Why you should care
Because a scandal-hungry press is doing America a disservice.
Matt Laslo teaches political communications at Johns Hopkins University’s Government and Public Policy program and is a veteran Washington correspondent.
President Donald Trump isn’t just upending constitutional order — he’s also helping to reorder the nation’s political press. The group once heralded as the Fourth Estate and now derisively dubbed “the enemy” is threatened regularly online by readers and distrusted at an alarming rate by Americans of all stripes. But the worst may be yet to come, and the backlash to Trump may have a lasting negative impact that reverberates through our democracy for a generation or more.
In the wake of the release of the Pentagon Papers (a leak of classified information about the Vietnam War that earned newspapers praise for exposing lies) coupled with the Watergate scandal (which led to Richard Nixon’s resignation and won The Washington Post a Pulitzer Prize), a new breed of reporters stormed Washington set on uncovering scandals while daydreaming of winning their own awards and plaudits.
“It inspired a lot of people to get into the business, and it inspired a lot of publishers and editors to hire investigative reporters and give them some leeway to break stories along the way,” says former U.S. Senate historian Don Ritchie. “So you do get these kinds of generational shifts.”
After Watergate, a younger, more progressive group of lawmakers — dubbed the Watergate Babies — were sent to Washington too, intent on sniffing out scandals and upending business as usual. They had a symbiotic relationship with the new generation of reporters, serving as sources.
Since then, the nation has seen a steady uptick in partisanship and division. There are many reasons for this, but the press has inadvertently helped drive the two parties even further apart by chasing scandals in Democratic and Republican administrations alike. The perpetual muckraking has reinforced partisan views that the other side is hopelessly corrupt.
But now the air in the press galleries is even thicker because Trump has made tropes like “fake news” and “enemy of the people” a part of the nation’s vocabulary. And that’s trickled down to the inboxes and social media feeds of many of the nation’s reporters, along with how reporters themselves see the world.
“One protester screamed ‘fuck you’ at the press vans as we joined the tail end of the motorcade. Though it’s unclear if that was intended for us or the president,” Steven Nelson of the Washington Examiner, who was on White House pool duty, reported on a recent Sunday as the president was leaving his golf course outside Washington.
My fear is that this generation of reporters will be forever shaped by being on the receiving end of some of the sharpest four letters in the English language. Sadly, that feels like the new new normal. If everything the president does is treated as a scandal, then nothing he does — even shooting someone on Fifth Avenue — will ever truly be seen as scandalous. The sky doesn’t fall five times in a week … unless you live on Twitter, and then the sky in Trump’s Washington falls five times a day.
Now, there have been actual scandals around almost every corner of the government since Trump entered the Oval Office. According to the federal Government Accountability Office, Housing Secretary Ben Carson violated the law with lavish office spending — and he still has his job. Former cabinet secretaries Tom Price (Health and Human Services) and Scott Pruitt (Environmental Protection Agency) left after reports of excessive spending on their own travel, while Ryan Zinke (Department of the Interior) peaced out amid a Justice Department corruption investigation.
But that doesn’t mean everything the government or the president does is a scandal. The murder of American military personnel and a U.S. ambassador in Benghazi during the Obama administration was a national tragedy, but it hasn’t proven to be the scandal conservatives and some of the media made it out to be. For years, reporters breathlessly speculated about whether Vladimir Putin had a compromising “pee tape” of Trump, a nugget Robert Mueller’s team found was likely made up.
And yet, once the press corps focuses an unflattering microscope on one administration, the natural inclination will be to do the same to the next one. But by running from scandal to scandal, they’ll miss the big picture.
Trump’s legacy may be tax cuts or even the most conservative judiciary the nation has ever known, but hopefully, he has not permanently reshaped the news media too. The press needs to constantly remind itself and the next generation of reporters that this isn’t the new normal. Government is not synonymous with scandal.