If you’re a journalist in a lather over Donald Trump, you’ve probably given some thought to the possibility that our profession might be exaggerating itself into oblivion.
Columnist Heather Wilhelm of the National Review is the latest to see disaster down the road. Wilhelm’s argument, published in Monday’s Chicago Tribune, is that journalists have been so carried away with the hyperbolic derision they’ve directed at Trump that “there’s a good chance that the media will blow its remaining shreds of credibility.”
She might be right. But let’s examine her argument. Her case in point is Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist who, she says, wrote a “doozy” for Valentine’s Day:
In the paragraph following his passionate call to arms regarding the serious issue of Russian hacking, Friedman blasts Trump, with equal venom, for—wait for it—criticizing the cast of “Hamilton” and actor Meryl Streep. I am not making this up.
Except that Wilhelm is. She’s making up the part about “equal venom.”
Let’s compare. “Ladies and gentlemen,” wrote Friedman, “we were attacked on Dec. 7, 1941, we were attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, and we were attacked on Nov. 8, 2016. That most recent attack didn’t involve a horrible loss of lives, but it was devastating in its own way. Our entire intelligence community concluded that Russia hacked our election by deliberately breaking into Democratic National Committee computers and then drip-by-drip funneling embarrassing emails through WikiLeaks to undermine Clinton’s campaign.”
That’s Wilhelm’s “doozy,” his equivalency between Trump’s victory and enemy attacks in which thousands of Americans died. It offends Wilhelm. But Friedman’s larger point has to do with the American response to the Russian hacking that Friedman thinks helped Trump win. In 1941 and 2001, America went to war. But as for the hacking, “other than a wrist slap against Moscow, we’ve moved on.”
And then what about Streep and Hamilton? Friedman went on to concede that Trump is the only president we’ve got and wish he’d act like one. While giving Russia and Putin a free ride, Friedman observed, Trump “has used his Twitter account to attack BMW for building an auto plant in Mexico, Boeing for over charging for a government airplane, the cast of ‘Hamilton’ for appealing to the vice president to reaffirm American pluralism, American newspapers for undercounting the size of his inauguration crowd and the actress Meryl Streep for calling him out for bullying a handicapped reporter.”
That’s not equal venom. It’s just Friedman’s laundry list of petty attacks unleashed by Trump against people who crossed him. To Wilhelm, it’s a “perfect example of the media’s inability to separate important news from run-of-the-mill Trump.” But to Friedman, run-of-the-mill Trump is like the dog that didn’t bark—how come a president so petulantly obsessive with his tweets has never tweeted about the Russians? As for me, I think the greatest favor journalists could do Trump would be to take his personality off the table.
But Wilhelm could be wrong about Friedman and still have put her finger on a a crisis in journalism. “Despite the dubious distinction of polling lower than Donald Trump—his latest approval rating is 39 percent, while a Gallup poll found 32 percent of Americans have a ‘great deal’ or a ‘fair amount’ of trust in the media—many esteemed journalists are amazingly six drinks in at their own self-congratulatory Me Party,” she writes. But beware! “If the status quo remains,” she says to journalists, “don’t be surprised if the rest of the world tunes you out.”
Especially at a time we have a tweeting president who tells the country, “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”
But just as Trump isn’t the first president to attack journalists, our current status quo—reflected by Gallup and noted by Wilhelm—doesn’t make this the first time Americans haven’t adored us. They never have. Nurses? Love ’em! Telemarketers? Despise ’em. Reporters? Year in and year out, mixed feelings. In 2004 I wrote about that year’s Gallup poll measuring the nation’s affection for its journalists:
Never, ever do we score among the highly esteemed. In 2000, the last time Gallup asked, “Please tell me how you would rate the honesty and ethical standards” of newspaper reporters specifically, just 16 percent of the people responding said “very high” or “high.” This year it was up to 21 percent, so at least we’ve made it out of the teens.
Newspaper reporters finished 16th among 21 job categories in public respect in 2004, and someone I spotted online asked, “OK. What’s going on here? . . . What are we projecting to the public that causes this perception?”
Something we can’t do much of anything about, I pontificated:
Let’s reflect on the competition. Most people actually deal with nurses and teachers [who did really well] and discover they listen sympathetically and keep confidences. Most people haven’t talked to a reporter and know they probably never will unless catastrophe strikes, and then reporters will descend for the sole purpose of extracting painful information and putting it in the paper.
And who could have known when I wrote this that a president would come along who’d call journalists public enemies, and that we’d call him an inveterate liar? And that the public’s respect for journalists would stay about the same?
Journalists will never be loved, and I see no particular reason why we should be. But we’re useful, and much more easily scorned than abandoned. Keeping up with what’s real is now not merely responsible—it’s au courant. Journalism’s future doesn’t look so bad.