A version of this column was published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 17, 2020: https://www.sfchronicle.com/opinion/openforum/article/Trump-coverage-by-Woodward-New-York-Times-is-a-15654042.php
It has been a dark time for American journalism. Reporters are routinely scorned (if not beaten) by politicians and cops, to public applause. Their employers are pauperized by the monster online platforms and ravaged by vulture investors, and struggle with emaciated payrolls that no longer deliver mainstay local coverage. Prescriptions for industrial recovery look like variations on a theme of beggary, and metrics that track public trust continue to circle the drain. It’s fair to say the U.S. news media are in a humbled state.
Yet, amid the gloom, could this also be a time of rebirth? Might we be living through a moment of media distinction, even heroism? While the public shakes its head over waning press influence and wonders whether, in the absence of independent oversight from the courts or legislature, anybody is left to blow whistles over even the most egregious fouls, might we be seeing a reaffirmation of the power of great journalism, a reprise of that episode 45-plus years ago when reporters actually helped topple a corrupt—and let’s remember, quite popular—president?
In the past month, penetrating work by the country’s best-known journalist and its leading news organization has resurfaced the terrain for the coming general election and reminded all of us of the indispensable role the press, even today, plays in U.S. political culture.
Other notable journalism had preceded theirs in the four years since Trump’s unlikely ascent. But for all the critical coverage of the administration by reporters and insiders, his steady support suggested good reason to fear that voters might not have been exposed to accounts of his ineptitude and depravity that had the irrefutable clarity that should ensure his ouster.
Then comes Bob Woodward, a reporter of legendary renown, pushing 80 now, very likely the only journalist the average American recognizes by name, unleashing his second book on Trump. His first was disquieting, this one is chilling. Woodward describes a president regarded even by close associates as temperamentally, ethically, and intellectually overmatched, who bungled the response to the greatest challenge of his term, the pandemic that has cost over 210,000 U.S. lives, and in an immensely destructive attempt to fend off reputational harm, publicly discounted the enormity of the threat he privately acknowledged.
And within days of Woodward’s disclosures, came the team effort of reporters at The New York Times. Their review of Trump’s closely-guarded taxes laid bare his dismal track record in business, and exposed his foundational claim–of dazzling entrepreneurial accomplishment—as bogus.
At first, it was the Times’ reporting on paltry tax payments that made headlines. True, that’s hardly a point of pride for a president. But the lasting damage is likely to be the evidence that he’s a serial failure, whose only indisputable success was his impersonation of a tycoon for a long-running TV show, which made him millions while his real-world ventures were flatlining. All of which positioned him to enter the White House with an overhang of $400m in debt—and the urgent question of precisely who’s holding all that paper.
It’s always risky to identify any moment in the swirl of popular culture as a turning point. But such points do exist, and I think that in retrospect those two reportorial trophies, coming on the heels of The Atlantic’s disclosure of Trump’s record of disparagement of military service members, created a moment when Trump’s rule suffered an incalculable blow to its legitimacy, reflected in the desperation of his subsequent debate performance.
And it’s a powerful reminder of the pivotal importance of an independent press to the health of our political culture.
Now, with the coronavirus contagion striking the president and his leadership team—with far-reaching implications for the electoral campaign and the country’s governance—the public’s reliance on the media grows even more intense. People turn to the media, as they must, and the grumbling about mistrust and bias is suddenly muted. In light of the administration’s record of deceit, the media’s ability to determine the reality of governmental incapacity will have sweeping influence on the assurance with which the public faces a profoundly difficult time.
That reliance will intensify yet further in the concluding weeks of the electoral campaign and, above all, in the coverage of the vote itself. There, the media will be pivotal; news managers will have to overcome their own bad habits of breathlessness and crisis-mongering, and convey a steady faith that the electorate will choose its leaders legally and fairly.
That will demand great care when it comes to covering the most incendiary threats and most dire possibilities, normally the provocative stuff that anchors coverage, but which now must be handled gingerly and with respect for the harm that speculating about civic collapse can do.
The public will be watching, and the news media will have a historic opportunity to reclaim the unique role they must play in the political culture. There are hugely encouraging signs they are doing just that.