What Jon Stewart gets right about Trump and the media

Published on Wednesday, 31 October 2018 19:41
Written by Aaron Blake

Liberal complaints about the media’s coverage of President Donald Trump increase with every day he hasn’t been impeached and thrown out of office. The media allegedly let this happen with its 2016 campaign coverage, and now it’s allegedly failing the American people by covering Trump too much, covering the wrong things, or not using the right words - like “lie” - to cover Trump. Many of these complaints are overly simplistic or misunderstand the media’s mission. Others require introspection.

The latter is the case with some new comments made by Jon Stewart.

In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Stewart argues that Trump has taken advantage of the media’s “narcissism”:

“I’m not a fan of the idea that Trump is some maestro working behind the scenes to constantly “distract” us from The Real Story. He’s thin-skinned, he likes to fight, and he throws stuff at the wall and hopes it sticks. A lot of times, he actually draws attention to the stories he should probably be distracting us from, if that were, in fact, the overriding strategy.”

But Stewart hits on a narrow exception: the idea that the media is letting itself become the story too much and is too indignant. There are many valid and important examples of when the media needs to cover itself and raise objections - like last week, when a Trump supporter allegedly sent a bomb to CNN - but it’s also true that this can go too far. There is a difference between asking whether it’s appropriate to call the media the “enemy of the American people” and grandstanding about it. There is a difference between making this a story and making it a constant story at the expense of other very important ones.

Its own prerogatives and rights are the one thing on which the media is unable to claim or even attempt to be unbiased. The way the media reacts when Trump says he wants to roll back libel laws or when he calls us “the enemy” is inherently and unavoidably different from when he proposes other controversial measures or attacks other groups. It’s unavoidably personal, to some extent. But when something is personal, you can also lose perspective.

Stewart’s critique isn’t flawless, though. Implicit in his and many other diagnoses of what ails the media’s relationship with Trump is the idea that whenever Trump succeeds, the media is doing something wrong.

Anthony Scaramucci has been barking up this tree recently, arguing that the media can’t beat Trump by focusing on his lies and falsehoods. The fact that Trump won the presidency and still has a very intact base is seen almost as an indictment of the media in and of itself. “He’s able to tune out everything else and get people just focused on that fight,” Stewart said, “and he’s going to win that fight.”

But that also misunderstands the media’s mission, which isn’t to defeat Trump. The mission is to give people accurate, properly contextualized information with which to make decisions about whether Trump should be president and when to support or oppose him. Just because Trump may win doesn’t mean the media has inherently failed. It’s not a binary choice.

That doesn’t mean, though, that the media shouldn’t constantly be reexamining itself - especially in a completely uncharted political era that constantly challenges the old models of covering politics.

And just because the president invites you to write about yourself a lot doesn’t mean you need to or even that it helps your cause.

Aaron Blake is senior political reporter, writing for The Fix.



Posted in The Bristol Press, Column on Wednesday, 31 October 2018 19:41. Updated: Wednesday, 31 October 2018 19:44.