NY Times Media Columnist Jim Rutenberg Says TV News Must Stop Going Easy on Trump

December 12th, 2016 10:17 PM

After television news (and his own newspaper) spent the last eight years praising Barack Obama and defending him against GOP attacks, there’s a Republican about to take office and suddenly it’s high time for journalists to get tough on politicians. That’s the gist of New York Times media reporter Jim Rutenberg’s latest Mediator column “TV News Must Pull No Punches For Trump,” in Monday’s Business Day.

Rutenberg especially praised the tough-on-Trump style of CNN’s Jake Tapper, but treaded shakier ground when he applauded ABC’s George Stephanpopoulos and Martha Raddatz, two of the most notorious purveyors of Hillary hagiography and anti-Trump vituperation during the 2016 campaign.

After praising Tapper for grilling Vice President-elect Mike Pence about the son of the incoming national security adviser Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Rutenberg jumped to the media’s favorite campaign moment of self-recrimination. That would be NBC Today host Matt Lauer’s failure to properly annihilate Trump during a forum in September. (NYT reporters whined about Lauer being mean to Hillary and too nice to Trump, although he was tough on both candidates.)

But it bounced around the internet as a shining example of stand-up journalism, because, unfortunately, such moments now seem so rare -- especially in a year marked by Matt Lauer’s soft interview of Mr. Trump at NBC’s “Commander in Chief” forum in September, and CNN’s own lapses with hires like the Trump aide Corey Lewandowski.

Rutenberg made no mention of CNN's lapses with Donna Brazile.

Does Rutenberg truly think the networks went easy on Trump during the campaign against Clinton? An MRC study released in late October found that nearly all of the immense coverage Trump received from the ABC, CBS, and NBC evening newscasts (91%) was hostile.

After faulting CNN for hiring Lewandowski from the Trump campaign, Rutenberg hypocritically went on to praise Bill Clinton’s White House communications director turned “journalist” George Stephanopoulos. He also praised ABC’s Martha Raddatz, who notoriously teared-up on air Election Night at the unfairness of Hillary Clinton’s impending defeat.

Mr. Tapper did not invent the tough interview. George Stephanopoulos and Martha Raddatz of ABC, Chuck Todd of NBC, Chris Wallace and Megyn Kelly of Fox News, and John Dickerson of CBS have all had their moments.

And none has yet claimed the mantles of Tim Russert and Ted Koppel, feared interviewers who combined tough styles with incomparable levels of preparation.

Rutenberg hailed the new trend in non-objective coverage -- calling out Trump’s assertions as “lies.”

For all the criticism CNN has received, it did introduce more aggressive fact-checking into its reportage, including using onscreen banners known as chyrons to note when something was false, which all networks will hopefully use more frequently.

And NBC’s Chuck Todd garnered predictable praise for going after RNC chairman Reince Priebus, as if Todd going after Republicans hammer-and-tong is some kind of novelty.

The spirit seems to be going around. On Sunday, Mr. Todd persistently pressed Mr. Priebus on “Meet the Press” about allegations that Russia meddled in the election. The week before, when Mr. Pence told Mr. Stephanopoulos that Mr. Trump’s claim about illegal voting was “refreshing,” Mr. Stephanopoulos said, “Why is it refreshing to make false statements?”

So how does Rutenberg calculate a victory for the media, in this new Trump age in which standards of toughness have been suddenly, arbitrarily raised? A clue: Rutenberg cited the honors bestowed by left-wing Comedy Central Daily Show host (and Jon Stewart replacement) Trevor Noah, (who routinely accuses Trump supporters of racism and sexism).

The tête-à-tête earned Mr. Stephanopoulos a mock honor, “The Crapcatcher Award,” from the “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah, who also gave one to Mr. Tapper.

Real progress will come when solid and uncompromising television journalism doesn’t need to be recognized with trophies. The times demand it.