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How Trump’s norm-breaking behavior is affecting journalistic norms

It used to be a big deal even to suggest that the president had said something inaccurate, and it was beyond imaginable to call his statements “lies.” Now it’s just another Thursday in Trumplandia.

President Donald Trump
President Donald Trump speaking to reporters from the South Lawn of the White House on Friday.
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

In addition to running against Joe Biden as a closet socialist and a doddering old fool, President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign will undoubtedly rely heavily on running against the mainstream media as liberally biased against him.

In making such an argument, he might be aided by paragraphs, such as these, from atop a quadruple-bylined story in the New York Times on Saturday:

Even by President Trump’s standards, it was a rampage: He attacked a government whistle-blower who was telling Congress that the coronavirus pandemic had been mismanaged. He criticized the governor of Pennsylvania, who has resisted reopening businesses. He railed against former President Barack Obama, linking him to a conspiracy theory and demanding he answer questions before the Senate about the federal investigation of Michael T. Flynn.

And Mr. Trump lashed out at Joseph R. Biden Jr., his Democratic challenger. In an interview with a sympathetic columnist, Mr. Trump smeared him as a doddering candidate who “doesn’t know he’s alive.” The caustic attack coincided with a barrage of digital ads from Mr. Trump’s campaign mocking Mr. Biden for verbal miscues and implying that he is in mental decline.

That was all on Thursday.

Far from a one-day onslaught, it was a climactic moment in a weeklong lurch by Mr. Tru​mp back to ​​the darkest tactics that defined his rise to political power. Even those who have grown used to Mr. Trump’s conduct in office may have found themselves newly alarmed by the grim spectacle of a sitting president deliberately stoking the country’s divisions and pursuing personal vendettas in the midst of a crisis that has Americans fearing for their lives and livelihoods.

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If the Times wanted to defend such a piece according to the old norms, it might note that the piece was labeled a “political memo,” perhaps something more analytical than straight reporting.

But the reality of Trump’s impact on the norms of journalism is much bigger than such an explanation would cover. Norms are complex, evolving things. It used to be a norm that a presidential candidate who was caught on tape bragging about grabbing women by the pussy would be forced to leave the race. It was actually a growing norm that running for president required you to release your tax returns. The old norms would have prevented Trump from getting around the annoyance of the confirmation process by relying indefinitely on “acting’ Cabinet officials.

Trump has shattered pretty much all the norms of “presidential” conduct. Richard Nixon at his most desperate never acted like this, and Trump does this stuff so many times a day that it almost loses its power to shock.

Almost.

Lots of presidents have shaded the truth, even lied, but never with the volume and shamelessness of Trump. It used to be a big deal for the mainstream media to accuse the president of lying. Now? “Lying” is too lame a term for what this president does to any standard of truthfulness. And the same for civility and any measure of respect for those who oppose him, criticize him or even disagree with anything he says or does. If the media is the “fake media,” what should they call him?

Of course, the media don’t generally call him names. It seems to me they haven’t completely figured out how to deal with such a steady volume of lies and vitriol from the Oval Office. But the tone of the passage above suggests to me that even the Times, which symbolizes and defines the journalistic establishment, understands that something other than the old norms is necessary to cover this president.

It used to be a big deal even to suggest that the president had said something inaccurate, and it was beyond imaginable to call his statements “lies.” Now it’s just another Thursday in Trumplandia.

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Is that media “bias?”

We would need to work hard at redefining “bias” so that it refers to saying that lies are lies, racist tropes are racist tropes, and egomania is just being honest about how one sees oneself.

Norms are just norms. They have a certain power as long as they are respected, and when they are disrespected it turns out to be a very open question as to whether they can be enforced, or ever re-established.

By the way, if you would like to read the full Times analysis piece quoted at the top of this screed, it’s viewable here. It doesn’t mention the word “norms.” But it is full of evidence of how norms are changing, both as they apply to presidents and to journalism.