The obvious answer to the question in the headline is no. Reporters and editors at establishment news organizations are mostly reality-based, generally anti-totalitarian, quite fond of the First Amendment, reasonably tolerant — and almost without exception are not white supremacist Christian nationalists.
So I am quite certain that as a purely personal or political matter, the vast majority don’t support Donald Trump or his return to power.
Reading and watching how they cover Trump and the Republican Party, it’s getting harder and harder to make the case that the most influential people in our top newsrooms aren’t hankering for his return. What else explains their behavior?
Consider the evidence.
The leaders and top journalists from our major news organization do not seem alarmed.
They treat his official entry into the race as some combination of foregone conclusion and parlor game, rather than as a grave danger.
Trump-channeler Maggie Haberman declared in February 2021 that “Mr. Trump is serious at the moment about running for president a third time in 2024.” Jonathan Allen of NBC wrote in September: “The real question isn’t so much when he’ll start campaigning, but whether he will stop.” The Washington Post has chronicled “a string of thinly veiled hints about his political plans.”
After New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu acknowledged publicly what almost no other elected Republican will – that Trump is “fucking crazy” – Haberman tweeted huffily: “Trump is running, barring a significant change, and all the private laughing at him + lack of standing up to him by other Rs isn’t going to change that.”
They are eagerly awaiting his formal announcement.
[UPDATE July 14, 2022. See, more recently, “Trump Eyes Early 2024 Announcement as Jan. 6 Scrutiny Intensifies“, in the New York Times, and “Donald Trump looks to fall launch for 2024, potentially upending midterms,” in the Washington Post.]
When these reporters write about Trump these days, they generally pause to note the centrality of the Big Lie. But they don’t treat him as manifestly unfit for public office and a threat to American democracy. This is what I call the normalization of the profoundly abnormal.
So, for instance, when Shane Goldmacher and Haberman write about his control over the Republican Party, they’ll make note of “Mr. Trump’s false claims of fraud” and explain how his lie has become “an article of faith, and even a litmus test that he is seeking to impose on the 2022 primaries.” But they don’t explain how disqualifying that should be.
Here’s how they present Trump’s downside:
Mr. Trump is also deeply divisive, unpopular among the broader electorate and under investigation for his business practices and his interference with election officials in Fulton County, Ga. He remains the same politician whose White House oversaw four years of devastating Republican losses, including of the House and Senate. And while a scattered few Republicans publicly warn about yoking the party to him, more fret in private about the consequences.
That would be a pretty tough contextualizing paragraph for any other presidential candidate. But for Trump? It’s euphemistic to the point of inaccuracy. This man is a provably hateful, vindictive, lying, cheating, stealing insurrectionist who inspires slavish devotion from a white nationalist base and sycophancy from craven Republican leaders. His even further accelerating authoritarian tendencies — combined with his party’s full-on assault on voting rights and refusal to honor election results – directly threaten key constitutional protections and rights that have defined this country since its founding. It couldn’t be more clear that in a second term, he would ignore even the few rules he adhered to last time. The federal bureaucracy would be purged of expertise and competence, all of government would be turned to serve his whims and fortunes. To the extent that the U.S. remains the leader of the free world, it would cease to be.
This is not hard to support with evidence. Just in the past few weeks, the man who tried to steal an election said his only regret is that he didn’t personally set siege to the Capitol.
I suspect that reporters and editors at our leading news organizations assume that most readers already realize how dangerously unhinged Trump is — and that readers who don’t accept that will be turned off if reporters are blunt about it.
But it has to be said. It can’t just be assumed.
Not saying is enabling. So why don’t they say it?
They still crave access to Trump and still don’t confront him when they get it.
I’m always suspicious when a news organization doesn’t offer the public a full transcript of its interview with Trump, because it suggests to me that they were kissing his ass.
The Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey went down to Palm Beach earlier this month to get an exclusive interview with Trump in “his palatial beachfront club”, and there’s no indication that he pressed Trump hard about his lies, his pathology, or his autocratic pronouncements.
In the resulting story, Dawsey quoted and paraphrased lie after lie after lie. So, for instance, about the large gap in Trump’s White House phone logs on the afternoon of Jan. 6, Dawsey shared these awesome quotes:
“From the standpoint of telephone calls, I don’t remember getting very many,” he said, later adding, “Why would I care about who called me? If congressmen were calling me, what difference did it make? There was nothing secretive about it. There was no secret.”
The American public needs journalists to confront Trump with his lies, his deranged conspiracy theories, and – given the news – his support of Russian leader Vladimir Putin and his decision to deny weapons to Ukranian leader Volodymyr Zelensky as part of an extortion attempt. But this is the garbage Dawsey gives us:
When asked whether he had changed his mind on Ukraine, a country he regularly criticized as president, he began speaking about his impeachment trial that was launched after he asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Biden’s son Hunter Biden and find an email server.
“I liked Zelensky from the beginning for one reason. When we had the impeachment hoax, based on a perfect phone call, he totally backed me up, and I didn’t ask him to do that. They asked him, and he said, he absolutely did nothing wrong,” Trump said. “He said there was no quid pro quo. He didn’t even know what his people were talking about. He thought they were crazy. … So I gained great respect for him there.”
If any normal person were interviewing Trump, after pretty much every answer the obvious follow-up questions they’d ask would be: Are you completely insane? You can’t possibly believe this stuff or expect anyone else to believe it, can you?
So why didn’t Josh Dawsey?
They can’t seem to keep in mind for more than a few hours what their investigative reporter colleagues – or they themselves — have dug up.
Every few days, some fantastic, grotesque, fatal-to-anyone-but-Trump “holy shit” news item comes out about something Trump has done.
Investigative reporters have been doing amazing work. Just last week, the New York Times ran a jaw-dropper by David D. Kirkpatrick and Kate Kelly about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman paying off Jared Kushner to the tune of a $2 billion investment fund.
There’s also been a constant supply of startling revelations from beat reporters covering all things related to Jan. 6 — literally showing Trump and his minions plotting how to steal the election. CNN, for instance, recently broke an extraordinary story about Donald Trump Jr. texting then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows that “we have operational control” to ensure his father would get a second term, with Republican majorities in the Senate and swing state legislatures.
All sorts of powerfully incriminating stuff is starting to come out of the Woodward – sorry, I mean woodwork.
But these stories land with a clunk, followed by crickets. Competitors frequently ignore them. There’s no or very little follow-up by the originating news organization.
And the daily political press corps keeps writing about Trump like nothing has changed – which, effectively, it hasn’t.
Where was the follow-up on the Jared Kushner story? Why didn’t the Times corral experts and members of Congress to respond to it? Where’s the article about next steps?
We have definitively established so much culpability by Donald Trump it’s staggering. He stole “top secret” presidential records from the White House. It turns out he lied about his positive covid test before his first debate with Joe Biden. His inept, self-indulgent and moronic response to Covid led to over 200,000 Americans dying unnecessarily! I mean that fact alone should accompany every mention of his name.
But none or almost none of this is considered relevant when our top political journalists write about Trump’s latest pronouncement at his latest rally.
They’re constantly assuring us that Republicans really aren’t that extremist.
What explains the elite political press corps’ inability to publicly declaim the Republican Party’s slide into radical extremist white Christian nationalism?
Could they really be so dim that they don’t get it? Or are they just trying to lull American voters into a false sense of security so we don’t get too alarmed?
The Republican Party today is the Trump Party. But at the New York Times in particular, it is institutional orthodoxy that the real GOP is something else entirely: It’s normal, genteel, and rational. It just can’t poke its head up too far right now for various reasons.
I’m constantly amazed at the lengths reporters will go to in order to weave this narrative. They just make shit up! So what you get is the Times’s Annie Karni writing that Republicans “have been intent on rehabilitating themselves in the eyes of voters after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol last year.”
You get the Washington Post’s Ashley Parker insisting on MSNBC that the true Republican leaders are just raring to throw off their Trumpist mantles. “What we think of as the establishment,” Parker said, “these members, these operatives, privately, their preference would be if they could somehow snap their fingers and just make Donald Trump disappear, they would all love to do that.”
Why won’t these reporters acknowledge the obvious? Why don’t they warn us?
They express great admiration for winning Republican tactics.
Political reporters in our top newsrooms are basically cheerleaders — not for a candidate, or a party, but for a winning move. This also allows them not to get too caught up in whether one team is lying, or cheating, or stealing. Who is winning is what matters.
Lately, they have been completely awed by the brilliant (and utterly scurrilous) GOP attacks on Democrats for being white-hating pedophile groomers.
These are manufactured panics, designed to rile up the GOP’s grievance-filled, anti-government, white Christian base. But they work – especially when they are not resoundingly debunked by mass media. And far from debunking them, political journalists – in the name of not being seen as taking sides – become their repeaters.
During the 2021 elections, political reporters helped now-Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin spread race-baiting calumnies against Democrats, based on the completely made-up teaching of critical race theory in public schools. Then they hailed his strategy as worthy of emulation by other Republicans.
Most recently, they’ve written non-judgmentally about the new Republican tactic of accusing public school teachers and Democrats of grooming children for sexual abuse.
Either you believe that’s true – and you’re nuts – or you recognize that as an outrageous lie, a vile tactic, and a sign of utter moral rot.
But our political journalists prefer to tread an untenable and nonexistent middle ground, as if there is something else going on in their brains.
What is it?
Covering a rational president is so much less rewarding.
For White House reporters in particular, covering Trump was exhilarating and easy.
Trump would say something crazy, they would write it down, they’d stick in a paragraph way down about how “Democrats disagree,” their stories would led their newscasts, websites and front pages, and they became TV stars talking about it.
Over and over again.
It might have been exhausting, but it was hardly mentally taxing. There was no need to understand or explain the complex work of governing. All that mattered was Trump. Tracking down Trump cronies to whom they could offer anonymity in return for lies and gossip was like sport.
But these days, the White House is more than just one man’s whims and mood disorders. It is filled with staff, and process, and sometimes competing senses of mission. Figuring out what’s going on and why is hard work, and unrewarding at that. No one wants to read about policy, right?
The White House press corps is bored by consistency.
To make things exciting, they trot out GOP talking points and push for kinetic violence. They ignore the good news for Joe Biden, and focus almost exclusively on the bad. (No one made that case better than the late Eric Boehlert, whose humanity and voice are sorely missed.)
The result is a voting public that thinks the booming economy is a disaster and wants to put a “check” on Biden by putting Republicans back in power.
As I wrote a few weeks back, “When the public thinks up is down, it’s time to rethink coverage“. Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan said the same thing the other day.
So why don’t they reset?
So what else could it be, besides wanting Trump to win?
One of the first pieces I wrote upon launching Press Watch was: “It would be insane for America to re-elect Trump. Why can’t journalists say that?”
I still don’t really understand why not.
I can think of a variety of explanations other than that the media wants Trump to win.
One is the media business’s hankering for a close race. Close races are good for journalism, from both a coverage and revenue standpoint. (Then again, most political reporters have already glibly declared that the Republicans will win big in the 2022 congressional elections. That one’s case closed, as far as they’re concerned.)
Political reporters are also suckers for spectacle and drama and conflict, so maybe they’re drawn to Trump like they’re drawn to a train wreck, but that doesn’t mean they’re actually rooting for him.
And the easiest thing for a political reporter to do is split the difference between both parties. They substitute triangulation for analysis. With the Republican Party having gone to such an extreme, even the “middle ground” is effectively right wing.
Or it could just be a coincidence that so many of the failings of modern political journalism end up mimicking a preference for chaos.
One thing we know for sure is that Trump was very good for the news industry’s bottom lines. In 2021, weekday prime-time viewership dropped 38 percent at CNN, 34 percent at Fox News and 25 percent at MSNBC, according to Nielsen. The number of unique visitors to Politico dropped by nearly 50 percent between October 2020 and 2021, according to Comscore. For the Washington Post, it was a 28 percent decline; for the New York Times, 15 percent.
As the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi wrote just a few months into the Biden presidency, “Trump predicted news ratings would ‘tank if I’m not there.’ He wasn’t wrong.”
By comparison, news executives were giddy about Trump, right from the get-to. In 2015, CBS’s then-CEO Les Moonves famously said of the Trump circus that it “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS, that’s all I got to say.” He added: ” Go Donald! Keep getting out there!”
(I’m leaving the issue of media ownership for another time. All the major broadcast networks and cable networks are owned by huge conglomerates, and the Washington Post is owned by the richest man in the world.)
I suspect it’s cowardice, rather than avarice. They’re afraid that if they sound the alarm, they’ll be written off as biased and untrustworthy. (Surprise! They already are!) And on a personal basis, they don’t want to have to admit that they were wrong for so long, and should have sounded the alarm ages ago. (And not just about Trump, mind you.)
But regardless of their egos, ringing that alarm even this late is a moral imperative.
Maybe one of them will crack, and the others will follow. Or maybe not.
Are there telltale signs of change? I don’t see any.
So no, I don’t think the mainstream media really wants Trump to win again. But I have a hard time explaining its behavior in any other way.