Comment: News media shouldn’t lulled by a return to normal

While reporters and pundits should avoid grandstanding, they must hold the Biden White House to account.

By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — White House press secretary Jen Psaki was prepared. She was professional. She was noncombative.

And she didn’t peddle a whopper of a lie, the way Sean Spicer did on Day One four years ago with his “alternative facts” about the supposedly record-breaking size of the inaugural crowd.

The first official words by President Biden’s spokeswoman included truth and transparency. “Rebuilding trust with the American people will be central to our focus,” the former State Department spokeswoman told a small group of socially distanced reporters as she promised a return to daily briefings.

In fact, Wednesday night’s session with reporters, the first of the Biden administration, was so normal — so weirdly normal — that you could be forgiven for thinking that you had mistakenly put on an old episode of “The West Wing.”

This return to norms is wonderfully welcome after the horrors of the past four years. “It’s like running into a friend you haven’t seen in 4 years,” wrote Columbia University journalism professor William Grueskin.

It’s also potentially dangerous.

The national press — battered by four years of abuse by the president, and by the incompetence and falsehoods of his spokespeople — is in a precarious position. We run the risk of being seduced by an administration that, in many cases, closely reflects our values: multiculturalism, a belief in the principles of liberal democracy, and a kind of wonky idealism. (Cue the “West Wing” theme.)

The commentary from TV broadcasters across the board, all day long, was at times embarrassingly complimentary. Maybe that’s fine for a day or two while everyone takes a few sighs of relief that democracy has survived its stress test.

But soon, I’d guess, another norm will return: the desire to appear combative and to blow things out of proportion to demonstrate toughness. Because journalists pride themselves on being tough and objective, they like to take an adversarial-seeming approach, especially to the party in power or the candidate with whom they most identify. (And, of course, actually holding power to account is the most important job that journalists have. It’s what we’re here for.)

But there’s a difference between truly holding power to account and grandstanding. It’s the latter that gave rise to ridiculous dust-ups like the one over President Obama’s wearing of a tan suit; not to mention the vast and shameful overplaying of the Hillary Clinton email scandal during the 2016 campaign.

The national media should show toughness, but of a different sort. If they’ve learned the lessons of the past four years — and I confess that I have my doubts — they’ll do things differently.

They will resist false equivalency. For example, they’ll think twice before they put a reality-denying senator like Ted Cruz, R-Texas, or Josh Hawley, R-Mo., on the air to promote false claims about election fraud simply because they feel they need to “balance” all the (truthful) Democratic voices.

They will clearly call out lies. They will identify racism or white supremacy by using plain language instead of euphemism.

“If you believe that now with Trump gone you can go back to the way things were, you will be complicit in allowing miscreants to avoid the blame and focus they deserve, and create more ground for lies and bombast,” wrote Norman Ornstein, an emeritus scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, in a powerful Twitter thread.

He’s right. By the end of the Trump administration, the national press was doing things differently, and better. More than in the past, some journalists (certainly not all) were standing up for democracy without embarrassment, without fearing they’d be called partisan. Some had figured out how to present an election not as a mere horse race, but as a question about substance, character and the nation’s future.

But now that the comfortable norms have returned, and the new administration is so much easier for most national journalists to like, the old journalistic norms may return, too.

That would be a shame. The lessons were hard-won. They shouldn’t be forgotten.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper.

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