It hasn’t been a great few days for Donald Trump. And it doesn’t seem to matter.
The media refs are really savaging him after a couple of misstatements and missteps, even as they struggle to understand why he pays no penalty when they blow the whistle. What they don’t quite grasp is that their attacks only make him stronger.
This is not to let him off the hook for mistakes, just to recognize that Trump has completely rewritten the rule book, infuriating those who thought they enforced the rules. What’s more, some of the media attacks against the Republican front-runner are so virulent that they overshoot the mark, and possibly even backfire.
We have the New York Times editorial page accusing him of “racist lies.”
We have the Washington Post editorial page calling him a demagogue running a campaign of “growing ugliness” and declaring: “The only way to beat a bully is to stand up to him.”
And it’s hard to imagine the Post running this column headline about almost anyone else: “Donald Trump’s Rally Carries Echo of Hitler’s Rise to Power.”
A Trump adviser tells me that the mainstream media, Republican elite and Washington establishment—lumping them all together—will do anything they can to take down his boss. And the people who like Trump, in this adviser’s view, instinctively believe the media don’t treat people fairly.
Trump isn’t exactly meticulous when it comes to fact-checking. No one has been able to confirm his recollection that he saw, on television, thousands of people in New Jersey cheering when the twin towers came down. But after the Washington Post’s fact-checker gave Trump’s claim four Pinnochios, he found a small measure of vindication in a 2001article in that very paper that said: “Law enforcement authorities detained and questioned a number of people who were allegedly seen celebrating the attacks and holding tailgate-style parties on rooftops while they watched the devastation on the other side of the river.” A “number of people” is not thousands, but Trump proudly quoted the piece at a rally.
The mainstream media, as Trump’s camp sees it, don't want to report that some people across the country were happy about the devastation of 9/11.
Trump also stumbled by retweeting some racial murder statistics that turned out to be bogus and wildly inaccurate. When Bill O’Reilly chided him for that, Trump said, “Am I going to check every statistic?”
The press has finally learned, after repeatedly being burned, not to seize upon controversial or questionable comments to predict Trump’s demise. So there is an anguished search for larger explanations: His supporters don’t care if he tells the truth, he symbolizes the modern-day GOP, and on and on.
This comes from all sides, with conservative commentators who fear he’s hijacked the party even harsher on Trump than liberal ones.
But here’s the thing: Trump projects strength, and part of that is not backing down, even when it’s obvious he has misspoken. In the wake of the Paris attacks, he’s going up in the polls, while Ben Carson is slipping. Trump leads nationally. He leads in Iowa, even with Ted Cruz surging. He has a huge lead in New Hampshire. A big lead in South Carolina. A huge lead in Florida. And that is driving the pundits crazy.
So let’s look at this latest media wave. Here’s that New York Times editorial: “America has just lived through another presidential campaign week dominated by Donald Trump’s racist lies…
“Mr. Trump has distinguished himself as fastest to dive to the bottom. If it’s a lie too vile to utter aloud, count on Mr. Trump to say it, often. It wins him airtime, and retweets through the roof.”
And here’s a NYT news story: “No one ever expected Mr. Trump to turn himself into the issues expert of the Republican presidential field. Yet the verbal shortcuts and salesmanlike stretches that he has relied on for months — generalities used to dodge questions, and questionable recollections — are tripping him up as the tenor of the campaign has grown more serious.”
Salon blames the press for letting Trump get away with untrue statements:
“The mainstream political media has such a pathological dedication to the notion of balance and ‘objectivity’ that it often finds itself at a complete loss when it comes to dealing with someone like Trump. But the kind of filth that he and others are putting out has long since moved past the debatable stage. There is an Islamophobic crisis building in this country.”
It’s not hard to imagine Washington Post columnist Chris Cillizza wringing his hands as he writes:
“In elections and campaigns past, there would have been a price to pay for The Donald's complete flouting of fact. It would have hurt him politically to just say things that aren't true.”
The reason, he says, is that “trust in the media — in both parties but especially among conservatives who comprise Trump's base — is at an all-time low. So, anything that a member of the media calls a ‘fact’ is inherently viewed as fishy (at best) by the people backing Trump. The media lies, we all know that, so why wouldn't they lie about this, too? All the mainstream media cares about is serving as the political correctness police, so if this did happen then of course they would work to cover it up, right?”
I think Cillizza nails it. And those of us in the media have no one to blame but ourselves. Donald Trump didn’t cause our slide in credibility, even as he feasts off it. And we’ll still be working on earning back trust long after this campaign has faded into history.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.