In the past few days, President Trump may have stumbled into a war with Iran and was accused by yet another woman of sexual harassment.
If you haven’t heard about the former, you can quickly remedy that by turning on cable news, whose specialty is cheerleading the march to war (any war). You could also click back to just about any media in 2003 and get the feel of what’s to come from their breathless run up to the Iraq war (yellow cake! Saddam did 9/11!). Vice President Mike Pence even did the world’s laziest callback with a tweet pretending Iran was behind the 2001 attack, because, as I’ve argued, when it comes to Team Trump, the brazenness of the lies is the point.
But if you haven’t heard about the latter, you’re not alone. Hell, a blockbuster story in October about 26 new allegations of Trump’s sexual misconduct — new, because there were already 25 women who had come forward — was promptly memory-holed.
This week, former Fox News host Courtney Friel said Trump harassed her. You’d think the hoopla over the movie “Bombshell” about the toxic male culture of Fox News might elevate this accusation, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
There’s certainly misogyny at work when the media downplay or ignore dozens of women’s painful accounts. It’s especially egregious when it involves a president whose record on hiring women and women’s rights is abysmal — and has already admitted to sexually assaulting women on the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape where he bragged about grabbing women by the pussy. It’s wholly bizarre that so many reporters seem content to prove his maxim that “when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”
The excuses from journalists are usually some variation of the idea that Trump was elected anyway after a few allegations came out and his supporters don’t care. I mean, I guess if you’re in the business to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted, this makes sense, but I’m not sure how saying those words out loud doesn’t cause you to convulse with embarrassment.
But the media have covered some sexual harassment scandals in light of the #MeToo movement, like Harvey Weinstein and comedian Louis C.K. So why are disturbing accusations against the leader of the free world treated as a non-story by most outlets?
The answer isn’t very satisfying. After closely observing Trump’s coverage for the last 4 1/2 years, there are clearly some stories that political reporters seem to have voluntarily quarantined as being too mean or going too far — even though other politicians don’t get that kind of pass (including some Democrats running against him).
There are noticeably few stories about Trump’s mental and physical health, his marriage, his relationship with his minor son and the corrupt nepotism of having his adult children in the White House and involved in his campaign while profiting from family businesses.
We still don’t know why Trump was rushed to Walter Reed hospital before Thanksgiving, but the media was agog in 2016 when presidential candidate Hillary Clinton fainted during a brief bout with pneumonia. It’s odd that many journalists act like it’s a conspiracy theory to question how a 73-year-old man in the most stressful job in the world is holding up when he wildly tweets about his enemies in the middle of the night and only gives speeches in the form of rambling rants. It’s quite a 180 from a press corps that did dozens of stories on the scandal that was former President Obama’s tan suit.
And while I’ve never been one for stories about politicians’ personal lives, we did impeach a president over lying about a blow job, so I’m not sure how most reporters have now decided that Donald’s and Melania’s visibly frosty marriage is off-limits.
I suspect that Trump’s famously heavy-handed staff has a hand in the creation of these special rules for covering Trump. When journalists are faced with threats and roadblocks, they have to weigh the toll — and many have probably decided there’s other grounds to fight on. And there’s also sensitivity about Trump supporters who accuse the media of #FakeNews (which is never going to stop, by the way, so I’m not sure why we should care when they’re triggered).
The thing about being on the Trump beat is that there are so many scandals, tweets and crises to keep on top of (and most fall off the radar within a couple days). And I am sympathetic to that problem. Being a journalist nowadays means never really having time off as long as you check Twitter, even when you’re allegedly on vacation.
It surely is exhausting reporting on a president who openly snuggles up to a Russian dictator who meddled in the 2016 election, starts a massively idiotic trade war and has to bribe farmers to get out of the jam and gets impeached for extorting a foreign power over aid so they’d investigate his political opponent. Those are, indeed, important stories, and they’re just the tip of the iceberg when you’re covering Trump.
But as journalists, we have to be fair about what we cover and what we don’t. And if Hunter Biden is fair game, so are Ivanka, Eric and Donald Trump Jr. — who wield far more influence. It’s our job to give the fullest accounting of power, and that includes stories on the president’s health and accusations by several dozen women who say he sexually harassed or assaulted them.
It’s not piling on to report the truth. And if the president’s staff and supporters don’t like it, tough. We’re not here to be popular. And if you’re a journalist who does crave the adulation of those in power more than holding them accountable, my God, please do us all a favor and get out of the business.
Susan J. Demas is the editor-in-chief of the Michigan Advance, where this column first appeared.