My journalistic colleagues and I are hurtling down a steep highway. There’s no longer any resistance on the brake pedal and we realize, to our dismay, that we are unable to figure out what replaced the hand brake on this late-model vehicle. There has to be an emergency off-ramp; but for the moment there is none in sight, merely a horrifying sense of acceleration.
One more metaphor: There are, among us, adrenaline junkies, speed freaks, for whom the thrill of the ride overwhelms all considerations of how it might end.
Whether by strategy or not, President Donald Trump has drawn much of the media into a distortion of their traditional roles. Editors and reporters insist that they are bound by the strictures of objectivity, but the very nature of the president’s character — the preening, the boasting, the torrent of careless tweets and the avalanche of lies, the seemingly reckless assaults on pillars of the establishment — provokes reactions that confirm precisely what Trump’s most avid supporters already believe: The creatures of “the swamp” belong to a secret society from which they are excluded.
When icons of the intelligence community and retired leaders of the military proclaim their solidarity with the president’s most prominent targets, whose security clearances have been removed or threatened, Trump’s supporters find confirmation of the existence and solidarity of the “deep state.”
When those targets then appear on a succession of cable-news programs and are gently encouraged to denounce the president, his policies and his patriotism, the convictions of Trump’s political base are reinforced.
It does not help the appearance of journalistic objectivity that the panels featuring the president’s most enthusiastic critics also include a rotating cast of reporters from major newspaper and wire services. They are there daily, from predawn appearances on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” to early evenings on CNN’s “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer.”
To the legions of viewers already convinced that Trump is a toxic threat to the very foundations of American democracy, those appearances amount to benedictions by some of the high priests of journalism.
To Trump supporters, though, these are purveyors of “fake news,” suspect precisely because their reporting so routinely and (it sometimes seems) exclusively focuses on negative aspects of the president’s character and behavior.
What a brilliant piece of political jujitsu it is: Trump has turned reported evidence of his many failings into confirmation of his victimhood. Once that perception is pushed through the megaphone of conservative radio, especially by its pioneer and founding father, Rush Limbaugh, and once the message is crystallized on “Fox & Friends” in the morning and by Sean Hannity in the evening, it congeals into the Rudy Giuliani observation that “truth isn’t truth.”
A partial journalistic remedy would be to lower the temperature, reduce the volume. Except, of course, that there is no story to match this one. The world without Trump, even a world with reduced servings of Trump, would be a much duller place, and the industry of journalism does not thrive on dull.
The paradox of the Trump presidency is that its very sleaziness has re-energized American journalism even while undermining it.
The illusion that things will go back to normal after Trump is just that — a chimera. The nation has always been divided: over race, immigration, sexual identity, gender equality, social safety nets, foreign entanglements. Journalism has always been fueled by the disagreements over those issues. What Trump has injected into the equation is an intuitive appreciation for the internet and its capacity to make social media — Twitter and Facebook — easily accessible instruments of mass outrage.
Trump is merely the first master manipulator to use the tool for political advantage. He won’t be the last.
Ted Koppel, managing editor of ABC News’s “Nightline” from 1980 to 2005, is senior contributor to CBS News’ “Sunday Morning.” He wrote this for the Washington Post.