The struggle over what the dominant storyline in the news should be has always been political.
Good reporters and editors labor mightily to be fair-minded in their reporting of episodes and events, and I’ll defend them to my last breath. But the larger battle, captured by the phrase “winning the news cycle,” involves a fierce competition to push reports that help your own side to the top while sidelining those that serve the interests of your opponents.
In the Trump Era, this clash has fundamentally changed because the president and his lieutenants have realized that lying works; shameless dissembling is now standard operating procedure for the White House. Partisan outlets go with Trump’s versions of events, even when they are demonstrably false. Mainstream outlets feel duty-bound to report them, even as they debunk the lies.
Moreover, our chief executive instinctively knows what Alexander Hamilton taught long ago: that the despot’s “object is to throw things into confusion that he may ‘ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.’” If the news gets troublesome, Trump and his minions create all manner of controversies and distractions that consume a lot of media space and time.
His latest discovery is how his pardon power can be a big news-cycle hit, especially when a celebrity is blended in. Thus did Trump announce on Wednesday that he was commuting the life sentence of Alice Marie Johnson, convicted in 1996 on drug possession and money laundering charges, after her cause was championed by Kim Kardashian.
This followed his using the refusal of so many members of the Super Bowl-winning Philadelphia Eagles to go to a White House victory ceremony as an excuse to launch yet another attack on kneeling NFL players, one of Trump’s favorite divisive themes. (He also issued a typically misleading statement, suggesting that Eagles players disagreed with his insistence “that they proudly stand for the national anthem,” when in fact no one on the Philly squad ever knelt last season.)
And the sheer volume of corruption reports—starting with would-be Chick-fil-A spouse and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt—means that they start to drown each other out.
Then there is the challenge of balance. So much of the journalism about Trump is negative because of what he does every day and because Robert Mueller’s investigation and hardworking reporters regularly turn up embarrassing facts. Therefore, journalists feel obligated to make sure that everyone knows they can be just as tough on Democrats. Looking “partisan” is a grave transgression. Trump and the Republicans try to paint this scarlet letter on the media almost daily.