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Media veers from normalizing Trump

Media veers from normalizing Trump

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Although it drew little notice, Richard Engel's report from northern Syria on Sunday's "Meet the Press" struck me as stunning.

"While this is happening," the NBC chief foreign correspondent told viewers, speaking about the temporary Turkish cease-fire, "there is ethnic cleansing underway."

He acknowledged that "that is a very, very big word," but based on his reporting about the Kurds under siege, there was just no other way to say it.

And although the Engel moment was notable in its forthrightness - simply stating the facts without hedging - it wasn't the only one of its kind in recent days.

The mainstream media seems to have quietly removed its Trump-normalizing gloves in the past few weeks.

The New York Times' veteran correspondent, Peter Baker - no hothead - wrote a "White House Memo" that appeared on Saturday's print front page.

It wasn't cluttered with "critics say this" but "Trump loyalists say that."

Rather, it included straightforward, though damning, observations and facts regarding the state of Trump world on the 1,001st day of the president's tenure when "all pretense of normalcy went out the window."

"It was a day when he boasted of saving 'millions of lives' by temporarily stopping a Middle East war that he effectively allowed to start in the first place, then compared the combatants to children who had to be allowed to slug each other to get it out of their system.

"It was a day when he announced without any evident embarrassment that officials of the federal government that answers to him had scoured the country for a site for next year's Group of 7 summit meeting and determined that the perfect location, the very best site in all the United States, just happened to be a property he owned in Florida."

And Baker went on to describe acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney's walk-back of his admission that there had been a quid pro quo between Trump and the Ukraine's head of state, and the insults thrown out at his Texas rally.

"I do think a corner has been turned in the way he's being covered," Nate Silver, editor in chief of, the data-driven news organization, told me in a phone interview Monday.

"There's just a degree of directness in the way things are being stated that feels new."

Trump himself seems to think so - and to find it vexing to no longer be able to control the narrative.

"The President is increasingly frustrated with what he sees as his inability to communicate on impeachment," Dana Bash, a political correspondent for CNN tweeted, citing her reporting.

Although it may seem arbitrary, I date the beginnings of this change to a Sept. 1 Washington Post report by White House reporters Philip Rucker and Ashley Parker that drew the ire of the White House.

It described Trump's "lost summer," one "defined by self-inflicted controversies and squandered opportunities."

They reviewed events:

"Trump leveled racist attacks against four congresswomen of color dubbed 'the Squad.' He derided the majority-black city of Baltimore as 'rat and rodent infested.' His anti-immigrant rhetoric was echoed in a missive that authorities believe a mass shooting suspect posted. His visits to Dayton, Ohio and El Paso after the gun massacres in those cities served to divide rather than heal."

This kind of reporting has coincided with - or perhaps helped to spawn - a change on the Sunday morning network political shows.

Moderators are pushing back harder against administration officials - whose very presence on the shows has become far scarcer.

"Trump's allies on TV are having trouble relying on reality to defend him," was the headline on a blow-by-blow of one October Sunday's efforts by The Post's Philip Bump.

This past weekend, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was struck awkwardly speechless under persistent questioning from ABC News' George Stephanopoulos, talking about Mulvaney's admission of a quid pro quo, as Trump held up military aid to Ukraine as he asked for dirt on his political opponents.

Pompeo tried to bill it as hypothetical - an "if it happened" situation - but as Stephanopoulos noted, "The chief of staff said it did."

Peter Wade of Rolling Stone described Pompeo's on-air reaction: "One could imagine the memes starting to multiply that would include the intro of Simon and Garfunkel's 'Sounds of Silence' playing in the background as Pompeo went quiet for a prolonged period of time."

Why is this happening now? I'll offer some possibilities.

One is that Trump has finally crossed a line, particularly - though not solely - with his recklessness in acquiescing to a Turkish invasion of northern Syria, thus abandoning America's Kurdish allies.

"The Fifth Avenue Murder Theory now faces its toughest test," wrote my Post colleague E.J. Dionne in a weekend column, recalling Trump's bragging in 2016 that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and not lose any voters. He cites as a crack in the foundation that more than two-thirds of Republican House members joined with every Democrat in criticizing Trump's Syria move.

The other possibility is that public support for the House's impeachment inquiry may have stiffened the press's spine. A slim majority of Americans, according to recent research from Gallup, support not only impeachment but also removing Trump from office.

Silver suggests a different dynamic.

"The myth of Trump as a brilliant tactician has been punctured," he said - initially by the results of the midterm elections and then by the increasingly-hard-to-defend decisions and events that have followed, which have caused even stalwart Republican loyalists to criticize him, even if only anonymously and behind the scenes.

The problem of how to cover Trump effectively - that is, in the best interests of citizens - has plagued the mainstream press since the beginning of his candidacy.

Too often, he has defined the terms. Too often, journalists have agreed to them as if there were no other choice.

If that's changing now, as I think it is, a question hangs in the fetid air.

Has too much damage already been done?


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