Rachel Maddow came in for some criticism yesterday for, in the words of one totally not-jealous pundit, “overselling” her story on getting hold of two pages of Trump’s 2005 tax returns. I saw more headlines about how she allowed the White House the chance to bigfoot her scoop and release the documents (and give Trump the bizarre opportunity to tweet that what the White House said was his real return was actually “fake news”). The result was that more folks were talking about what Rachel Maddow did than the real story: Trump still hasn’t released all of his taxes, and those that he has paint him in a false light.
Actually the real story should also be that the press, either through laziness or fear of an early-morning tweetstorm, isn’t doing its job, and when one member of the press does what closely resembles her duty, she gets cat-called for it by members of her own profession.
This is ridiculous. In this country where the press is one of the few human endeavors that is specifically protected from government intrusion in the Constitution, there should be an awareness of the duty the press has in our democracy. It isn’t just reporting the news, it’s holding us — all of us — accountable regardless of the person or personality delivering the news.
There is a line of thought, beloved of the clergy of that which Jay Rosen calls The Church of the Savvy, that holds that this whole thing was a clever scam by the White House—and, indeed, that the administration may have been the source of the leak. But overrating the cleverness of this crowd has become reflexive. A lot of what they’ve done is just stupid, their efforts at spin control an insult to the memory of Michael Deaver, and their strategy roughly on the level of, as President Jed once put it, “Hey, your shoe’s untied!” Chief among these explanations is the notion that this was meant to be a distraction from the other bad news engulfing the White House on the subjects of healthcare and whatever-the-hell James Comey is going to say next.
However, if the distraction argument is true, then it is a massive dereliction of duty on the part of the members of the media who make it true. In essence, coming from anyone in this business, the distraction argument denies that the media has any agency in what it covers. If you are an editor—or a reporter—and you decide that a story is a shiny object, then don’t cover it. Or, at the very least, don’t emphasize it. The decision by the elite political media to make Hillary Rodham Clinton’s email server a central issue in the campaign was a deliberate choice. It wasn’t forced on them by anyone or anything. If you can choose to emphasize something, you can choose not to do that. If you can choose to concentrate on HRC’s email practices, you can choose not to concentrate on what you judge to be obvious diversions from the White House.
Do your freaking job.
The idea that the safety and security of our country — and the reporting of the state of the union — is devolving to middle-school-level squabbling and preening is not just alarming. It’s dangerous.