I’ll have more about Trump’s attack on birthright citizenship and its implications for American constitutionalism later. But in the meantime, it also contains an illustration of amoral access journalism at its absolute worst:
This sort of journalism is among the most obsequious — perhaps tied with tech coverage, at times — but the new video clip debuted today by Axios may be the ne plus ultra of media toadying. Axios has become a political media sensation in a very short amount of time, excelling at both cranking out access-based White House scoops and servility, like some sort of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue-based Roomba.
Today’s video interview snippet, plucked from the upcoming Axios show on HBO, put the website’s bright star Jonathan Swan in a chair across from Trump. Prompted by Swan, Trump announced an innovative plan to bar nonwhite infants from attaining U.S. citizenship. It was, in Swan’s words, an “exciting” moment to behold:
“Excited to share” is usually how one begins a sentence about a pregnancy or a promotion, not the revelation of a plot to deny citizenship to newborns. The families affected by this attempt to subvert the 14th Amendment might have other words for the announcement, but not Swan, who took the news (and his ability to report it first) as a big, shiny win — merely another dose of stellar exclusive digital content to be consumed, a brilliant bit of multimedia cross-promotion.
The video itself, however, is somehow even worse than the tweet. We see firsthand just how pumped up Swan is to discuss Trump’s long-term ethnic exclusion strategies with the big man himself. At one point, Swan cajoles him into explaining just how Trump might actually execute this unilateral change to the Constitution, prompting Trump to speculate that he might use an executive order. “Exactly!” exclaims Swan, so amped up that he is literally unable to stay in his seat. Palpably thrilled, Swan points an eager finger at the president. “Tell me more!” he says next, all too cheerily, as if he’s conducting a Q&A with The Avengers at Comic-Con — and not being given the opportunity to interrogate the president of the United States. Swan is literally grinning throughout: The feeling that a high-five is imminent is hard to shake off.
As Libby Watson puts it perfectly, “Jonathan Swan would push you under a bus to get an exclusive on how you died.”
I’m sure Swan would defend this is just politically neutral excitement over a scoop, but that’s bullshit, even if you overlook the fact that Swan egged Trump on to push his racist and illegal policy proposal rather than revealing a story (which you really shouldn’t!). What stories you choose to treat as exciting scoops is itself a political choice. Swan wouldn’t get all giddy about creating and then reporting a story that involved his fundamental rights being put under attack. As I’ve said before, if the typical elite journalist or editor was at risk of losing their access to healthcare the 2016 election would have been covered very differently.
And remember what Swan’s boss considers to be objective, apolitical truth:
Politico editors Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen today have published what may be the most revealing piece I have ever read about the Washington power elite. The value of the piece is almost entirely anthropological. That is to say, read at face value, it tells the reader almost nothing new. But examined as a cultural specimen, it offers profound insight. The piece reads as if it were written by Upton Sinclair, if he were taken prisoner and trying to smuggle messages out to the world past a particularly literal-minded group of censors.
The subject of the piece is Allen and VandeHei’s report that broad agreement exists on the correct policy agenda, as revealed to them through “conversations we have had over the past three months with top lawmakers, officials, their senior aides and the CEOs who advise and lobby all of them.” The story proceeds to describe the obviously sensible agenda agreed upon by these sources: It is vital to reduce the deficit through tax reform and stingier entitlements, along with more free trade, resource extraction, and liberalized immigration.
Although we can waive that last one if it allows us to win the morning!