“There is an idealistic and a cynical reason for automatic equivalence in political reporting”

There is an idealistic and a cynical reason for automatic equivalence in political reporting. The idealistic reason is that the press isn’t supposed to take a side because the audience needs the news delivered by institutions that will always, no matter what, deliver both sides — and who is the press to choose which side is right, anyway?

The cynical reason is that members of the political press need to report among elites from both political parties, and equivalence-based reporting ensures that you don’t lose too much access on either side, and that’s the real game — making sure both parties are willing to talk to you and members of both parties will subscribe to you. Both are true.

But Trump short-circuits all that. You can criticize him sharply and be applauded, both publicly and privately, by senior Republican figures. The most despairing, hysterical commentary I’ve heard about Trump this cycle has been from Republicans speaking off the record — including Republicans who have endorsed Trump! In this way, the “evenhanded” view of Trump that emerges from traditional reporting is that he’s a dangerous maniac — Democrats say it, and so too do many top Republicans.

I think this is why the Washington Post, for instance, isn’t panicking over being banned from Trump’s events. If the Post believed the Republican Party had turned on it so sharply that it was now permanently blacklisted from doing even basic reporting on GOP campaigns, it would be an institutional crisis.

But the Post doesn’t believe that’s what Trump’s reaction represents, because Trump doesn’t speak for the Republican Party. Plenty of Republicans are happy to see the excellent, critical coverage the paper has offered of Trump and are appalled by Trump’s petulant reaction. The Post’s long-term relationships on the right aren’t imperiled by its feud with the Trump campaign — they may even be being strengthened by it.

This is also a partial explanation for why coverage of Trump has become so much more negative since the primary. Back when Republican elites took Trump less seriously, and were often trying to use him as a tool to attack other leading Republicans or push their own agendas that they believed would respond to the grievances of Trump voters, there was actually less behind-the-scenes criticism of his temperament and campaign, at least in my experience.

Then, top Republicans were, by turns, annoyed, bemused, and reflective when talking about Trump. Now they are disgusted, panicked, and desperate. That is manifesting in the coverage of reporters talking to those Republicans.

Ezra Klein, “The media vs. Donald Trump: why the press feels so free to criticize the Republican nominee”, Vox (16 August 2016) [http://www.vox.com/2016/8/16/12484644/media-donald-trump]