It has taken many of those organizations much of this tumultuous period to accept that their own professional standards cannot withstand that kind of all-out assault without some kind of aggressive pushback. And, in the past year especially, the pushback has been to unapologetically challenge the Trump administration.
Now the news media face the greatest — and perhaps final — challenge Donald Trump’s tenure presents: how to report on election results Trump has openly declared he will claim are rigged — if they’re not favorable to him.
How news organizations confront that provocation will almost surely be the biggest story of many reporters’ and television anchors’ lives. Everybody in the news business knows the stakes: the legitimacy of a national election. That’s why there have been so many stories about the seriousness with which media outlets are approaching their coverage of Election Night.
What has to be done is clear to everyone: The election results have to be judged with extreme care because the votes will be counted more slowly than in any recent election and the process will be much more contentious.
The conventions of past elections can’t apply, either to the counting or the competition among news outlets. If a network issues a ream of press releases boasting about “calling” individual states faster than anyone else (as has happened routinely in the past), it will rightly be charged with having learned exactly nothing from the past four years.
The idea that Trump could try to delegitimize votes that need to be counted after Election Night by prematurely declaring himself the official winner wafted across the nation Sunday like a dirigible-sized trial balloon. It stirred up ferocious blowback from all corners of the media, in a response that sounded like a collective: “No way, pal.”
Maybe the media’s message that such an act would be treated as the overture to a coup led to Trump’s subsequent (sort-of) denial, which sounded like an emphatic: “We’ll see about that, punks.”
Such has been the character of the president-press relationship in this administration. All presidents have to endure intense scrutiny in a free-press system. Most come to regard intense media evaluation as a painful necessity, like dental work. Trump appears to see it as warfare. When he labels a free press the “enemy of the people,” it’s not meant to be a catchphrase from a reality show
There is no question that much of the media — the non-conservative, non-sycophantic media — has taken on this president in terms unlike anything seen or heard at least since nonpartisan coverage became the prevailing orthodoxy for mainstream American journalism.
But the hostility and threats members of the press have endured because of Trump’s attacks are not the reason that many prominent anchors and reporters have cast off their old cloaks of objectivity in covering this administration.
Reporters have been accused of “biased” reporting in the past — it’s about the most enduring grievance conservatives have about the media. But much more than any preference for “liberal” policies, what drives reporters is complete abhorrence of systematic, conscienceless dishonesty.
Journalists don’t hate conservatives; they hate B.S.
And they really hate dangerous B.S.
If you’re trying to sell the idea that the country is “turning the corner” out of a pandemic when new cases are setting records every day, or touting ludicrous ideas like the miracle cures of hydroxychloroquine and disinfectant injections, or heralding a health care plan that doesn’t seem to exist, or citing non-existent examples of voter fraud while the public fears that your administration is attempting voter suppression, you will, for sure, invite not just skepticism but derision and outrage from people whose business it is to write and talk about facts and the truth.
That’s one reason why the story Tuesday can’t just be about the results. The impact of outrageous efforts to unjustly disqualify people’s most fundamental right — to vote — must be aggressively covered on Election Day. Sunday set the tone with extensive exposure given to Republican officials’ attempts to invalidate nearly 127,000 drive-thru votes in a heavily Democratic part of Texas. Another focus will have to be whatever else Trump fanatics might do to block traffic or try to intimidate voters as they did in Texas, New Jersey and elsewhere last weekend.
The news in this election can’t just be about the votes; it has to be about the state the country is in. The media has been telling that story for years now, piling up the facts, denouncing the dishonesty, exposing the hypocrisy, countering the B.S. — the dangerous B.S.
They have never had a more important job to do than the one they will do on Tuesday — and they probably never will.