The best thing that happened to Donald Trump the other week is that BuzzFeed published the raw Russia dossier about him.
It can’t be pleasant for anyone to see his name associated with prostitutes and a bizarre sex act in print - the principle that all publicity is good publicity can be taken too far even for Donald Trump. But in the media’s ongoing fight with Trump, BuzzFeed’s incredible act of journalistic irresponsibility represented the press leading with its chin.
Trump thrives off media hostility, and the more hostile - and the less defensible - the better. It allows him to portray himself as the victim of a stilted establishment. It fires up his supporters. It keeps the debate on terrain that is familiar and favorable to him - whether or not he is being treated "fairly" - and allows him to adopt his preferred posture as a "counterpuncher."
There are legitimate questions raised about how determined Trump has been to ignore evidence of Russia’s hacking operations prior to the election. BuzzFeed unintentionally did more to obscure and delegitimize these questions than Trump Tower could ever hope to. By publishing the uncorroborated dossier, BuzzFeed has associated the Russia issue with fantastical rumors and hearsay.
Its decision to post the document has to be considered another chapter in the ongoing saga of the media and Democrats losing their collective minds. If the election had gone the other way, it is hard to see BuzzFeed publishing a 35-page document containing unverified, lurid allegations about President-elect Hillary Clinton that it didn’t consider credible. This was an anti-Trump decision, pure and simple.
The paradox of the Trump phenomenon is that he may be ripping up sundry political norms, yet he benefits when his opponents and adversaries do the same. When Marco Rubio descended to Trump’s level in the primaries and mocked the size of his hands, it hurt Rubio most. The Democrats have done themselves no favors by implicitly refusing to accept the election results after browbeating Trump for months to accept the results in advance. And if the press is going to lower its standards in response to Trump, it will diminish and discredit itself more than the president.
If journalists genuinely want to be public-spirited checks on Trump, they shouldn’t be more bitterly adversarial, but more responsible and fair. This means taking a deep breath and not treating every Trump tweet as a major news story. It means covering Trump more as a "normal" president rather than as a constant clear and present danger to the republic. It means going out of the way to focus on substance rather than the controversy of the hour. It means a dose of modesty about how the media has lost the public’s trust, in part because of its bias and self-importance.
None of this is a particularly tall order. Yet it’s unlikely to happen, even if it was encouraging that so many reporters opposed BuzzFeed’s decision. The press and Trump will continue to be at war, although only one party to the hostilities truly knows what he is doing, and it shows.