Just as Donald Trump has revolutionized national political campaigns, journalists have similarly changed how they cover the White House.
Since Trump’s election victory in November, the media has subjected the new administration to a level of coverage and hysterical scrutiny that we have never seen before for an United States president.
We are in an unchartered territory of media hyperventilation at and antipathy toward this president, unseen in previous eras — and notably distinct from the drooling coverage the Obama administration received during its early years (and later).
Case in point: Every night, cable news subjects viewers to a “Brady Bunch” panel discussion on the latest alleged indiscretion or faux pas committed by Trump or a member of his team. This includes, but is not limited to, a screaming chyron alleging ominous presidential wrongdoings.
As mentioned, this is EVERY night. Taking the Trump administration to the woodshed for a nightly beating is now the news media’s bread and butter.
For example, as news of the terrorist attack in Manchester, England, unfolded, networks grappled with whether or not the incident — which resulted in at least 23 deaths and 116 injuries — warranted interrupting a previously scheduled barrage of anti-Trump analysis. Yes, there was a massive terror attack targeting young people, but the Washington Post had just released another claim about the Trump campaign’s alleged Russia connections. And it was time for Trump’s nightly beating!
Eventually, MSNBC and CNN relented and went live with the terror attack. However, it was not but two hours later that both channels were back on Russia-Trump connections.
That is one of the more egregious examples, but over the last six months there have been countless others.
How did we get to this point?
You cannot deny Trump is facing a more critical and engaged news media than Obama or any of his other predecessors in today’s 24/7 news culture.
Perhaps it is warranted. Perhaps the heads of news outlets believe President Trump is so bad, so awful. A vulgarian from Queens is running the country, and they are not so good with that. He’s not worthy of the public trust. No to mention he puts ketchup on steak. Ketchup!
Therefore, the media must keep a more watchful eye on this White House.
It is clear this is their thought process. Just look at the catchy new slogans The Washington Post and The New York Times adopted slogans after the presidential election.
“Democracy Dies in Darkness” The Washington Post now declares under its logo.
“The truth is more important now than ever” The New York Times claims in its advertising campaign.
Of course, one would hope both outlets were abiding by these axioms during the Obama administration. Back then, however, these papers were not actively pushing these mottos. It could be that those are just clever marketing gimmicks to get a wary public more engaged with the news.
A new standard for covering Trump has accompanied this new attitude. For example, take the “scandal” and “palace intrigue” pieces Time and the Post have released focused on the inner — and always dysfunctional — workings of the Trump administration. The pieces are invariably informed by anonymous sources.
In one Post story, 30 different unnamed sources said Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein threatened to resign over being the impetus of FBI Director James Comey’s firing. Rosenstein denied threatening to resign.
The number of leaks from this administration is unprecedented. Of course, the media is readily granting all the negative leaks the cloak of anonymity.
Once upon a time, newsrooms sought to avoid anonymous sources. Editors and style guides cautioned the strategy should only be used as a last resort.
From “The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage”:
“[Anonymity] is a last resort, for situations in which The Times could not otherwise publish information it considers newsworthy and reliable. Reporters should not offer a news source anonymity without first pressing to use a name or other helpful identification. If concealment proves necessary, writers should tell readers as much as possible — without violating the promise of confidentiality — to help them assess the source’s credibility.”
“Anonymity should not be used as a cloak for personal attacks. The vivid language of direct question confers an unfair advantage on an unnamed speaker, and turns of phrase are valueless to a reader who cannot assess the source.”
Other style guides and journalism organizations offer the same guidance on anonymous sourcing. The Society of Professional Journalists urges reporters to “identify sources whenever feasible” and “to question sources’ motives before promising anonymity.”
In the era of Trump, anonymity is no longer an exception, but the rule. Would this liberal use of anonymous sourcing, as the Post and the Times have done, have passed muster with Trump’s predecessors? Probably not.
And it is clear that anonymous sources’ motivations, in many of the cases, has been to damage the Trump presidency. That may not be the motivation of news outlets and reporters, but it is at least in some cases the motivation of the anonymous sources themselves.
This is a new reality and there is not much Trump’s supporters can do about it. But it is probably a reason America’s trust in the media has dropped to its lowest level in history, according to a Gallup poll. Only 32 percent of respondents said they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media.
That is just above Congress, coming in at 19 percent, and Trump himself, who has a 41 percent approval rating, according to the same polling firm.