A FEW DAYS back I traveled to Portland, Maine — a lovely small city — for the strangest of duties. I went to Portland to take part in a panel discussion with fellow journalists on this topic: “Is the press covering President Trump fairly.”
I was not keen to make this trip. Though I know Portland well and love it (it’s like a little Boston a long time ago), it seemed like a long way to go in November for a Kabuki dance. The answer seemed obvious to me: “No.”
And, interestingly, when the panel did meet, no one actually tried to make the case that the press is indeed fair to the President.
Moreover, it is impossible to define fair. By fair do we mean impersonal, clinical, balanced? Any of those three would be better words.
President Trump meets with members of the media in January, shortly before taking office.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge
I thought it would be more fruitful to discuss why there is such a strong press bias against the President. I still think so. And I thought we would never get to that. (We didn’t, though we had an interesting discussion both on the panel and between the panel and the audience.)
But I am actually glad I went, and for two reasons: The first is that the people on the panel were just good people. People who have given their lives to journalism and think about how to make it better all the time. The second reason I am glad I went is that the experience helped me to think through what I believe the press is getting wrong about Mr. Trump.
And if we are failing to be as balanced or clinical as we should be in covering the President (or less personally offended by him), why does it matter?
It matters because we are failing to inform, failing to provoke thought, failing to educate. We are not playing the part we are supposed to play in a free society: to help citizens to see more clearly and more deeply. And in failing our countrymen and women, we are also failing ourselves, as a profession and as an industry.
We have taken it upon ourselves to judge Mr. Trump rather than attempting to understand him and his rise. I think that is not only arrogant, but a major fail by our profession at the very time in journalism’s history when we need to prove we are different than bloggers, or house organs. When the New York Times becomes the alternative to Breitbart rather than a leader of an independent press, we are all diminished. For insight does not come from two opposing parties shouting at each other, it comes from the mediators and the process of mediation.
We are missing some of the big stories of the Trump presidency because the press is so relentlessly focused on the President’s tweets or blunders, some of which, like overfeeding the fish in Japan, were manufactured.
Like what big stories?
● Well, the President has appointed some very able people — James Mattis, John Kelly, Neil Gorsuch, Jerome Powell, to name four. How does it happen that a dunce or a loon makes such appointments?
● One Josh Blackman, writing in the National Review, asserts that the President is restoring the separation of powers to the federal government, and moving to restrain the administrative state. If true, that would be a significant accomplishment, and worth coverage.
● The stock market is booming and retirement accounts are accruing. What’s going on? Is that to do with deregulation? Tax simplification? Luck?
● Moreover, the war on ISIS and the war in Afghanistan — the neverending wars — are going the USA’s way for the first time in a long time. That’s worth some attention, and analysis.
I am not apologizing for crassness, impulsiveness, tweets, or political incompetence. Those things sunk an Obamacare fix, and they may sink tax reform and a Dreamers program. Presidential tweets have consequences, as recent days have shown clearly. I am saying that maybe the story is more complicated than: Dangerous, crazy man. Beware. Take heed. Resist.
The left has every right to say those things. The press has a different, and higher, role.
The story of the Trump voter is also more complicated than the press has yet discerned. And I think it is because we don’t know “those people,” and don’t want to. And that’s when a journalist ceases to be a journalist: When he only wants to talk to, or be around, people like himself.
On the panel, I told the thumbnail story of my Uber driver in Portland: two sons in the Armed services. Both have been in the wars of the last generation. A husband who is Navy retired, also a combat vet. She can’t afford to live in Portland. She and her husband are both underemployed. These are the people who have been defending the country while the rest of us have been going to Starbucks and the mall. And guess what? They are often Trump voters — part of “the Deplorables.” Not racist, not sexist, not any -ist. Just forgotten. And just as forgotten as a teen gang member in L.A., or a 16-year-old black kid in juvenile detention.
One of my favorite Trump voters is a barber, who works out of the back of the local bowling ally in Coshocton, Ohio — one of the brightest and best-informed voters I have ever met. His earning capacity has been diminishing almost all of his life. He should move. He should have moved years ago. But most of his family is in that town, and his wife’s, too. He’s not moving.
None of that is to say the President understands his voters very deeply either. But he speaks to them.
And none of that is to excuse the President for his war on the press, which is scary and dumb. Most presidents hate the press, in particular, but understand its role. It’s a rare politician (John F. Kennedy; John McCain; Paul Simon) who not only likes reporters but believes in the work they do — just as surely as the Marines — to keep us free. But when you ask the question, “Is the press fair to Trump?” the press is the subject.
Here’s a mind-bending proposition for the President and the press: There are Trump voters out there who believe as deeply in the First Amendment as the Second.
Keith C. Burris is editorial page editor of The Blade. Contact him at:firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6266.
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