Does the media owe Trump an apology?

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: AP, Getty Images

Nothing about the Mueller report — or at least what we know of it to this point — surprised me very much. As I’ve written before, I never thought it very likely that President Trump had entered into some kind of explicit agreement with the Russian government in 2016, only because the Russians, who are pretty sophisticated about this, wouldn’t have needed any quid pro quo to understand that having Trump in the White House would be like celebrating Defender of the Fatherland Day every day of the year.

(I’m not making that up — it’s an actual Russian holiday.)

As for the obstruction-of-justice angle Robert Mueller was pursuing, I guess the lesson here is that Richard Nixon would have been fine had he been able to orchestrate payoffs to the Watergate burglars by tweeting at them, instead of being caught on tape in the Oval Office.

Apparently it can’t be obstructing justice if you’re blabbering to the whole world about how you’re doing it. Good to know.

So now the president would like an apology from all of us in the media who prejudged him. That’s not going to happen, but it does seem to me that this might be a good moment to step back and ask some hard questions about who we’ve become, as journalists, in the Trump era.

We might even learn something critical from Mueller that has nothing to do with the details of his report.

This question of Trump’s treatment during the Russia investigation, what he sees as a “witch hunt” perpetrated by the elite media, is a complicated one for me. My first instinct, and I don’t think it’s a purely defensive one, is that if Trump hasn’t been afforded the same presumption of innocence that other presidents have enjoyed, it’s because he lies routinely in a way other presidents have not.

Not only does Trump mislead, habitually, about knowable facts, but he does so with a very specific intent — to make it his word against ours, to persuade some sizable plurality of the electorate that reality is a squishy thing.

So I don’t agree with my former New York Times colleague David Brooks, who says we all made fools of ourselves with this Russia business. I’m sure there were plenty of vain people who made fools of themselves on cable TV because that’s just what they do all day long (I don’t watch, so I couldn’t tell you), but as an industry, I don’t think we had much reason to take Trump at his word.

That said, I think we have to admit an inescapable and uncomfortable truth about the Trump presidency more generally, which is that the media that covers him is almost unrecognizable from the media that covered every previous president. He’s just right about that.

I’m not talking about the weirdness on cable channels. I’m talking about the best newspapers and websites in the country, which present almost every mundane act by this administration in dramatic tones beyond all proportion, as if the mere act of Trump trying to govern constituted an existential threat.

There are days now — a lot of them — when I open the up the homepages of the New York Times and the Washington Post in the morning, scroll down a bit, and have the odd sensation that I’m reading the organ of an opposition party, with one headline after another trumpeting the moral depravity of the administration.

Even last weekend, as news broke that Mueller wouldn’t be recommending any further charges against the president or his aides, the front pages pivoted instantly to other, ongoing investigations and breathlessly assured us the scandal would not go away. After two years of innuendo, Trump couldn’t be allowed his due for a day.

And that’s all before you get to the opinion section. From the very first days of the Trump administration, there were columnists who talked about how they wouldn’t “normalize” the president and who cast themselves among the “resistance” — terms I never liked, because we don’t get to decide what’s normal in a president (voters do), and because this isn’t Poland in 1939.

Then, of course, you have the closed loop of social media silliness, where our collective disdain for Trump ricochets from one check-marked account to the next, and the White House press room itself, where grandstanding soliloquies are more likely to go viral than the insistent questioning we saw in previous iterations.

All of it adds up to an unflattering portrait of how we approach our jobs.

And so, critical as I’ve been of Trump’s behavior and policies — and believe me, sometimes I bore myself with the predictability of it — I can’t help nodding along with one of my idols in this business, 79-year-old Ted Koppel, when he decries the drift of our best media toward a kind of reflexive advocacy.

It’s not that I think Trump has a lot of redeeming qualities as a president. It’s that I think we’ve been played.

You see, Trump doesn’t hate the media — not really. He’s spent a lifetime manipulating and cultivating reporters. He talks to them, even now, more than any of his recent predecessors, by a lot.

But Trump very skillfully drew us into a fight. He cast the “fake news” as his enemy, and we responded exactly as he knew we would — in kind. He goaded us into becoming outright advocates, into jeopardizing what little remained of our public trust.

And now we’re playing to our own audience, just like him.

This is Trump’s superpower. He has an innate talent for bringing out the worst versions of everyone else, so that everyone ends up as compromised as he is, or at least somewhere on the continuum.

Everyone, that is, with one notable exception: Bob Mueller. Virtually alone among the establishment types Trump has needled, attacked, insulted and smeared since he stepped off that gilded escalator in 2015, Mueller simply ignored all the spectacle and did his job.

He did it stonily, dispassionately, without drama or distraction, following the facts wherever they led. And in doing so, he set a pretty good template for what we should have been doing all along, and still can.

Because we’re about to embark on a treacherous new phase of this journey — the reelection campaign. If we act as Mueller did, impervious to provocation, monastically focused on truth and perspective, we might restore the credibility we badly need.

But if we allow ourselves to become resisters on the campaign trail, effectively campaigning for Trump’s opponent in the name of democracy, we may never be able to get back the role we had as trusted arbiters of the debate.

We’ll have given Trump his final victory, whether he wins the election or not.

No, we don’t owe Trump an apology for taking the investigation into foreign meddling seriously these past two years. We can certainly learn something from the man who led it, though.

We owe that to the country, and not least to ourselves.

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