Despite the outrage among journalists over President Trump circulating a meme portraying him doing a pro wrestling-style takedown of CNN, many in the press seem eager to climb into the ring with him and even play the heel.
That’s what happened when CNN published a story that was widely interpreted as threatening to out the pseudonymous Reddit user who took credit for creating the image if he was not a good boy in the future.
CNN once again engaged in a wrestling match with the president. The New York Times billed the ongoing battle as “The network against the leader of the free world.” And the people who Trump wanted to boo them booed loudly indeed.
There were legitimate storylines to explore. What kind of sites does the Trump social media team visit at taxpayer expense to find viral content? Why do the cleverest meme makers in Trumpworld so often seem to come with “alt-right” baggage? How did so much of the internet become a cesspool of primitive bigotry? What’s up with this trend of online trolls who claim, however bizarrely and implausibly, to only be playacting as racists to ruffle liberal feathers or amuse their friends?
Instead we got more rasslin’ with Trump. Adversarial, even ideologically motivated, journalism is important and does a lot of good. It is certainly preferable to rewriting government officials’ press releases.
Democracy — or a republic! — dies in darkness and all that.
But being seen as actively competing against Trump, straight news outlets make it harder for millions of Americans to see them as covering this White House and easier to agree with chief strategist Steve Bannon that they are “the opposition party.”
That in turn makes it easier for many readers and viewers to dismiss critical coverage of Trump as “fake news” even when it is true, tuning such reporting out and retreating to media safe spaces — including places that publish actual fake news.
Trump’s wrestling shtick works best when members of the media play their assigned bad guy roles. He can’t wrestle with himself.
Maybe they figure they can survive it as long as the audience cheering Trump and jeering the mainstream media is capped at about 40 percent of the country. But complaints about liberal media bias far predate Trump and plenty of anti-Trump conservatives reacted negatively to the Reddit user story.
That’s not because they identify with the racism and anti-semitism in some of “HanAssholeSolo’s” posts. In many cases, they became “Never Trump” precisely because his campaign was attracting supporters of this ilk. They nevertheless think that some in the media think their conventional social conservatism, for example, is morally indistinguishable from the alt-right.
They suspect that in many newsrooms, we are all seen as HansAssholeSolo.
Reporters are mad that a lot of good, even Pulitzer prize winning, stories they wrote about Trump’s sins appear to have been found less important by voters in the states that decided the election than stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails.
Many of them now feel a twinge of guilt that perhaps the media collectively wrote too many Clinton email stories and want to make that right with unrelentingly negative Trump coverage now. A number of journalists who have provided this critical coverage have been inundated with hate mail from genuinely loathsome characters.
And some reporters are just frustrated liberal activists with a press pass.
A reasonably broad cross-section of the public has to sense some semblance of fairness in the coverage for it to be effective. That’s a hard thing to do in a period of intense political tribalism.
But failing to seriously try only makes that tribalism worse.
Trump won not just because he understood how the psychology and showmanship of the WWE could translate to politics. His success became possible because a large slice of the country has come to believe politics and the workings of Washington are as fake as professional wrestling, rigged, gaudy, scripted events that cost them money.
That’s not an easy problem to solve, especially while holding Trump and other politicians in both parties accountable. The media can contribute in some small way, however.
Stop seeming so happy to get into the steel cage and start swinging chairs.