Nothing like it to learn how much of an idiot you are.
Since the election, I have watched the standard-bearers of professional journalism heed advice that I offered the day before the election. In the event of a Donald Trump win, I said, the press should document his presidency in “excruciating detail.” Journalists like me should “drop everything” and focus on Trump because of his extensively documented and regularly telegraphed views on undocumented immigrants and religious minorities.
And now—certainly not because they read my comments and took them to heart—huge swaths of the journalism establishment have discovered their new purpose in life: holding Trump to account. I didn’t follow my own advice, and that makes me a hypocrite. Everyone else did, and that makes me feel stupid.
The Columbia Journalism Review, a leading industry journal, has a freshly minted “Covering Trump” vertical on its website. Slate ran an ad in the weeks after the election promising not to “normalize” Trump. The Nation wants its incoming writing fellows to focus on how “young people are combating … new obstacles in the age of Donald Trump.” (Can you hear the capital A in “age”?) And the Washington Post gets the Melodrama Award for its new motto: “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”
This is when the press finally finds its mission? This is our contribution to the shining history of political journalism that began with Watergate? This is our comeback from the dark ages of the New York Times’s Iraq War coverage? Remember how that debacle unfolded: Dire warnings about Saddam Hussein’s WMDs circulated by interested parties duped over-eager journalists who didn’t go digging—or whose editors buried their follow-up stories. They got swept up in the Iraq mania, much as we’re now being swept up in Trump mania. The Times editors later issued an almost abject (for the Times) apology, where they made the following admissions about various stories from that time:
Articles based on dire claims about Iraq tended to get prominent display, while follow-up articles that called the original ones into question were sometimes buried. In some cases, there was no follow-up at all. … These accounts have never been independently verified. … It is still possible that chemical or biological weapons will be unearthed in Iraq, but in this case it looks as if we, along with the administration, were taken in. And until now we have not reported that to our readers.
But now the press has finally found its mission—16 years too late.
I want to be clear: I’m not opposed to thorough, maybe even bare-knuckled, reporting. But framing this new mission around Trump is a mistake. On a merely practical level, it’s repeating a mistake the Republican Party made under Obama when it became the Party of No: If you build your mission around opposition, you’re going to trip and fall on your face when your opponent steps aside.
But more importantly, calling Trump the problem is a misdiagnosis. Yes, Trump has an *ahem* exceptional relationship with the truth. Yes, he displays a dazzling combination of ignorance about and disregard for the norms of American democracy. But we always knew that the presidency could fall into the hands of such a one: It’s one reason the power of impeachment appears in Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution.
This isn’t a Trump issue, this is a power issue. If the presidency is a powerful enough office that Trump’s acquiring it worries me, it is probably a powerful enough office to warrant extreme scrutiny at all times. It may become more dangerous in the hands of a Trump—but then again, it wasn’t innocuous under Bush or Obama. Remember the torture program and the assassination program and the surveillance program and the aggressive leak prosecutions and the … you get the idea.
There was good journalism done about all those things, and we need to keep doing that. But we should not fetishize Donald Trump by turning him into the locus of all things dangerous, scary and overpowered about the executive. How suspicious we are of authority should not change with the party affiliation or the character of the president. The office itself, with all of its potential for misuse, should inspire respect—the kind of respect you give a gun.
And the first rule of gun safety is: Treat every gun as though it is loaded.