We are in the midst of an epic media freakout.
It is a subset of a larger liberal panic over Donald Trump’s strength in the general election. The mood of the center-left is, “America, how dare you?” The outraged incomprehension is seeping into and, increasingly, driving the coverage of the race.
The freakout began a few weeks ago when Donald Trump started to close the polling gap with Hillary Clinton, and picked up intensity as the race essentially became a tie. The media is going to be in a perpetual state of high anxiety and dudgeon until Election Day.
The press is playing catch-up. It didn’t take much foresight to realize that giving Trump $2 billion worth of free publicity in his primary battle might help him win his party’s nomination. Still, it was all fun and games as long as the ratings were good and Trump trailed Hillary.
“This is not normal,” you’ll hear it said over and over about Trump (often correctly). But did anyone think it was normal when Trump said Ted Cruz was ineligible to run for president? Or questioned Ben Carson’s faith? Nonetheless, according to an analysis by the Shorenstein Center, most coverage of Trump in the first half of 2016 was “positive or neutral in tone.”
Not anymore. There have been two seminal events in the freakout. The first was the absurdly over-the-top criticism of Matt Lauer for not being tough enough on Trump at an NBC national-security forum. Lauer couldn’t have satisfied his critics short of slapping Trump in the face and demanding, “Have you no sense of decency, sir?”
The second was a New York Times “news analysis” on Trump’s disavowal of birtherism that was intended as an exemplary act of journalistic aggression — a rhetorical assault worthy of the poison pen of Maureen Dowd that led the paper with the extremely hostile headline, “Trump Gives Up a Lie, But Refuses to Repent.”
Some of the anti-Trumpism in the press has been expressed in pointless and annoying gestures, such as CNN’s practice of fact-checking Trump’s statements in snarky chyrons. I’ll believe that this reflects the network’s disinterested pursuit of truth as soon as I see a CNN chyron declaring: “Clinton: Tax Cuts Caused the Financial Crisis (They Didn’t).”
More significantly, Lester Holt tilted anti-Trump during the debate. Trump got tougher questions than Clinton, who was spared queries on matters such as the Clinton Foundation and Benghazi. And he fact-checked Trump in real time twice, arguably getting his correction of Trump about a complex stop-and-frisk case wrong. Notably, Holt got positive reviews.
Outlets are more and more using the formerly thermonuclear word “lie” in their coverage of Trump, and liberal analysts are hailing the end of he said/she said journalism. Trump is indeed a different kind of animal and has stressed every institution that has encountered him over the past year, from the Republican National Committee to rival campaigns to the press. But the current media freakout is hard to take, and a mistake.
One, it is galling, since the media is collectively deciding to give up on an objectivity that it never had. John McCain and Mitt Romney, upstanding, honorable men who weren’t allegedly threats to the republic, were on the receiving end of more negative coverage than Barack Obama.
Two, it speaks to a certain contempt for the media’s fellow citizens, who are presumed incapable of rationally evaluating the candidates without its thumb on the scale.
Three, if Trump loses, the press will go right back to its pose of objectivity. Whereas the only good thing about the media’s current jag is that it might represent movement toward a more British-style (and traditional American-style) journalism, with outlets forthrightly acknowledging their partisan allegiances.
Nothing is going to dissuade the press from its current course, though. There is no reasoning with fear and loathing.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.