(Opinion) — New York Times White House reporter Peter Baker (4/29/16) appears to have set out in earnest to write a “balanced” review of Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office. In doing so, he exposed the futility of such an exercise.
Baker spins some of Trump’s worst and most dangerous traits as positives, downplays his constant threats and impulsivity and tortures the English language to find praise where none ought to exist. First the latter: Baker attempts to find symmetry in Trump’s approach to “transparency,” by conflating actual governmental openness with an obsessive desire to talk at the media:
He has been both more and less transparent than other presidents, shielding his tax returns and White House visitor logs from public scrutiny while appearing to leave few thoughts unexpressed, no matter how incendiary or inaccurate.
Baker takes two bad things (Trump’s lack of transparency relative to Obama, and his runaway narcissistic desire for media attention) and turns them, somehow, into one good thing and one bad thing. (This is part of a broader problem, as FOIA expert J. Pat Brown noted, of “muddying the #OpenGov waters” by “equating and replacing actual government transparency with ‘access.’”)
Baker similarly twists the meaning of “authenticity”—making it a vague appeal to the appearance of honesty, with no necessary connection to telling the truth:
Mr. Trump has brought back a certain authenticity and willingness to engage. His frequent news conferences and interviews can be bracingly candid, uninhibited, even raw. He leaves little mystery about what is on his mind.
The claim that Trump has had “frequent news conferences” is strange, considering he’s actually had 33 percent less than Obama in his first 100 days––12 vs. 9. How Baker knows Trump’s macho bluster and rambling, unlettered outbursts actually reflect what is “on his mind” rather than high-octane performance art is unclear. But to fulfill the mission of “balance,” good things must be found to be said about Trump, no matter how tenuous.
The words “lie,” “liar” and “falsehood” never appear—remarkably, considering the pace of deception set by Trump in his first 100 days. The best Baker can muster is a vague reference to “unfounded statements.”
More words not mentioned in the piece: “climate change,” “immigration,” “deportation,” “Muslim,” “Latino,” “African-American,” “racism,” “abortion,” “LGBT,” “Yemen.” Also glaringly omitted from the report card: the ongoing investigation into Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. A scandal that—regardless of how one feels about its underlying claims—has had a notable impact on the administration.
The piece is fleshed out with surface-level punditry to provide some expert color, including former Bush Sr. aide (and current lobbyist) Janet Mullins Grissom, who makes this absurd claim:
“The biggest difference between President Trump and his predecessors is that he is the first president in my political lifetime who comes to the office unbeholden to any special interest for his electoral success, thus immune to typical political pressures.”
In effect, she said, that compensates for a victory he secured in the Electoral College without winning the popular vote. “That gives him as much leverage as someone who won with landslide numbers — and the freedom to govern his way,” she said. “And his voters love him for it.”
One is curious how Trump—whose Super PAC received over $35 million from casino mogul and pro-Israel super donor Sheldon Adelson—is not “beholden” to the special interest of backing Israel’s far-right government. Or how he’s not “beholden” to the six major donors that he appointed to high-level positions in his administration. But fatuous Beltway tropes about Trump being a rebel outsider are permitted to be expressed unexamined and unchecked—in the interest of “balance.”
The piece ends on a warm note, implying that Trump could-still-yet become a “near great president”:
Meena Bose, the director of the Peter S. Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency at Hofstra University, said Mr. Trump’s presidency so far seemed unlike almost any other, except perhaps Andrew Jackson’s. She noted that Jackson was seen as erratic at the time but was later evaluated by historians as a near-great president.
“Might the Trump presidency be viewed similarly someday?” she asked. “Difficult to see at the 100-day mark, but that is an artificial measurement, with so much of the presidency still to come.”
If one accepts the premise that a devout white supremacist and slavery booster responsible for the deaths of thousands of Native Americans could be a “near great” president, then perhaps Trump can too. If reporters, like historians, can find the bright side of genocide, then the “both sides” ethos knows no bounds.
You can send a message to the New York Times at [email protected] or to public editor Liz Spayd at [email protected] (Twitter:@NYTimes or @SpaydL). Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective.
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