book – startling revelations like that Trump “sees his office as an instrument to advance his own personal and political interests over those of the nation”; that Trump is “erratic,” “impulsive” and “stunningly uninformed”; that he makes “irrational” decisions; and that he feels that “the rules that governed other presidents in the post-Watergate era are meant to be broken.“
Baker’s “nut graf,” as we call it in the business, came after he described a scene in which Bolton agrees with then-chief of staff John F. Kelly that there has never “been a presidency like this”. Baker wrote:
That is self-evidently true and yet it bears repeating every once in a while. After more than three years of the Trump presidency, it has become easy to forget at times just how out of the ordinary it really is. The normalization of Mr. Trump’s norm-busting, line-crossing, envelope-pushing administration has meant that what was once shocking now seems like just another day.
As it happens, I don’t actually think the public experiences Trump’s presidency as normal — quite the contrary. I think there are two widely held and mutually exclusive views of the president, and in neither of them is he even remotely normal.
But reading, listening to and watching the news coverage of Donald Trump, I am often struck at the lack of context, alarm, and outrage from the mainstream political media. There’s an awful lot of stenography and credulousness.
So, coming from almost anyone besides Peter Baker, what he wrote there would be astute media criticism.
Coming from him, though, it’s preposterously, laughably ironic.
Now in Baker’s defense, he is a sharp, fast and agile reporter who has at times written about Trump in highly incisive and critical terms, especially in his news analyses. For better and for worse, he is hugely admired by his colleagues, and is a role model for many of them. We were colleagues once, even friends.
But way too often, especially in his daily articles, Baker has downplayed the profoundly aberrational, deviant nature of the Trump presidency. He has taken what Trump says at face value even when he knows better. He has internalized Trump’s framings, refused to call lies lies, and engaged in mind-boggling false equivalence. When all else fails, he has resorted to pox-on-both-your-houses, boring-what-else-is-new coverage.
And he seems to forget, from one day to the other, who Trump really is, and what he himself has written.
I suspect it’s partly a result of his avowed detachment from the very topic he covers. In a feature intended to explain some of the Times’s journalistic practices in March, Baker echoed his boss Dean Baquet’s aversion to taking sides – even when one side is the truth and the other side is a lie. Baker’s quote:
I try hard not to take strong positions on public issues even in private… For me, it’s easier to stay out of the fray if I never make up my mind, even in the privacy of the kitchen or the voting booth, that one candidate is better than another, that one side is right and the other wrong.
I do not think news reporters should be partisans. But they do need to make up their minds about who is right and who is wrong. They do need to distinguish between what’s dangerously aberrational and what’s not. And they need to remember that from day to day.
After I tweeted my displeasure about Baker’s nut graf on Friday morning, one reader asked me to provide some examples of Baker’s normalizations. So I searched my archives for mentions of Baker. (Press Watch only goes back to October 2019, but I like to think of it as a resource of sorts.) And here are some of the columns that came up:
“There are days in Washington lately when it feels like the truth itself is on trial,” Baker wrote during the House impeachment hearings.
What ensued was a master class in avoiding the obvious, which was that Republicans were engaged in a litany of lies, obfuscations, conspiracy theories, distractions and avoidance, while Democrats remained largely tethered to reality and trying to uncover the truth.
Baker wrote about “radically competing versions of reality” and “the deep distrust that many Americans harbor toward their leaders and institutions.” But he never explained to readers who was lying and who wasn’t.
I wrote that Baker was basically throwing his hands up in the air, with an occasional wink at the readers, when what he’s supposed to be doing is shouting the truth from the rooftops.
It was New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen who really nailed it:
"Each side took what it wanted from the day’s developments and drew the conclusions that best reflected its views." https://t.co/QtCg2jKq89 This is now the best the Times can do. It has maneuvered itself into a null space, where it can only repeat this observation over and over.
— Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) December 10, 2019
I wrote about the Times’s ongoing failure to adjust to the two central political truths of the moment: the profound asymmetry between the parties (one relying mostly on facts and the other trafficking almost entirely in deceit and division) and the wildly abnormal nature of the Trump presidency.
Baker often obscures both those truths, casting much of what he sees as just so much partisan bickering. He maintains such an emotional and moral distance that he sometimes actually appears bored by what’s going on.
Just before the House impeachment vote he wrote that “it feels like one more chapter in an all-out clash that has been fought for three years, hugely consequential yet of a piece with everything that has come before, with less suspense and an outcome seemingly foreordained.”
In an instant classic of world-weariness and bothsidesism, Baker’s takeway from the House vote to impeach Trump was this:
From the day he took office, Mr. Trump made clear that he would not abide by the conventions of the system he inherited. So perhaps it was inevitable that at some point he would go too far for the opposition party, leading to a historic day of debate on the House floor where he was alternately depicted as a constitutional villain or victim.
I cited Baker as an example of how our star political reporters “approach the impeachment trial as a game, covering each side with as little show of favoritism as they can possibly muster. This often leads to false equivalence, one example of which is when ‘both sides’ are equally blamed for something that only one side has actually done.”
In this case, Baker seemed to think it was a hilarious “gotcha” that Democrats, who historically disagreed with Bolton about policy, still wanted to hear his testimony.
The Trump impeachment proceedings showed us two things: that Trump incontrovertibly abused his office and engaged in a cover-up; and that Republicans cannot be trusted to hold members of their own party accountable.
Baker cast it as a huge win for Trump. Under the headline “While Stained in History, Trump Will Emerge From Trial Triumphant and Unshackled,” he wrote:
With the end of the impeachment trial now in sight and acquittal assured, a triumphant Mr. Trump emerges from the biggest test of his presidency emboldened, ready to claim exoneration and take his case of grievance, persecution and resentment to the campaign trail.
Feb. 10, 2020: The folly of writing that Trump ‘hits back’; Feb. 13, 2020: Political journalists are sounding the alarm. They mustn’t stop.
How do you normalize something as grotesque as Trump’s post-impeachment purge of truth tellers? If you’re a star reporter at the New York Times, you make it sound like he’s just fighting back.
Trump’s ousting of impeachment witnesses was a huge defeat for accountability and whistleblower protections. But to Baker and his colleagues, it was just the latest blow in a boxing match. Trump was “emboldened by his victory and determined to strike back.”
A follow-up article by Baker was headlined “Trump’s War Against ‘the Deep State’ Enters a New Stage.”
As Luppe B. Luppen, a lawyer and writer who tweets as @nycsouthpaw explained, Baker’s story “so internalized Trump’s point of view that it starts analyzing a ‘war’ that isn’t real. Any close observer of the administration these past 3y surely knows that individual acts of defiance to Trump are sporadic, uncoordinated, and reliably get brutally crushed.”
Trump says manifestly outrageous things, and Baker dutifully writes them down.
Case in point, when Trump maligned and tried to bully two liberal, female Supreme Court justices – while he was traveling in India – I wrote that “reporters should have called it out as grotesquely abnormal behavior for a president of the United States” that “represented an escalation of his persistent and unprecedented attacks on the legitimacy and independence of the federal judiciary.”
Baker reported the story straight for paragraph after paragraph, quoting Trump and his tweets, patiently explicating what Trump was talking about and what he meant, and at one point simply noting that “It is unusual for presidents to fixate on domestic issues while overseas on a state visit, but Mr. Trump has veered from that tradition so much that it has come to be expected.”
March 3, 2020: Trump’s dangerous ignorance ought to be a top story
Other reporters saw Trump’s profound cluelessness about what’s involved in fighting a pandemic on full display during a televised meeting with the heads of major pharmaceutical companies. Baker performed dutiful stenography.
Trump tried to blame Barack Obama for his own administration’s continued failure to make widespread testing for the virus available to the public. It was a patently outrageous, completely false claim.
It took Baker a credulous headline, a credulous subhead and two long stenographic paragraphs before even giving readers a hint that Trump had no idea what he was talking about.
My response was to suggest that journalists who refuse to decide who’s right and who’s wrong shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a story with major public-health implications.
March 9, 2020: Time to tune Trump out
Baker and other Times reporter often write that Trump is “struggling” when he’s… not.
There’s no evidence he struggles, certainly not for balance. Instead, he reacts, impulsively, with self-interest his primary and possibly only concern.
But Baker actually wrote this paragraph:
Mr. Trump, who is at his strongest politically when he has a human enemy to attack, has seemed less certain of how to take on an invisible killer. The role of calming natural leader is not one that has come easily as he struggles to find the balance between public reassurance and Panglossian dismissiveness.
Of all the euphemisms the Times has used for “pathological lying,” “Panglossian dismissiveness” maybe the the Timesiest.
Baker routinely jumps on any evidence that Trump may be acting like a normal president and amplifies it.
Case in point, Trump on March 31 held a rambling two-hour press conference during which he braced the country for a “very tough two weeks” – but then said, absurdly, that things will “get better all of a sudden… like a burst of light.”
Baker saw what he wanted to see, writing about the “grim-faced president” who “was coming to grips with a reality he had long refused to accept.”
That has not aged well, but neither has so much of what Baker has written.