David Zurawik

Amid storm of Trump developments, a call for calmer, more centrist media

It isn't as though the press has been flipping out over nothing since Donald Trump took office. Every day, something contentious, unconventional and culture-wars combustible seems to come out of Washington.

On Sunday, tens of thousands protested at airports nationwide — including BWI Marshall — against an executive order aimed at suspending immigration from seven countries with large Muslim populations.


On Monday, Trump abruptly fired the acting attorney general who said she would not defend that order.

On Tuesday, the president made a prime-time announcement of his nominee to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, with Democrats in the Senate immediately threatening a filibuster. Trump responded Wednesday by urging Republicans to "go nuclear" if that happens — meaning, to eliminate the filibuster.


There is nothing ho-hum about any of that. They all have potentially huge implications for the kind of country we, our children and grandchildren will live in.

But the operative phrase here is flipping out. Too many in the mainstream press are responding to the big, bold, in-your-face actions of the White House with over-the top rhetoric, historical ignorance, an utter lack of proportion and, in some cases, just plain bias. Some nights on cable TV feel more like a feeding frenzy than journalists covering a new administration.

I don't agree with Steve Bannon, Trump's combative senior adviser, recently telling the press to keep its "mouth shut." But I do think some in the media need to calm down and do their homework before contextualizing and reporting White House acts in knee-jerk negative ways — sometimes before the acts have even taken place.

As a society, we are in a moment of frenzied change driven by an incredibly polarizing chief executive, and overheated coverage isn't helping anyone. It isn't helping the credibility of the press, which has approval ratings and trust issues as bad as or worse than Trump's, and more importantly it isn't helping citizens trying to make sense of life after one of the most shocking election upsets in history.

You watch cable TV for even a few hours a day or night since Trump took office, and you wonder not whether the center will hold, as we did during the late 1960s when Richard Nixon took office — you wonder if there is anyone in media or politics still living in the center.

Mainstream media are supposed to live there. "Down the middle" has been a favored journalistic expression for decades. But that's getting to be an increasingly lonely place for journalists like me who still believe wholeheartedly in that value. Some of my colleagues are so busy racing each other to what they see as the ramparts of righteousness in denunciations of Trump that they aren't thinking or talking about what happens to our democracy if we don't have strong, nonpartisan, trusted sources of information and discussion that are as readily available as Fox News or Huffington Post.

Typical of the lack of context and proportion in Trump coverage is the use by major mainstream outlets of the term "Monday Night Massacre" to describe Trump's firing of Sally Yates, acting attorney general, after she said she would not defend Trump's immigration order.

On Monday night, the term was emblazoned across the bottom of the screen during CNN reports. "Monday Night Massacre: Trump Fires Acting AG," was the wording during Don Lemon's show.


As of Thursday, CNN was still using the catchphrase in an online headline for an analysis and video of the Yates firing.

Let me share just a bit of the history of the "Saturday Night Massacre" of 1973, because it matters in showing how over the top the comparison was.

Nixon, the president at the time, did not fire the attorney general, as Trump did. The embattled president, who the nation would come to find out was drinking heavily and talking to White House portraits late at night, wanted to fire an independent special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, who was investigating Watergate, a tangle of crimes and cover-ups directed out of Nixon's office.

But Nixon did not have the authority to fire Cox. The attorney general had to do it. And when Nixon ordered his attorney general, Elliot Richardson, to do so, Richardson resigned. His deputy attorney general also resigned when Nixon ordered him to fire Cox. Nixon finally found someone on his third try to do the firing.

This was one of the Constitution's darkest nights, and it should never be misunderstood because of sloppy journalism — or misappropriated for partisan politics. But that is exactly what was happening Monday night.

Appearing on CNN, Carl Bernstein, one of the two reporters whose dogged reporting helped drive Nixon from office, tried to set the record straight that evening. He said that "there's a big difference" between what Trump did in firing a lame-duck acting attorney general who publicly defied him and the Saturday Night Massacre.


Nevertheless, at the end of the week, the "Monday Night Massacre" headline remained on such websites as MSNBC, Salon, Vanity Fair and The Guardian, along with CNN's. And it summoned all that dark shared memory of a criminal president who was out of control.

On the other hand, let's hear it for the editorial board at USA Today for its Tuesday analysis headlined: "Not a 'Monday Night Massacre:' Our view." It was a solid effort at proportionality in the name of accurate historical memory.

But Tuesday was just as bad for press coverage of the administration.

Trump's sin this day: promising an 8 p.m. Tuesday announcement of his nominee to replace Scalia on the Supreme Court.

Forbes advanced the announcement with a story headlined "Trump Makes Ratings Grab By Announcing Supreme Court Nominee in Prime Time."

"Announcing a Supreme Court pick in prime time is a break with tradition, reflecting the president's keen interest in television ratings," the Forbes report said.


That conveniently ignores the fact that it was not the first time such an announcement was made in prime time. President George W. Bush did it in announcing John Roberts' nomination to the court in 2005.

But, hey, let's not let facts get in the way of characterizing Trump as a reality TV ratings tramp unworthy of the office to which he was democratically elected.

Despite a day of media predictions that Trump would deliver a twofer demeaning both the presidency and the court by turning the announcement into a reality TV reveal, the president had a very traditional and dignified announcement in the East Room of Neil Gorsuch as his nominee.

"That is how it is supposed to be done," CNN's Dana Bash said in the channel's instant analysis. It would have been hard to say otherwise.

As a columnist, I am not eager to say anything that might sound like I am calling for a tighter leash in language, attitude or latitude.

But even I was a little shocked last week to read Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus describing Trump's behavior during his first week in office as "unhinged." It came in a column that began: "Week One of the Trump administration was among the most alarming in the history of the American presidency."


The primary definition of unhinged: mentally unbalanced or deranged.

Where do we go from here when the language in one of the nation's most important newspapers is already at this fevered pitch just two weeks in? Will the impeachment columns start appearing next week?

Some people are still jacked up and freaked out by the election. I have friends and family members who have been walking around in a daze of disbelief since November.

I think we in the press should help them try to understand this landmark shift of power between two radically different visions of America with facts, balance and perspective. We should not be exploiting their fears for clicks and Nielsen ratings by telling them their president is mentally deranged.

If he is, let's do our jobs and prove it with real reporting — not allege it with over-the-top rhetoric.