We are in the midst of an epic media freakout. It’s a subset of a larger liberal panic over Donald Trump’s strength in the general election.
The freakout began a few weeks ago when Trump started to close the polling gap with Hillary Clinton, and picked up intensity as the race essentially became a tie. Clinton’s debate victory on Monday will allay some worries, but assuming any bounce she gets is short-lived (pending the next debate and other events), the news media are going to be in a perpetual state of high anxiety and dudgeon until Election Day.
As Commentary’s Noah Rothman noted, the press is playing catch-up, given that Trump crossed a crucial threshold when he wrapped up the Republican nomination. It didn’t take much foresight to realize that giving Trump $2 billion worth of free publicity in his primary battle might help him win it.
Still, it was all fun and games as long as the ratings were good and Trump was trailing. As soon as the polls tightened, the press suddenly realized its conscience demanded it resist Donald Trump.
“This is not normal,” you’ll hear it said over and over about Trump (often correctly). But did anyone think it was normal when Trump said Ted Cruz was ineligible to run for president? Or questioned Ben Carson’s faith? It’s not as though Trump has gotten more wild since the primaries; in fact, he’s a little more disciplined. Nonetheless, according to an analysis by the Shorenstein Center, most coverage of Trump in the first half of 2016 was “positive or neutral in tone.”
Not anymore. There have been two seminal events in the freakout. The first was the absurdly over-the-top criticism of Matt Lauer for not being tough enough on Trump at an NBC national-security forum.
The second was a New York Times “news analysis” on Trump’s disavowal of birtherism that was intended as an exemplary act of journalistic aggression. The Times has long run slightly stilted opinion pieces in its news pages, but this was different — a rhetorical assault worthy of the poison pen of Maureen Dowd that led the paper with the extremely hostile headline, “Trump Gives Up a Lie, But Refuses to Repent.”
The Times hadn’t been soft on Trump up to that point. Even so, the birther piece was a departure and a signal to the rest of the press: If it’s OK for the Gray Lady to take off the gloves, you can do it, too.