By Alex Altman
Mere hours after the inauguration, Time reporter Zeke Miller unwittingly gave President Donald Trump the ultimate gift. Standing in the Oval Office, surrounded by fellow members of the press corps, Miller made what he thought was a stunning observation: the bust of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was missing.
On January 20, Miller shared the scoop with his 150,000 Twitter followers without first verifying with the White House that the bust was no longer there. Not surprisingly, the missive uncorked a tidal wave of anger about the apparent omission.
The reaction was none of Miller’s concern. It’s his job to report the unbiased news even when it’s certain to trigger public outrage. The problem with Miller’s report is that it was wrong. The bust of the civil rights icon was there, and had been all along.
In his quest to be first, Miller failed to follow through on a tenet of journalism: to seek the truth and not just point out an observation. Miller immediately deleted the Tweet and issued an apology, which was later backed by Time editors. But it was too late. The damage was already done. Not to Trump, but to Miller and his cohorts in the media.
For Trump, Miller’s untidy reporting was the symbol of “fake news” that his administration desperately wanted — an egregious mistake that he could now point at to validate his cries of bias. “I would never do that because I have great respect for Dr. Martin Luther King,” Trump said about the incident. “But this is how dishonest the media is.”
The relationship between the president and press is adversarial by nature, but it’s hard to recall a time when tensions were this high. Since the beginning of the campaign, seemingly every news outlet has been bashed or belittled by Trump.
The Washington Post is “dishonest.” The New York Times is “failing.” CNN, a network he recently vowed to freeze out, is “fake news.” He even feuded with Fox News’ Megyn Kelly. They’re all members of what Trump says is the opposition party. About that last point, he’s not totally wrong — but he’s also not the first president, Democrat or Republican, to take heat from the press.
Barack Obama was skewered by reporters for the bungled launch of the Obamacare website and for not following through on his “Red Line” promise in Syria. George W. Bush was slammed for the controversial war in Iraq. Clinton, Reagan, Kennedy — no sitting president has ever been above reproach. In fact, Trump’s favorite media outlet to hate, CNN, once had Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal on the air to share his view that it was OK to want Obama to fail.
Trump can continue to bemoan the media’s lack of fairness, but it won’t win their support or turn down their level of scrutiny, which may in fact be a goal of his.
Trump doesn’t have to embrace the media. He doesn’t even have to respect them. But he should acknowledge their commitment to their work.