Mark Hemingway is a senior writer for the Weekly Standard
I was at the gym catching up on the latest Hardcore History podcast - seriously, Dan Carlin is a national treasure - and I noticed something. According to the iTunes charts, one of the 10 most popular podcasts in the country right now is produced by the Washington Post. It's about Donald Trump, and it's titled "Can He Do That?" The implied answer here isn't just obvious, it's a journalism in-joke known as Betteridge's Law of Headlines: "Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no."
As a general rule, the media should have an adversarial relationship with those in power, but this is descending into farce. Seriously, everything Trump does is going to prompt the question "Can He Do That?" He has not been president for even three weeks, and the frame the media have chosen to embrace is that everything the man does is, by default, unconstitutional or an abuse of power. This level of media hysteria is discrediting to the media, unsustainable, and how America got Trump in the first place.
The problem, in a nutshell, is that a lot of harm can be done merely by callous rhetoric or bad policy, apart from the question of whether it's legal or disqualifying. Focusing on the latter question tends to needlessly politicize, and short-circuits honest debate about the merits of policies or statements. Certainly, Trump likes to make provocative statements, and one can disagree with what he does, or, in the case of Trump's immigration order, object to the incompetent way that it was rolled out. But those declaring it unacceptable from the outset are basically demanding Trump surrender while cowardly refusing to go into battle.
No shortage of media outlets rushed to declare Trump's executive order unconstitutional. The president traditionally has had a lot of latitude on immigration policy, and contra activist judges, the arguments that the executive order is legal are pretty strong. Nonetheless, plenty of people on the right have issues with what the policy actually does, apart from overwrought questions of legality. But the narrow debate over the practical consequences of an immigration executive order has been swept aside in favor of an overly ambitious attempt to delegitimize Trump. By attacking Trump's broad authority as president, rather than his specific actions, we're having a debate over whom to believe: Trump or the media.
Blogger Allahpundit recently remarked, "American politics increasingly feels like a novel whose events are retold by two unreliable narrators, Trump being one and the media being the other. The truth, or something close to it, is in there somewhere between the two of them."
This is a terrible frame to be trapped in. The problem is that if Trump can't handle criticism and likes to shoot his mouth off without checking his facts, well, these days that's also an apt description of the media. Even in the face of plenty of eyebrow-raising actions and statements by Trump, they have had a very hard time reporting the news about him accurately.
The Federalist on Feb. 6 listed 16 badly blown stories since Trump was elected. The response to this catalog of journalistic malpractice from one New York Times employee was to claim that this article is part of a conscious strategy to "undermine institutions that have long been the foundations of democracy." It's as if the media have no clue that they started losing their credibility long before Trump, and by some measures Trump has a higher approval rating than they do.
And media credibility took a particular beating during the Obama years. Under the last president, the answer to the question "Can he do that?" was very often an emphatic "No," but the media weren't very adversarial about Obama overstepping his authority.
For instance, the Obama administration lost more times before the Supreme Court than any modern president. Lest you think that's just a function of a conservative court, Bill Clinton did substantially better, and further, there were a number of high-profile cases where Obama was rebuked 9-0 by the court. In one case, Obama's preferred National Labor Relations Board nominee was considered so much of a controversial union lackey, that he lost a bipartisan confirmation vote in the Senate. Obama gave him a recess appointment to the board even though Congress wasn't in recess. Even the liberal justices thought this was unacceptable. And in another case, the Supreme Court vacated the administration's suit against Little Sisters of the Poor by 9-0. (Legal merits aside, who sues nuns over birth control?)
I'm trying very hard to avoid the charge of "whataboutism," but the media's credibility attacking Trump is inexorably linked to their deferential treatment of Obama. For instance, when Trump referred to a "so-called" judge for ruling against his immigration order, the media fretted - and not without some cause - that he was trying to delegitimize the judiciary. But when Obama rebuked the Supreme Court to its face, you had to wipe the saliva off the page to read Washington Post columnists endorsing the president's admonition.
By going all out on Trump all the time, the media are only making it much harder to criticize him in the end. Jamie Kirchick has been a brutal critic of Trump, and even he has had it with the media unintentionally assisting Trump:
"Now that Trump is in the White House, much of the media feels uninhibited in their campaign to destroy him, seeing the unprecedented nature of his presidency as license to get away with anything. Take Jonathan Weisman, deputy Washington editor of the New York Times. Since he was targeted by pro-Trump, anti-Semitic Twitter trolls last summer, Weisman - a man who is supposed to at least feign objectivity - has completely dropped any pretense of political independence. His own Twitter feed - like the feeds of a growing number of Times reporters - is a constant stream of anti-Trump invective indistinguishable from committed anti-Trump pundits like myself.
"Why do I hold myself and Weisman to such wildly differing standards? Because my job is to opine and provoke. His job is to accurately report on events, so that I know that the things I am reacting to are real, rather than the products of angry mass hallucinations or partisan messaging campaigns. By publicly refusing to do his job, he makes my job (and all our jobs as engaged citizens) much harder because I can't reasonably trust that what I read in the New York Times is factual or based on good sourcing. . . . How can I trust that what I read in the paper's news columns isn't hopelessly distorted by the angry bias evident in the social-media feeds of the paper's editors and reporters? . . . The beneficiary of the resulting confusion and hysteria is not the New York Times or its readers. It's Donald Trump."
Kirchick is exactly right. When both the person in power and his critics on the outside are both perceived as lacking credibility, the person in power is likely to come out on top. The media need to stop asking, "Can he do that?" at every turn, and start asking, "Should he do that?" If the media earnestly seek honest answers, they can recover some credibility and the balance of power to sway public opinion in their favor. If Trump ultimately proves to be a dangerous demagogue, simply reporting the facts is the only way to put him in his place and hold him accountable.