White political journalists distanced themselves from the horrors of the Trump administration in a way many of us couldn’t. The parasitic relationship between a certain class of political journalists and the Trump administration was the worst-kept secret in Washington.
For over four years, previously obscure reporters leveraged their access to a media-hungry White House to land cushy analyst gigs in cable news, six-figure book deals, and public adoration. Above all, however, this class of reporters loved the thrill of being at the heart of the biggest story in generations.
A few weeks into a new administration, people like Yahoo! News national correspondent Alexander Nazaryan are already mourning the departure of the White House’s previous occupant. “I use that word, thrill, with full intention,” Nazaryan writes in a quickly reviled new essay for The Atlantic. “No need to tell me about the cruel immigration policy, the incompetent pandemic response, the racism and bigotry, the frightening chaos.”
It’s great to know some of my colleagues had the option to opt-out of the horror. The essay, originally titled “I Miss the Thrill of Trump” — and since renamed “I Was an Enemy of the People” — is as bad as the headlines suggest. Nazaryan’s ahistorical, narcissistic rewriting of the past several years is a clear reminder that for many, it was easy to embrace the chaos because they were never going to feel the full brunt of the president’s policies.
“I was kind of blocked on something I’m writing, it’s always invigorating to realize someone published something much worse,” tweeted Dave Weigel from the Washington Post. “Would just like to say on behalf of my fellow journalists that most of us do NOT have delusions of grandeur about being war heroes, we literally just ask people questions and sit at laptops all day and go click-clack,” wrote BuzzFeed News’ Julia Reinstein.
Even within the halls of The Atlantic, the piece was mocked. “There were journalists who had to do our jobs over the past five years with a steady hum of dread in the background over what might happen to our loved ones,” staff writer Adam Serwer tweeted in response, “and there were those of us who were just having a good time covering an ‘exciting’ story.”
It was easy to embrace the chaos — because they were never going to feel the full brunt of the president’s policies.
I know that steady hum of dread all too well. I still remember the horror of not being able to contact my family for days after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico nearly four years ago. I couldn’t look away from the images on my TV screen, showing devastation I couldn’t have imagined even in my worst nightmares. I remember calling over and over again in horrified desperation that September and always receiving the same beep-beep-beep followed by “Lo sentimos, la persona que usted está llamando no está disponible.” “The person you’re calling is not available”—as if my loved ones had just chosen to turn off their phones for the night.
My family spent one month without clean water and three months without power after the storm. They were among the lucky ones. More than 3,000 people died — including one of my dad’s friends. I had to witness the administration actively dehumanize Puerto Ricans and block efforts to help the island. President Donald Trump denied the reality that more people had died after Maria and his incompetent response to the disaster than people had been killed during the September 11 terrorist attacks.
So, no, as a journalist I didn’t find any of the past several years thrilling.
The funny part is that admitting this publicly will likely be taken as “biased” by many in the media, while Nazaryan’s comments won’t be. Whereas I believe bringing my full self to my work makes me a better, fairer journalist, others see it as a detriment to our profession. In our overwhelmingly white industry, however, this standard is seldomly applied to those who do not belong to marginalized communities. The lens of journalism has never been objective. In our world, neutrality has always been synonymous with white, often male and privileged.
There needs to be so much soul-searching in this damn industry, and essays like Nazaryan’s remind me that no matter how many media reckonings take place, we still have a ways to go. For so many of my colleagues, the status quo is fine, making everything a spectacle is fine, failing our communities is fine. That was true more than 50 years ago when the Kerner Report came out as much as it’s true today.
There’s something that I do appreciate about Nazaryan’s essay. He said the quiet part out loud. That’s the most Trumpian thing he could have done.