Beltway reporting gets normal again, for better and for worse

“No, democracy didn’t die in darkness, but has sunlight really saved it?”

The year 2021 will be a return to normalcy for much of the American news media. Physical newsrooms will mostly reopen, Room Rater will mercifully be relegated to historical trivia, and the Washington press corps will breathe a collective sigh of relief as regular (if unremarkable) fact-based press/state relations resume under the Biden-Harris administration.

Gone but not forgotten will be the dangerous and disdainful refrain of Trumpism denouncing journalists as “fake,” “phony,” “corrupt”, “enemies of the people.” In its place will be bland and banal message discipline, the plodding drudgery of policymaking, and more textbook-typical performative press briefings in which each side jockeys for control of the narratives that define public life while at least co-existing on the same plane of reality.

Some will no doubt miss the spectacle — the hilarious “Veep”-like dysfunction that has emanated from Pennsylvania Avenue over the last four years. There will be no Spicers or Scaramuccis in the Biden White House, no late-night eruptions on Twitter, no “covfefes,” no “infrastructure weeks” that never actually materialize. While it’s true that the outgoing occupant will do his best to hijack coverage with his usual bombast, losing tends to dull politicians’ luster. (This is why he’s so desperate to rewrite the results.)

Many here and abroad will see the last four years as an “aberration” and learn the wrong lessons from Trump’s ouster. They will tell themselves that the public saw through his excesses and mendacity in the end. They will say Trump’s rejection of the rule of law, of liberal democratic norms, of basic decency, met its match in an American electorate that applied the brakes before the country careened off the rails entirely.

No, democracy didn’t die in darkness, but has sunlight really saved it? The last four years saw some incredible feats of investigative, watchdog journalism from the nation’s leading independent news organizations — but how much of it actually held power to account? To borrow a frequently used metaphor from political communication scholarship, the press rang so many “burglar alarms” that vast segments of the public may have simply stopped listening. Trump’s approval ratings were remarkably stable no matter the egregiousness of the scandal or the outrageousness of the alleged offenses. Instead, partisans on both sides only dug in deeper. Take away the pandemic and the administration’s disastrous handling of it and it’s hard not to see the incumbent being rewarded with a second term.

The return to normal press/state relations will no doubt be frustrating to both Democrats and Republicans. Supporters on the left will chafe at the obvious double standards to which the Biden administration will be held when it comes to transparency and candor. On the right, anything short of all-out war will be viewed as capitulation by the hopelessly biased media. But as The Washington Post’s editor Marty Baron famously put it, the press has never been at war; they’ve only been “at work.”

That work was often tested during the Trump years. It led to an outpouring of support in some quarters and a boom in digital subscriptions, but broadly communicating the essential value of rigorous and independent journalism across partisan lines remains unfinished business. At a time when much of the public struggles just to differentiate between news outlets that do original reporting from the platforms that aggregate it, one must ask: Which era of press/state relations is the real aberration?

Benjamin Toff is a senior research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota.

The year 2021 will be a return to normalcy for much of the American news media. Physical newsrooms will mostly reopen, Room Rater will mercifully be relegated to historical trivia, and the Washington press corps will breathe a collective sigh of relief as regular (if unremarkable) fact-based press/state relations resume under the Biden-Harris administration.

Gone but not forgotten will be the dangerous and disdainful refrain of Trumpism denouncing journalists as “fake,” “phony,” “corrupt”, “enemies of the people.” In its place will be bland and banal message discipline, the plodding drudgery of policymaking, and more textbook-typical performative press briefings in which each side jockeys for control of the narratives that define public life while at least co-existing on the same plane of reality.

Some will no doubt miss the spectacle — the hilarious “Veep”-like dysfunction that has emanated from Pennsylvania Avenue over the last four years. There will be no Spicers or Scaramuccis in the Biden White House, no late-night eruptions on Twitter, no “covfefes,” no “infrastructure weeks” that never actually materialize. While it’s true that the outgoing occupant will do his best to hijack coverage with his usual bombast, losing tends to dull politicians’ luster. (This is why he’s so desperate to rewrite the results.)

Many here and abroad will see the last four years as an “aberration” and learn the wrong lessons from Trump’s ouster. They will tell themselves that the public saw through his excesses and mendacity in the end. They will say Trump’s rejection of the rule of law, of liberal democratic norms, of basic decency, met its match in an American electorate that applied the brakes before the country careened off the rails entirely.

No, democracy didn’t die in darkness, but has sunlight really saved it? The last four years saw some incredible feats of investigative, watchdog journalism from the nation’s leading independent news organizations — but how much of it actually held power to account? To borrow a frequently used metaphor from political communication scholarship, the press rang so many “burglar alarms” that vast segments of the public may have simply stopped listening. Trump’s approval ratings were remarkably stable no matter the egregiousness of the scandal or the outrageousness of the alleged offenses. Instead, partisans on both sides only dug in deeper. Take away the pandemic and the administration’s disastrous handling of it and it’s hard not to see the incumbent being rewarded with a second term.

The return to normal press/state relations will no doubt be frustrating to both Democrats and Republicans. Supporters on the left will chafe at the obvious double standards to which the Biden administration will be held when it comes to transparency and candor. On the right, anything short of all-out war will be viewed as capitulation by the hopelessly biased media. But as The Washington Post’s editor Marty Baron famously put it, the press has never been at war; they’ve only been “at work.”

That work was often tested during the Trump years. It led to an outpouring of support in some quarters and a boom in digital subscriptions, but broadly communicating the essential value of rigorous and independent journalism across partisan lines remains unfinished business. At a time when much of the public struggles just to differentiate between news outlets that do original reporting from the platforms that aggregate it, one must ask: Which era of press/state relations is the real aberration?

Benjamin Toff is a senior research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota.

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