Ross Douthat begins his post-inauguration column with the funniest lede I’ve read in some time (The New York Times, “The Tempting of the Media”):
There are two common views among journalists about the fate of our profession under the presidency of Donald Trump.
Our profession, says Douthat, without the slightest shred of irony to spare. Ross, darling, you’re a blogger-turned-editorial writer who replaced Bill “This is Going to Be a Two-Month War” Kristol, not exactly the kind of credentials that warrant the title ‘journalist.’ But onward:
The first is that ours is an age of maximal danger for the freedom of the press, that Trump’s war on newspapers and networks will escalate from tweets to Erdoganian crackdowns, that truly independent journalism will be marginalized while the White House breeds a lap dog press.
Erdoganian crackdowns is an exaggeration, but since Trump has threatened to expel the White House press corps, the idea that outlets like Fox News and Breitbart would have sole access, or at least some kind of Gold-Tier Club Member access that provided them an unlimited number of “questions” while other outlets only got one, isn’t the craziest. And I don’t think it would be terribly difficult either; maybe journalists as a whole are rightfully more skeptical of Trump, but they were pretty good at retransmitting the Bush White House’s every proclamation without a whole lot of scrutiny. I know, I know; 9/11, newly-bred ‘War on Terror,’ Iraq, etc. etc. But like I’ve said, you’ve got some prominent figures in the media from credible sources who are reticent about calling Trump’s lies “lies,” so yeah, a lap dog press isn’t out of the question at least in regard to the White House press corps.
But Ross has a different worry. And, dear reader, please tell me that your mind went instantly to the same place as mine the second you read it:
Mainstream journalism in this strange era may be freer than the fearful anticipate, but not actually better as the optimists expect. Instead, the press may be tempted toward — and richly rewarded for — a kind of hysterical oppositionalism, a mirroring of Trump’s own tabloid style and disregard for truth.
A “hysterical oppositionalism,” you say? Amazingly, Ross makes it through the rest of his column without mentioning the usual culprits who practiced “hysterical oppositionalism” over the last eight years, like, oh I don’t know, Fox News, the station that seriously entertained the idea that Obama offered his wife a “terrorist fist jab” before he was even elected. Not to mention every right-wing website and radio show, whose ‘editors’ and hosts get invited to talk on stations like NPR (Jonah Goldberg of National Review makes regular appearances on “Morning Edition,” as did Tucker Carlson, who runs the far-right Daily Caller and is now a host at Fox), and who give extended coverage to BS like Obama birtherism.
You know, it would have been useful if Ross had been concerned about all of that during Obama’s presidency instead of fretting about whether journalists might be too oppositional to a president who has repeatedly expressed contempt for their occupation.
I wouldn’t come down so hard on Ross if he had the guts to name names beyond Buzzfeed and their irresponsible and damaging decision to release a completely unverified dossier, but he doesn’t. He just makes vague references to ‘the established press’ (which outlets are members of the ‘established press,’ Ross?) and worries that they might end up imitating Trump:
Trump comes to power as a destroyer of norms, a flouter of conventions, and everyone will be tempted to join the carnival — to escalate when he escalates, to radicalize whenever he turns authoritarian.
(Question: What exactly does it mean to ‘radicalize’ when Trump turns authoritarian? I know what Trump turning authoritarian is like; we hear him doing it often enough. But the press radicalizing? I’d like a bit more explanation there.)
But it appears that Ross’s worries boil down to him not wanting certain aspects of far-right shenanigans getting too much attention—he thinks it’s a bit silly that there’s as much coverage as there is about the alt-right, Richard Spencer, and the white supremacy that encapsulates it all, even though Steve Bannon is now in the White House alongside Donald Trump, a president who actively but at best unconsciously legitimized the kinds of ideas they espouse. It’s one of those steps lots of conservative commentators are taking so as to distance themselves from Trump and the far-right, even though they’ve been complicit—again, at best unconsciously—at agitating them for years.
Because really, it’s hard to take seriously a guy who can’t help but shuffle some of the blame of Trump’s rise onto Obama.