The Press Is Powerful; They Shouldn't Pretend Otherwise

Once of the things about which I used to write when George W. Bush was president was his execrable habit of talking about policy like he had no power to influence it; like he wasn't the president.

He was arguably the most powerful person on the planet, and yet he would talk about war and broken levees and healthcare as though they were forces of nature and he was just as powerless as the rest of us to end a war or increase infrastructure spending or broaden access to healthcare.

It wasn't false humility — or, as so much of Bush's wickedness was wrongly attributed to, stupidity. It was a way of rhetorically distancing himself from accountability. To separate himself from the consequences of decisions for which he was responsible, whether via action or inaction.

It was a sly way of implying, over and over, that the presidency itself is less powerful than it is, to deflect both blame and deserved accountability.

This is a terrible habit that members of the press have picked up. They speak about Donald Trump and his presidency, and the narratives about both, as though those narratives emerged fully formed on the pages of newspapers, from another dimension perhaps.

Yesterday, I saw a perfect, terrible example of precisely what I mean. CNN's Ryan Struyk tweeted: "Trump says he got North Korea to commit to destroying a major missile testing site but 'we didn't put it in the agreement because we didn't have time.'" Which CNN commentator Ryan Lizza referenced as he tweeted: "A comment like this from Obama would have defined him on the right for his entire presidency and would have been endlessly repeated as evidence of his naïveté and stupidity. For Trump it's just Monday."

"The right" doesn't come by its narratives in a vacuum. The reason that narrative would have taken hold is because the press — the mainstream press, not just right-wing media — would have endlessly repeated Obama's mistake and are currently treating that comment like it's just Monday for Trump.

Trump has been waging war on the free press since virtually the moment he launched his presidential campaign, and yet large portions of the press — with, of course, notable exceptions who are working diligently to try to hold Trump meaningfully accountable — respond by capitulating to his bullying and becoming his stenographers (with fewer ethics than actual stenographers).

There are a lot of reasons for this, including habitual capitulation to Republican presidents. For example: Check out [Content Note: Disablist language] this piece I wrote in 2006 about media coverage of George W. Bush, and note that I could write virtually the same piece today about coverage of Trump.

But the primary reason is the same reason that Bush had the same deplorable habit: They want to avoid accountability.

Their role in delivering this nightmare president to the White House cannot be understated, even though it was hardly the only reason. They shaped the way the public viewed Trump as a joke; the way the public viewed him as a harmless bit of entertainment; the way the public viewed those of us who were urgently warning from go that he must be taken seriously as an authoritarian threat.

And now they shape the way the public views his authoritarianism as increasingly "normal."

Just another Monday.

The press has power. They shouldn't pretend that they don't. Especially not to avoid the responsibility of profound misuses and abuses of that power, to abet the dismantling of the very democracy they are meant to defend.

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