By Sam Wolfe
After a polarized response to my last media piece, I figured it was only fair that I once again evaluate how the media has been covering Trump. He has had a tumultuous few weeks governing as he campaigned: spontaneously and with an eye to placating his base. Vaticination, at this stage, is difficult; there is mixed news about who the winners of the White House civil war will be (though there’s some evidence that the two Steves have the upper hand — for now) and more mixed news, still, about how Trump is handling the fallout from his immigration missteps and the deep state interference that continues to bedevil him. It is difficult to gauge, of course, how accurate this coverage is because we simply don’t know what goes on behind the scenes. (Perhaps Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus are secretly best friends.) Much of the coverage that we can evaluate, though, has not been promising.
Perhaps the strangest example of outrage has been journalists’ collective conniption at the president’s use of Mar-a-Lago, his private resort decorated (eerily?) similarly to Stanford. It bears mentioning that Obama, Bush Jr, Reagan and many other presidents had similar retreats where they would wine and dine world leaders. Why Trump’s should be any different — especially given that he cleared up potential ethical concerns by paying for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit himself — is beyond me.
Could it be the market forces problem that I wrote about in my previous media column, where the media knows they have a story that will appeal to the lowest common denominator? ‘Trump is using a big fancy house that isn’t the White House to do official Presidential work! Something about that sounds vaguely improper! And it’s a big house, so he’s rich — that means he’s out of touch!’
I suspect so. Politico noted that there’s a long tradition of “sniping” about presidents’ getaways, so perhaps this was to be expected. Still, as a naive young person, I wasn’t aware that this was yet another non-issue that the media feel obliged to make a fuss about. Oh well.
The other amusing example has been the ire over Trump’s golf habit. Part of me can’t really blame progressive media outlets for having a bit of fun with this when Obama’s golf-playing has been such a staple of conservative indignation over the last eight years. Still, it’s a bit sad for me to see the same tactics used against Trump.
My final two examples are somewhat graver. Mike Flynn’s resignation was the right call — he lied to the vice president and, it seems, subsequently lied to the FBI about the nature of his conversation with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Failing to tell them that he had discussed sanctions in the Obama administration was unforgivable.
But as for the question of the discussion itself — why was this an issue? Charles Krauthammer wrote an excellent piece about this, asking why oh why it was deemed so shocking, so horrifying that Flynn, the incoming national security advisor, had discussed policy with a foreign ambassador. As Krauthammer notes, the idea that Flynn was meaningfully a “private citizen” at the time is absurd — he was a member of an incoming administration and would have to deal with foreign powers for his entire tenure as advisor (a tenure that, I am sure, he envisioned would be somewhat longer). Krauthammer points out that Obama himself did a similar thing in 2012, which does not prove that what Flynn did was right, but does raise the question of where the anger was then.
Lastly, and perhaps most disturbingly, has been the issue of anti-Semitism, and this is where the media’s coverage becomes most dangerous. I will tread carefully here because I am very sensitive to the fear of an anti-Semitic recrudescence in America, much as we have seen in Europe over the last few years. But the media, too, should tread carefully. Vox’s piece on Trump’s response to anti-Semitism was the opposite of this — an irresponsible wink and nudge suggestion that Trump himself is an anti-Semite or is at least sympathetic to the movement.
There is no evidence of this. None. Trump’s ire at the very suggestion that he might be anti-Semitic manifested when a Jewish reporter asked him an important question about the recent rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes. Whether he didn’t hear the question or wasn’t willing to listen is unimportant — Trump (wrongly) thought that the reporter was trying to accuse him of being anti-Semitic and lashed out.
I fully sympathize with the Jewish leaders quoted in the article who want the president to issue a public statement on the issue. Trump should issue an apology for his response and make an effort to reach out to Jewish communities. In fact, this whole affair might be symptomatic of one of Trump’s flaws — the difficulty that he has in looking “weak” or apologizing where he feels he has done no wrong, even when it is right to do so.
But the press should stop trying to find anti-Semitism in Trump’s behavior where there is none. It is Trump’s fault that he didn’t respond properly to this reporter’s question, but it is not entirely his fault that he assumed it might be yet another hint that he is an anti-Semite. And this isn’t just a matter of principle — it is about preventing hate crimes. Because you know how to best empower neo-Nazis? Convince them that the most powerful man in the world has your back — that the Oval Office is occupied by someone who sympathizes with them.
Those are the stakes for the media. They should start behaving as though they understand them.
Contact Sam Wolfe at swolfe2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.