Our national press is a national joke. Vain, languid, excitable, morbid, duplicitous, cheap, insular, mawkish, and possessed of a chronic self-obsession that would have made Dorian Gray blush, it rambles around the United States in neon pants, demanding congratulation for its travails. Not since Florence Foster Jenkins have Americans been treated to such an excruciating example of self-delusion. The most vocal among the press corps’ ranks cast themselves openly as “firefighters” when, at worst, they are pyromaniacs and, at best, they are obsequious asbestos salesmen. “You never get it right, do you?” Sybil Fawlty told Basil in Fawlty Towers. “You’re either crawling all over them licking their boots or spitting poison at them like some Benzedrine puff adder.” There is a great deal of space between apologist and bête noire. In the newsrooms of America, that space is empty.
It’s getting worse. Despite presenting an opportunity for sobriety and excellence, the election of President Donald Trump has been an unmitigated disaster for the political media, which have never reckoned with their role in Trump’s elevation and eventual selection, and which have subsequently treated his presidency as a rolling opportunity for high-octane drama, smug self-aggrandizement, and habitual sloth. I did not go to journalism school, but I find it hard to believe that even the least prestigious among those institutions teaches that the correct way to respond to explosive, unsourced reports that just happen to match your political priors is to shout “Boom” or “Bombshell” or “Big if true” and then to set about spreading those reports around the world without so much as a cursory investigation into the details. And yet, in the Trump era, this has become the modus operandi of all but the hardest-nosed scribblers.
The pattern is now drearily familiar. First, a poorly attributed story will break — say, “Source: Donald Trump Killed Leon Trotsky Back in 1940.” Next, thousands of blue-check journalists, with hundreds of millions of followers between them, will send it around Twitter before they have read beyond the headline. In response to this, the cable networks will start chattering, with the excuse that, “true or not, this is going to be a big story today,” while the major newspapers will run stories that confirm the existence of the original claim but not its veracity — and, if Representative Schiff is awake, they will note that “Democrats say this must be investigated.” These signal-boosting measures will be quickly followed by “Perspective” pieces that assume the original story is true and, worse, seek to draw “broader lessons” from it. In the New York Times this might be “The Long History of Queens Residents’ Assassinating Socialist Intellectuals”; in the Washington Post, “Toxic Capitalism: How America’s Red Hatred Explains Our Politics Today”; in The New Yorker, “I’ve Been to Mexico and Was Killed by a Pickaxe to the Head”; in Cosmopolitan, “The Specifics Don’t Matter, Men Are Guilty of Genocide.”
By early afternoon, the claim will be all the media are talking about, and the talking points on both sides of the political divide will have become preposterously, mind-numbingly stupid. On a hastily assembled panel, a “political consultant” who spends his time tweeting “The president is a murderer. This. Is. Not. Normal” will go up against a washed-out politician trying desperately to squirm his way around the protean Trump-didn’t-do-this-how-dare-you-but-if-he-did-it’s-actually-good-because-Trotsky-was-a-Communist-and-anyway-didn’t-Obama-drone-terrorists position that he contrived in a panic in the green room.
And then, just when the fracas is reaching boiling point, a sober-minded observer will point out that Donald Trump wasn’t actually born until 1946 and so couldn’t have killed Trotsky in 1940, and everyone will wash his hands, go to bed, and move on to the next “Boom!” project.