Trump was right: Media is the ‘opposition party’

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As members of the news media wade into the turbulent waters of the new Trump administration, there is confusion over the part they should be playing.

Their traditional role is that of the Fourth Estate, the unelected fourth branch of government, which on behalf of the people is charged with holding the other three branches accountable. But in the early days of the Trump administration, media members appear to have cast themselves as the opposition party, taking positions in opposition to the new president at every turn.

That is a role never intended when the Founding Fathers granted the press great freedom.

We already have an opposition party. With Republicans in control of the White House and both houses of Congress, the opposition party is the Democrats. And as we can easily see by checking the news in the early days of the Trump presidency, the Democratic opposition, led in the early going by Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer of New York, is alive and well and playing that role with gusto.

{mosads}Nonetheless, the news media appears to believe the Democrats need help. So most major news outlets have joined the fray, not just as reporters, but also as advocates with an opposing voice that is even louder than the Democrats.


Whether it be the news pages or the opinion columns, the volume and vitriol are overwhelmingly negative and directed against President Trump.

Consider these two “news stories” in Saturday’s Washington Post:

  • “Why Trump’s promises look like pie in the sky,” was the headline for a Page One story. The lead paragraph was, “No one can accuse Donald Trump of campaigning in poetry. But after just one week in the White House, the new president is bumping up against the hard reality of governing in prose.”
  • A Page Three headline read, “At his opener on world stage, Trump chews up the scenery.” The story began, “The world according to President Trump is mostly about President Trump.”

These are not news stories. They are opinion pieces masquerading as news. They should be labeled “analysis,” at the very least.

But then, there are those who say the days of so-called objective reporting are gone. Look at the tweets sent out by reporters covering Trump. Most of them express opinions and most are against the president. That is unfortunate.

The losers are news consumers who count on the media to give them an honest view of what their government and its leaders are doing on a day-to-day basis. Such negativity saps public confidence in their news sources as well as public officials.

When Trump adviser Stephen Bannon, and then Trump himself, criticized the media for taking on the role of the “opposition party,” and when Bannon said the media ought to “keep its mouth shut,” the howls from the news industry were afire with indignation and outrage. “We will not shut up” was the most common response to Bannon’s angry tirade.

Bannon should not have told the media to “keep its mouth shut.” He might better have said, “Calm down.” We vitally need a free and independent press. It is a cornerstone of our democracy.

What many Trump supporters are asking for is straighter reporting and analysis not filtered through a liberal or Democratic lens.

While most political reporters and editors might be liberals — they overwhelmingly donated to Democratic candidates and seemed to favor Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in the last election — most of the country is not. A Gallup Poll released in January found 36 percent of Americans identified themselves as conservative, 34 percent as moderate and 25 percent as liberal, making this a slightly right-of-center country.

Little surprise, then, that another recent Gallup Poll showed declining public trust in the media to report the news “fully, fairly and accurately”; a record-low 32 percent in 2016. And media trust was much lower among Republicans, at 14 percent, than Democrats, at 51 percent.

Trump exploited that low trust in the last campaign. He continues it now with his repeated media attacks on what he sees as unfair coverage.

The news media like to point to the need for more diversity in politics, business leadership, education, Oscar nominations, science and engineering and most of the professions.

However, one area where the media fall short in calls for diversity is in their own newsrooms, where political diversity is in short supply.

That is why there is some confusion over the media’s role in its relationship with government. There are many making the news decisions and doing the reporting who see themselves as the opposition party because they are the opposition party: Democrats in philosophy and sentiment.

The Fourth Estate points out government wrongs so they can be fixed and the American people better served. The opposition party works to promote its philosophy, defeat its opponents in power and elect its own.

There is a big difference, but many in the news media still have not figured that out.

Richard Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist. He teaches politics and journalism at American University and in the Fund For American Studies Program at George Mason University. Follow him on Twitter @benedettopress.

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