For news organizations, the early months of the Age of Trump have been, perversely, the best of times and the worst of times.
The worst, because of the 45th President’s vitriolic assault on the media as dishonest, disloyal “enemies of the people.”
The best, oddly, because the chaos surrounding the Trump ascension has given birth to some remarkable investigative reporting. The New York Times, the Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, especially, have been topping each other repeatedly with penetrating reports about the inner workings, conflicts and contradictions of the new Administration and — get this — people are paying for it. It is an on-going newspaper war in the best sense of the word.
And not just newspapers. The New Yorker magazine, renowned for its prose and commentary, has been breaking news about the curious and continuing Trump-Russian connections. The venerable Atlantic magazine, a monthly, has published an in-depth look at what it calls the autocratic aspects of Trumpism.
Most major organizations have beefed up their Washington and investigative staffs since election day. The New York Times has assigned six top reporters to cover the White House full-time. (When I was The Times’ chief White House correspondent in the 1970’s, I was “chief” of myself and one deputy.)
The Washington Post and CNN have added to the collective reporting muscle by building new investigative teams.
It is the best of times, as well, because readers and viewers have responded to the tumultuous times by forking over cash for subscriptions to the most reliable of the “lamestream” media, as Sarah Palin once dubbed them.
The Times, which has been struggling financially in recent years from a crippling loss of print advertising, is experiencing a remarkable surge. The Grey Lady added 300,000 new digital subscriptions since election day. The Washington Post has topped 300,000 paid digital subscriptions for the first time. The New Yorker has picked up 250,000 subscribers in the last three months. Subscriptions to The Atlantic were up 210 per cent in January over the same month the year before.
The timing is hardly coincidental.
These new readers are not just reacting to Trump’s attacks on the press; they are hungry for reliable journalism in an uncertain world. And they are paying for it. Stephen Colbert once dubbed it “truthiness,” and people want it.
The cable news networks, all of which have tasted Trump’s wrath at one time or another, are enjoying an across-the-board
ratings boost. Fox, Trump’s favorite, leads the pack, but even CNN, which the President has labeled “fake news,” is up sharply. Jeff Zucker, CNN’s worldwide president, calls it a “renaissance in American Journalism.”
Have there been mistakes and excesses in the coverage? Of course. But you will get a clearer picture of the Administration in the media than from Kelly Anne Conway and the other Trump spokespeople.
Incidentally, the other great beneficiaries of the Trump Bump have been Colbert, John Oliver and, of course, Saturday Night Live. Late night television satire has never been better — or more popular.
Meanwhile, the normally adversarial relationship between the press and the White House has descended into daily hostilities between Sean Spicer, the beleaguered press secretary, and the reporters who question him. The televised battles have become a daytime hit as Spicer gamely tries to defend his boss’s twitter outbursts.
It is hard at this point to see where all this chaos leads us. David Brooks doubts that Trump can last a year. But the President’s base seems solidly behind him and largely satisfied that he is fulfilling his campaign promises. The Republicans in Congress will not challenge him as long as they believe he will sign their agenda into law.
In the main, reporters have been keeping their heads down, doing their jobs, digging for the truth and, fortunately, not taking the Presidential attacks personally. Most realize it is not about them. This is not a popularity contest, which is a good thing, since neither side would win. But it is reminder that, as the old saying goes, “politics ain’t beanbag.”