Richard Nixon’s attack dog, Spiro Agnew, described the late 1960s news media as ”nattering nabobs of negatives.”
Even before coronavirus, I often wondered if today’s press corps had covered the allied landing at D-Day in June 1944, if their stories would have led with the disastrous American landing on Omaha Beach, the paratroopers who dropped miles away from their targets and the submersible tanks that sunk to the bottom of the English Channel before ever touching land.
Indeed, if each of these genuine military setbacks had been the lead story, the American people might have lost the will to fight the rest of the war.
Which brings me to today’s press corps.
Since Vietnam and Watergate, the Washington press corps has earned its chops by taking on those in power, relentlessly questioning what they are told, particularly when they’re told it by a Republican President, and doing their best to expose mistakes, misstatements and problems. When something goes wrong, the press shines a light on it.
“It’s not news when an airplane lands” goes the old journalistic saw. “It’s only news when a plane crashes.”
This helps explains NBC reporter Peter Alexander’s now infamous clash with President Trump over the efficacy of a drug meant to treat malaria for which the president expressed hope that it might (not will, but might) be able to treat the coronavirus as well.
Reporters, who routinely publish worst-case estimates about the impact of coronavirus, took a firm stand against the president’s hopeful point of view, led by Alexander, who took particular umbrage.
“Is it possible — it possible that your impulse to put a positive spin on things may be giving Americans a false sense of hope, and misrepresenting the preparedness right now?” Alexander asked.
After the president again, even-handedly, said the drug might work and it might not, Alexander’s pessimism peaked.
“Nearly 200 dead. What do you say to Americans who are scared, though? I guess, nearly 200 dead; 14,000 who are sick; millions, as you witness, who are scared right now. What do you say to Americans who are watching you right now who are scared?”
To which the president in his usual subtle style replied, “You’re a terrible reporter.”
On March 25, the Gallup organization released a poll that was good for the President and bad for the press.
60% of the American people approve of the way President Trump is handling his response to this crisis and only 38% disapprove. But only 44% approve of the way the news media is handling its response, with 55% disapproving.
As the president’s approval goes up, several prominent columnists and talking heads have called for the televised briefings to come down. Don’t show the briefings live, cried MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, along with the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan and Karen Tumulty. In WW II, the government censored reporters. Now, these reporters want to censor the government.
NBC’s Chuck Todd sunk to a new low when he asked Joe Biden on “Meet the Press” if Biden thought there was “blood on the president’s hands considering the slow response.” He caught himself mid-sentence and added, “or is that too harsh a criticism?”
In all times, reporters have a vital role to play in keeping our country free. The First Amendment gives reporters the right to ask whatever they want, however they want.
Too many journalists are fighting the last war, and they’re only hurting themselves. Many reporters do ask tough, non-accusatory questions about how to fix problems, fight the illness and get America back on its feet.
But if this becomes a fight between a president who realistically represents hope and reporters who reject it, that’s a fight the press can’t win.
The media’s job is to cover all sides of a story. They are not.