Every president since George Washington has suffered from a critical press.
John F. Kennedy canceled all White House subscriptions to the New York Herald Tribune because of coverage he regarded as unfavorable. President Obama, who was almost universally adored by mainstream media, sometimes complained he wasn’t getting all the credit he thought he deserved for his policies; never mind that in many cases — Obamacare is just one example — liberal media rarely criticized him when those policies faltered.
New York Times columnist David Brooks once remarked that he believed Mr. Obama would be a great president simply because he observed during an interview with the then-senator that he had a fine crease in his pants. No bias there.
President Trump has taken media criticism to new heights (or depths, depending on your perspective), calling any questioning or opposition to his policies “fake news” and labeling the press an “enemy of the people.”
The publisher of The New York Times, A.G. Sulzberger, recently met with the president and told him his comments were encouraging dictators to persecute and suppress independent media coverage of their regimes and worse, putting American journalists at risk of physical harm. Mr. Sulzberger said The Times was forced to hire armed guards to protect employees.
Media bias has long been a complaint, especially among conservatives. Reporters and others in the media usually associate with like-minded members of their “tribe” and so either deliberately separate themselves from the majority of the nation in “flyover country,” or oppose the values, faith and politics practiced by many. Generally they only read or watch each other’s work. How do I know? A columnist for The Times once asked me if I am still writing this column. I read his but clearly he doesn’t read mine, or probably most other conservatives.
Examples of bias, whether in the way stories are covered, or ignored, are legion. One doesn’t have to visit only conservative websites, such as the Media Research Center and its sister publication Newsbusters to find examples.
While columnists enjoy greater freedom than reporters to express their opinions, some have crossed a line of decency that has apparently been erased for the Trump administration.
Last Sunday, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni published a hateful piece on Vice President Mike Pence. Mr. Bruni called Mr. Pence “self-infatuated. Also a bigot. Also a liar. Also cruel. To that brimming potpourri he adds two ingredients that Trump doesn’t genuinely possess: the conviction that he’s on a mission from God and a determination to mold the entire nation in the shape of his own faith, a regressive, repressive version of Christianity. Trade Trump for Pence and you go from kleptocracy to theocracy.”
I have known Mr. Pence for 30 years and he is none of these things. Besides, even if he could impose his sincere and consistently practiced faith on the nation — which he can’t and probably doesn’t want to — what have secular progressives imposed on the nation since the ‘60s?
In the meeting between the president and Mr. Sulzberger, there was no indication that the publisher of America’s most influential newspaper feels the need to examine the charges of bias made against his reporters, editors and columnists, or why virtually all appear to favor liberal Democrats.
Journalism is unlike any other profession, because it is the only one that doesn’t seem to care what its readers and viewers think. It is like a parent forcing a child to take bad-tasting medicine because “it is good for you.”
This attitude has fueled declining TV ratings and, sadly, a drop in newspaper subscriptions, but apparently too many in the profession would rather criticize customers, or more accurately former customers, than change. That is bad for the profession and for the country, which needs strong journalism. Journalism that mostly promotes a single worldview and disparages all others is not journalism. It is propaganda.
• Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist. His latest book is “What Works: Common Sense Solutions for a Stronger America” (Zondervan, 2014).