Stuck in a hotel room watching CNN the other day, I happened to catch live coverage of Donald Trump’s short speech about the “First Step Act,” concerning criminal justice reforms. I was bowled over. If I had been reading an unlabeled transcript I might have thought the speaker was Barack Obama.
Imbalances and outright abuses in our criminal justice system are a plague on society. And here was Trump, the law-and-order president, urging passage of legislation to limit mandatory sentences, especially for drug offenses, and advocating new funding for sweeping anti-recidivism programs.
Trump also said this: “Today’s announcement shows that true bipartisanship is possible.” Yes! He’s correct — and that’s big news.
I kept expecting Trump to put his foot in his mouth by shifting to “criminals” in the migrant caravan, or ranting about “crimes” he believes were committed in election recounts. He did not. He was entirely reasonable and on message — albeit with a prepared text — about a vitally important issue.
When it ended, however, I had a sinking feeling. What if mainstream media were to under play, or even ignore, this very positive news? After all, members of Trump’s team, most notably Kellyanne Conway, have stated repeatedly that media dwell on Trump’s problems and fail to give appropriate space to meaningful achievements.
In the hours that followed, CNN devoted almost all of its time to “chaos” in the White House — Trump’s mood, Melania Trump’s effort to get a national security deputy fired, and charges and countercharges about the election results. The First Step Act was barely mentioned.
I was able to check two broadcast networks. On NBC’s “Nightly News,” the story was covered reasonably well about eight minutes in. But the “CBS Evening News” never mentioned the story in its half-hour report. Never mentioned it!
The next morning, the story was practically invisible on the nation’s front pages — with no page-one coverage in The Los Angles Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune or USA Today.
Only The New York Times, among papers I surveyed, stepped up, making the story its lead of the day, atop page one. In an editorial, The Times added, “In this early test, the president is signaling that he indeed wants to make progress on critical issues that enjoy broad support.”
Meanwhile progressive commentator Van Jones told CNN’s Don Lemon: “I say, the 99 times I don’t agree with the president I’m going to give him hell. But on this one, I’ll give him a salute and applause.”
What followed was a Twitter backlash against Jones from liberals who were troubled by praise, any praise, for Trump. Jones replied via Twitter: “There are 200,000 people behind bars. They have no hope, no help. We haven’t passed a bill to help them in almost two generations.”
The president himself has noted that he could work with the new Democratic majority in the House on many issues, from drug prices, to repairing infrastructure and, yes, on criminal justice reform.
Trump’s opponents along with media who cover the White House objectively must walk a fine line. They should criticize him when he deserves it and must hold him accountable for his many misstatements. But they can’t succumb to temporary blindness when the news is positive.
As the second half of Trump’s term begins, reforms are needed in criminal justice — and also in how politicians and media conduct themselves on the rare occasions when good news happens at the White House.