President Trump is the best thing to happen to the news business in a long while.
Ratings are up, and news subscriptions are booming. And as several journalists discovered early on, performative opposition to the Trump administration comes with lucrative speaking gigs, cable news contracts, glow-up profiles, and large followings on social media.
But now that a Democrat is set to occupy the White House, many of the same reporters who coasted to book deals and better jobs on the back of the anti-Trump “resistance” are not sure what comes next. All they know is that they’ve no intention of approaching President-elect Joe Biden’s presidency with the same histrionics and hostility that boosted their careers in the Trump era.
Consider the following passages from the Atlantic’s McKay Coppins’s latest, titled “The Resistance’s Breakup With the Media Is at Hand":
Few reporters have been at the center of more high-profile spats with the Trump White House than CNN’s Jim Acosta. A veteran TV newsman with salt-and-pepper hair and a concerned-dad demeanor, Acosta has spent the past four years picking fights with Trump flacks in the briefing room. Once, he walked out of a press conference after then–Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders refused to say reporters weren’t enemies of the people; on another occasion, the White House temporarily revoked his press credentials. Detractors have accused Acosta—who published a book in 2019 titled The Enemy of the People: A Dangerous Time to Tell the Truth in America—of showboating. But he insists that his on-air indignation has always been genuine. “You can’t just go and trash the press and totally lie to the American people and tell them real news is fake news,” Acosta told me. “I couldn’t stomach it.”
The drama has made him famous, but Acosta said he doesn’t expect to bring the same crusading style to his coverage of the next administration. “I don’t think the press should be trying to whip up the Biden presidency and turn it into must-see TV in a contrived way,” he said.
If that sounds like a double standard, Acosta told me it’s not partisan—it’s a matter of professional solidarity. In his view, Trump’s campaign to discredit the press has constituted a “nonstop national emergency,” one that required a defiant response. “If being at the White House is not an experience that might merit hazard pay,” he said, “then perhaps it is going to be approached differently.”
Daniel Dale, the former Toronto Star correspondent who rose to stardom at CNN for his exhaustive cataloging of Trump’s lies, says his beat will necessarily expand come January. “It will not be a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week job to fact-check Biden,” he told me. Though he stressed that the same “intensity and rigor” should be applied to the incoming president, the simple reality is that Biden doesn’t lie nearly as often as Trump does. Consequently, Dale hopes to spend more time debunking online disinformation and digging into claims made by congressional leaders.
They don’t plan to apply to the Biden White House even an ounce of the vigor that they brought to their coverage of the Trump administration. CNN’s hotshot fact-checker is even preparing to branch out from covering just presidential remarks.
It’s an absurd choice for ostensibly serious newsmen, considering that the man who will soon be president was also vice president for all eight years of the Obama administration, back when scandals and body counts were aplenty. Biden served in the No. 2 spot in a White House that droned U.S. citizens, spied on the press, and created power vacuums across the Middle East, including the one that led to the rise of the Islamic State. For these reasons, you would think that the self-styled defenders of truth, justice, and the American way would be eager to apply to Biden the same no-nonsense approach they applied to Trump, meaning with aggressive, unrelenting skepticism. But you would be wrong.
Some journalists explain away the discrepancy in tough news coverage, saying Trump is uniquely dishonest, so he deserves a uniquely engaged, if not outright hostile, press. But even that rationalization is nonsense. These "resistance" reporters have covered the Trump White House the way they have because they know the risks are low and the rewards are high, as the New Yorker’s Olivia Nuzzi openly admits.
“There is kind of this temptation to satisfy the resistance with worldview-confirming reporting chum,” she told Coppins.
She added, “It didn’t really require any special bravery to report honestly and critically on Donald Trump. I could write in a piece, ‘Donald Trump is the biggest asshole to ever live, and he is a terrible human being and a shitty president, and, like, he’s ugly’ … and nobody would be mad at me except the same people who are mad at me anyway for existing.”
Nuzzi then added, “On a purely social level, I don’t know that reporting critically on Joe Biden will feel as safe for reporters. You’re not going to get yass queen–ed to death.”
Speaking of playing explicitly to an easily impressed anti-Trump audience, you may recall that Nuzzi is the same Washington correspondent who asked Trump in April, “If an American president loses more Americans over the course of six weeks than died over the entirety of the Vietnam War, does he deserve to be reelected?"
Trump is hostile to the press. He says a lot of mean things. His White House even tried to revoke some press credentials. But nothing the Trump White House has done to journalists compares to the Obama-Biden administration’s attacks on the free press, including spying on the Associated Press and even labeling then-Fox News reporter James Rosen a “criminal co-conspirator” under the Espionage Act of 1917. And this is to say nothing of the other major scandals of the Obama years, many of which included death tolls.
Yet the truth-tellers of the press say they have no plans to keep after the Biden administration the way they kept after Trump White House. It’s different, some say. Biden is more honest. That may technically be true, but, boy, is that setting the bar low.
Biden, you may recall, lied during the election about his opposition to fracking. He lied when he said he was the first person to call for invoking the Defense Production Act to fight the coronavirus. Biden claimed in May that every time he has run for office, he has had the backing of the NAACP. This is false. Biden claimed that the Obama administration did not “lock people up in cages.” It absolutely did. He claimed that “immediately, the moment [the Iraq War] started, I came out against the war at that moment." He did not.
Then, there’s the plagiarism, the lying about being shot at in Iraq, the lying about marching in the civil rights movement, and the lying about being arrested in South Africa while attempting to meet with an imprisoned Nelson Mandela.
When Biden first ran for president, he claimed during a tense exchange with a voter that he attended law school at Syracuse University on a full academic scholarship, that he finished in the top half of his class in law school, that he was named the outstanding student in the political science department as an undergraduate at the University of Delaware, and that he graduated from Delaware with three undergraduate degrees.
Not even one of these claims is true.
The truth of it is this: Making a big show of holding Trump accountable was always the easy and safe play for the self-proclaimed heroes of the press. The president’s lies are obvious, and there is clearly a large and paying audience for "resistance" theatrics. The likelihood of reputational harm for antagonizing Trump and his cronies was always low; the likelihood of fame and adulation always high. But pulling the same gimmick on the Biden administration, well, that would require both effort and risk. That is why certain members of our vaunted Fourth Estate plan to play it cool for at least the next four years.