One of the most seductive parts of journalism is how close you’re allowed to get to things. When I was fresh out of college, I scored a media pass through the local alt-weekly to cover a major music festival in San Francisco — backstage, photo pit, the works. I remember snapping pictures of the Red Hot Chili Peppers with my shitty $450 Canon DLSR alongside the big boys from Getty Images and thinking that this was the greatest thing in the world. Proximity is important to covering something, of course: it’s hard (but not impossible) to do a good job reporting on something if you can’t get inside to get a look.
I understand, therefore, why reporters need a special little section of the West Wing to file their stories, and why the White House press corps needs the special perks and provisions applied to them to adequately cover the executive branch of the most powerful government in the world. But you’d think that on this stage, they’d occasionally manage to conduct themselves with a bit more dignity than a 22-year-old three beers deep at a music festival. Sadly, this is what we get.
From an essay in The Atlantic by Yahoo News correspondent Alexander Nazarayan:
Covering the administration was thrilling for many journalists, in the way that I imagine storming Omaha Beach must have been for a 20-year-old fresh from the plains of Kansas. He hadn’t signed up for battle, but there he was, liberating France. France, by the way, is where Trump called American soldiers who’d fallen in combat “suckers” and “losers.” When this magazine first reported those comments, Trump’s supporters denounced the Atlantic story as preposterous and offensive, even as outlet after outlet confirmed the reporting. They failed to realize that the preposterous and the offensive were the twin beacons of the Trump presidency. Journalists were merely going where he led. This was our Omaha Beach. I, for one, would have rather been in Hawaii.
Jesus Christ man. Get a grip. That paragraph is perhaps the most egregious in a scattered, extremely embarrassing essay whose point is very simple: that covering Trump was fun. The headline, when it was first published, was literally “I Miss the Thrill of Trump.” It has since been changed to the slightly more palatable “I Was an Enemy of the People.” Sure.
The gist of the argument is this: the high-stakes frenzy of media attention toward the Trump presidency was addicting to reporters, who reaped the rewards of frequent cable news spots (Nazarayan describes some of his in detail). But it also includes one telling nod, a slight inkling that Nazarayan may understand what his role in society actually is even as he proceeds to admit to far more base motivations for doing his job in every subsequent graf:
Without quite meaning to, Trump reminded journalists that their relationship to power should be adversarial. I hope my colleagues in the press corps (I am a national correspondent for Yahoo News) remember that, as some measure of pre-Trumpian courtliness returns to the White House briefing room.
Yeah, I hope you fucking remember that too! The difference between this sentiment and mine, however, is that Nazarayan clearly thinks that the White House press corps did their job well under Trump, and is urging them to continue to do so under Biden. To those of us who saw the press corps’ endless palace intrigue stories as lurid window-dressing for actual fascism for four years, however, this essay is a continued reminder that the people tasked with covering the president treat it all like a game, and have to be tricked or reminded by a monster of Lovecraftian proportions that their job isn’t to sit in the briefing room trying to out-Sorkin the press secretary. You can see this dichotomy perfectly in this paragraph:
Both the Resistance and MAGA nation assigned journalists far more power than we truly had. A journalist’s brief is not to take down a president or to act like the opposing party. Nor, outside of North Korea, is a journalist’s job to lavish a country’s leader with hagiographic rhetoric, although the conservative media did its best. In what is surely the greatest contribution he ever made to American life, George W. Bush remarked, after listening to Trump’s childishly lurid inaugural address: “That was some weird shit.” It really was and, in retrospect, the whole Trump phenomenon may have been as simple as that.
You know what was some weird shit? The Iraq war. I know, I know, this is a tired and worn-out drum to beat, except it’s not, because Iraq is still a failed state and it is entirely our fault. It is George W. Bush’s fault and at the time it was almost certainly the White House press corps fault. At least it’s out in the open now: in the 12 years since Bush and through 4 years of Trump, they haven’t learned a goddamn thing. But I’m glad they’re having fun.