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In the age of Trump, will the media wring its hands — or assert the kind of oversight the public appears to want?

Missing from the discussion among the nation’s acknowledged journalistic leaders is any prescription of how to better cover Trump.  

New York Times media columnist Jim Rutenberg: "Mr. Trump remains a master media manipulator who used his first news briefing since July to expertly delegitimize the news media."
REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Considering our woeful record in assessing the likely outcome of the November election, no one in American media should make predictions. But I strongly suspect the tenor of President-elect Trump’s first press conference Wednesday is going to be amplified and aggravated — constantly — throughout his term in office. It’s the way he does business, and, to date, the way the press has done business.

Digesting the spectacle, New York Times media columnist Jim Rutenberg wrote :

There were two big lessons in the Wednesday morning melee.

1. Mr. Trump remains a master media manipulator who used his first news briefing since July to expertly delegitimize the news media and make it the story rather than the chaotic swirl of ethical questions that engulf his transition.
2. The news media remains an unwitting accomplice in its own diminishment as it fails to get a handle on how to cover this new and wholly unprecedented president.

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These are not novel insights. But it remains interesting how regularly we’re hearing this kind of thing from the country’s acknowledged journalistic leaders. Trump the manipulator, delegitimizing the press and the press failing to adjust to a new reality. Or, as one observer put it, the press is continuing to “apply balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon” to the extent that it “distorts reality.”

Missing from Rutenberg’s column and so many like it was a specific prescription of what to do. While he goes on to trill with the traditional news chorus indicting BuzzFeed for publishing the “extended version” of the U.S. intelligence briefing on Mr. Trump and his Russian activities, what he does in sum, is argue for yet more of the “balanced treatment” approach.

Whether you believe BuzzFeed — once a silly listicle-spewing engine now given grudging credibility among traditional reporters — was right or wrong in publishing the unverified report in its full salaciousness no doubt depends on what you think of Trump. (Rutenberg lauds BuzzFeed’s work on the genesis of some of the past year’s “fake news” epidemic.) But it’s hard to see how the press adjusts itself and re-gathers its bearings over the near term if it chooses to deny the right of an informed citizenry to know what the chattering classes of D.C. and New York have known and been talking about for months.

For the record, BuzzFeed presented the 35-page document with the clear disclaimer that information within was unverified. But the more important fact is that it published the thing. (Here’s a fiery takedown of the decision from Quillete.)

Such a thing simply isn’t done! Or at least hasn’t been until now, in this starkly unbalanced, distorting moment. Comparisons of BuzzFeed to the now-defunct Gawker are being tossed around in the context of unjournalistic recklessness and shameless “clickbaiting.”

Such horror! 

While the bonafides of the so-called dossier got something of a boost yesterday from a BBC story suggesting there at least four sources describing blackmail-quality material in Russian hands for possible use against Trump, for journalists of the traditional mindset, the line in the sand is “unverified.” Beyond that nothing matters.

The counter argument, which I think deserves more serious consideration than it is getting, is that having plainly asserted the material’s unverified nature, the credibility placed in it by U.S. intelligence agencies who briefed both the President, the President-elect and Senate leaders means the general public has a right to know what “the elites” are talking about.

The DC/media crowd had been aware of this for eight months. If, as you can see in this timeline, influential people were making strategic calculations based on its existence, who is the press protecting from what and why? Former acting CIA Director Mike Morrell had a set of interesting comments on the matter to Christiane Amanpour.

If the crossing of the line — where news publications print unverified opposition research on powerful public figures — is discomfiting to you, well, it should be. This is new ethical territory. Territory most polite people would prefer not to go into. But territory everyone in the press is reacting to whether they like it or not. Moreover, it is territory the press is being forced into, given the distortion of reality resulting from the head-on collision of “balanced” journalism and the “unbalanced phenomenon,” which in this case is an incoming President of the United States. Trump is, after all, someone who has steadfastly refused to disclose anything remotely like the normal financial information that could offer reassurance he is immune to foreign blackmail. 

We may all wish we still lived in an era of two more-or-less respectful warring parties, where the press could play the comfortable, familiar role of bemused arbiter. But those days are gone, or certainly aren’t the ones we’re living today.

Another storyline in the roiling freak show that is the press in the Age of Trump is the offer by Penthouse magazine of $1 million for anyone who delivers video of the dossier’s shall we say, “golden moment.” What does “the press” do if such a video ever appears?

Beyond that, and something I think far more plausible, is what happens if some wealthy liberal tycoon, a George Soros or Tom Steyer, lets word get out that there’s a $5 million (or $10 or $20 million) bounty on Trump’s tax returns? Drop them in a stall in an airport bathroom, no questions asked. What are the ethics of running with that?

Our incoming President is a kind of ultimate disrupter. The press can accept that and adapt in order to assert the kind of oversight the public appears to want, or it can continue to wring hands over its relevance.