Almost everyone I know complains of Trump fatigue in some degree or another. An under-covered story of Trump’s first hundred days in office has to do with the differential coverage of his presidency in the four national newspapers I read, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, in particular. (I don’t see USA Today.)
The question bubbled just below the surface last week. In "Living in the Trump Zone,'' columnist Paul Krugman, in the NYT Friday, issued “a plea to my colleagues in the news media: Don’t pretend this is normal.” The same day, columnist Peggy Noonan, of the WSJ, wrote that "Trump Has Been Lucky in His Enemies''. that while “Mr. Trump has struggled so colorfully in the past three months, we’ve barely noticed his great good luck – that in that time the Democratic Party and the progressive left have been having a very public nervous breakdown.” Noonan studiously didn’t mention it, but among of the enemies she presumably thinks Trump has been so fortunate to acquire, none has been more relentless than the NYT, with The Washington Post not far behind.
The Times Saturday published an inside page listing 99 front-page headlines from Trump’s first hundred days; the hundredth story presumably is to appear today. It was a judicious selection; Omitted were countless other Trump news stories that have appeared in the paper, including some written mainly to hold him up to ridicule. But the editors’ sense of play stands up. It would be interesting to see a comparable selection of WSJ page one stories over the same hundred days. The NYT editorial pages have often gone overboard, of course; that’s what editorial pages have learned to do since 1972, when Robert Bartley took the reins at the WSJ after Vermont Royster’s 20-year term on “the Page.” The president can count on receiving two or three solid knocks from the Times’s editorial and op-ed pages on normal day, most of them well-placed.
The WSJ, on the other hand, has treated the Trump presidency in a decidedly low-key way, pretty much business as usual, which would be relaxing, if you didn’t notice the lengths to which they have gone to make its first three months appear normal. Exhibit A was a front-page story in March headlined “Steve Bannon and the Making of an Economic Nationalist.” This credulous as-told-to story by reporter Michael Bender related that Bannon’s views were galvanized when his 88-year-old father, a Bell Telephone retiree, sold his treasured shares of AT&T into the panic of 2008. It’s long been known that Bannon’s view were well established many years before.
Mind you, this is not the once-familiar difference between the WSJ’s famously fair-minded news pages and its over-the-top editorial pages. Now it’s the news pages that are shading right. The editorial pages are having a meltdown. During the campaign their enthusiasm seemed about evenly distributed among Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Trump. Since the election the editorialists have regularly reminded readers of their traditional support of trade and immigration, but their real passion continues to be for tax cuts, and never mind the deficit. Kimberly Strassel wrote Friday, “Here’s how to know a Republican president has scored big on a proposed tax reform: Read The New York Times – and chuckle.” Trump’s “big swashbuckling vision for enacting pro-growth principles” was his “finest moment (so far).” Meanwhile, the NYT took advantage of the extreme disarray to hire Bret Stephens, the WSJ’s star op-ed columnist, who increasingly strenuously opposed the Trump candidacy throughout the campaign. Stephens had been a leading candidate to succeed editorial page editor Paul Gigot; instead he has made his debut in the Times. Holman Jenkins Jr. stepped up to the plate in the Journal.
In general, the WSJ stance seems to be a tendency to reserve judgment as much as possible, on the theory that Trump is worth a try. “[T]he more important period [of his presidency] starts on day 101,” its editorialists wrote Saturday. “The next 200 or 300 days will determine whether Mr. Trump is a successful president or a Republican Jimmy Carter.” Noonan put a finer point on the matter when she wrote:
"If this thing works—if the Trump administration is judged by history as having enjoyed some degree of success—it will definitively open up the U.S. political system in a wholly new way. Before Mr. Trump it was generally agreed you had to be a professional politician or a general to win the presidency. Mr. Trump changed that. If he succeeds in office it will stay changed. Candidates for president will be able to be . . . anything. You can be a great historian or a Nobel Prize-winning scientist. You can be a Silicon Valley billionaire. You can be Oprah, The Rock, or Kellyanne. The system will attract a lot of fresh, needed, surprising talent, and also a lot of nuts and poseurs. But again, only if Mr. Trump succeeds. If he doesn’t, if he’s a spectacular failure, America will probably never go outside the system like this again, or not in our lifetimes.''
Meanwhile, The Washington Post is in the hands of a master campaigner, executive editor Martin Baron. Evidence of his rhetorical skills can be seen in reporter David Fahrenthold’s Pulitzer Prize-winning articles on the loose practices of Trump’s Foundation. I don’t see the WPost’s newsprint edition, so I am unable to guage the cumulative power of its coverage of the administration, but to judge from the Web site, the WPost, like the NYT, regards the Trump administration as anything but normal. Its scrutiny has been no less penetrating for being more tightly focused.
The same can be said for the fourth paper I read, the Financial Times, which, as usual, floats lightly above the fray, analyzing it except when it has got something distinctive to add. It was the FT that reported that, after the election, before the inauguration, Rupert Murdoch’s ex-wife Wendi Deng had persuaded First Daughter Ivanka Trump to become a trustee of a nearly $300 million fortune Murdoch set aside for their two children. That was not long after Deng was reported to have been dining with, first, Tony Blair, then Vladimir Putin. Demetri Stevastopulo, the FT’s Washington bureau chief, wrote Saturday,
Since the inauguration, Washington has become obsessed with parlor games that try to predict the next plot twist to emerge from Trump’s White House… At the moment, neither the political surprises nor the palace intrigue show any signs of settling down.…
It seems so to me as well. Look for the very instructive war between the NYT and the WSJ to continue. I once worked for the Journal, but, or the most part, I’m with the Times on this one.
David Warsh, a veteran financial, media and political journalist, is proprietor of economic principals.com, where this piece first appeared.