Two and a Half Cheers for the Mainstream Press

Major national outlets need to help smaller ones survive.

This story is part of a package exploring how to rescue and revitalize journalism. Read the rest of the pieces here. And, if you enjoy what you’re reading, please consider making a donation—we’re a nonprofit media organization and rely on the support of our readers.

Americans often complain that reading the news during the Trump era is exhausting. They should try covering it. 

In the past, the White House press office would announce to reporters covering the president that “the lid is on,” which meant there was no more major news coming and they were done for the day. Not anymore. Under Trump, there is no lid. The president famously delights in announcing policy changes and making newsworthy statements—typically grotesque, mendacious ones—via Twitter at all hours. That means White House correspondents and their editors are always, for practical purposes, in work mode. 

It’s been like this for four years. Four years of being corralled into cages at Trump rallies—and, if you’re a recognizable TV correspondent, protected by network-provided bodyguards. Four years of having the president call your work “fake” and having 40 percent of Americans believe him. Four years of hate-filled comments from readers on the right and charges of spineless complicity from those on the left. Four years of writing long, complicated, hard-to-report stories about lying, corruption, and catastrophe that get a few hours of news cycle attention before being eclipsed by more lying, corruption, and catastrophe. 

In the final months of the presidential campaign, however, the dynamic seems to have changed. Whereas four years ago, Trump was manipulating the media into doing his bidding—with cable networks covering nearly all his campaign appearances live and unfiltered and major newspapers hyperventilating over Hillary’s emails—now it’s the news media forcing Trump to react. 

On July 28, the Axios reporter Jonathan Swan used the simple expedient of knowledgeable follow-up questions to provoke the president, on air, to be both honest and tellingly dismissive about the COVID-19 death toll by saying “It is what it is.” Roughly one month later, The Atlantic’s Jeffery Goldberg reported that in 2018 Trump had disparaged U.S. soldiers killed in action and buried in French cemeteries as “losers” and “suckers.” 

Those stories, and the White House’s pushback, were still ricocheting around the internet a week later when The Washington Post published excerpts from Bob Woodward’s book Rage in which Trump admitted, in a taped interview, that he knew the coronavirus was “more deadly than even your strenuous flus” while he was telling the American people the opposite. Trump responded by comparing his lies to Churchill projecting “calmness” during the Blitz. 

Soon after, The Atlantic’s Bart Gellman reported on plans by the Trump campaign to avoid conceding defeat in the election—including convincing GOP-controlled state legislatures to appoint pro-Trump electors should late-counted mail-in ballots start going Biden’s way. Then, on September 27, The New York Times released its investigation of Trump’s tax records, which it had managed to obtain. They showed that the president paid only $750 in taxes in 2016. 

The White House was still trying to contain that bombshell when, on the evening of October 1, Jennifer Jacobs of Bloomberg broke the news that one of Trump’s closest aides, Hope Hicks, had tested positive for COVID-19. In the hours of pandemonium that followed, Trump admitted that he and the first lady had also tested positive, and Bloomberg further reported that senior administration officials had tried to keep Hicks’s illness quiet. Within days, the rest of the press had pieced together a timeline revealing that an earlier Rose Garden ceremony for Amy Coney Barrett attended by dozens of GOP notables was, in the words of Anthony Fauci, a “superspreader event.” 

Will any of this coverage move what seems to be a locked-in electorate? We’ll find out soon enough. Still, you have to hand it to the much-maligned mainstream press. When future historians write the story of the 2020 elections, it will be a source not only of information, but also of inspiration. 

You might suspect that a “but” is coming. And you’re right. It’s not, however, the standard complaint that journalists indulge in “both-sides-ism” or portray Trump’s lying, racism, and authoritarianism euphemistically. They’ve actually gotten much better at that. Rather, the greatest current sin of the big national papers and networks is their failure to fight against the unprecedented economic collapse of the media as a whole. As I note in the introduction to our special package in this issue, one in four newspapers in America has closed since 2004, with most of the loss concentrated at the local level. This decline, which has accelerated since the pandemic, is as big a long-term threat to democracy as anything Trump is doing now. Indeed, it may even explain why he got elected in the first place. 

The big media outlets cover the collapse of local journalism as if it’s some kind of tragic natural disaster, like an earthquake. It is not. It is a consequence of policy choices made or not made in Washington. As such, it is a solvable problem. In this issue we lay out a number of specific solutions. They won’t happen, however, unless the major news media report on and indeed advocate for such solutions—using the power they’ve shown they have for a righteous cause they are uniquely positioned to champion.

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Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly. He was an editor at the magazine from 1986 to 1988.