National media have failed its first real test in the age of Trump.
After months of post-election chest thumping about how they could not be cowed by the powerful, reporters have reacted with a mix of yawns and giggles after the State of California announced it would pursue criminal charges against two activists who went undercover and investigated Planned Parenthood's practice of salvaging and distributing body parts scrounged from the remains of aborted fetuses.
One can argue (unconvincingly) that the activists are not realjournalists. One cannot argue, however, that their methods are significantly different from the type that credentialed reporters have used for decades in hidden-camera investigations.
Those methods are now under attack by the state, and the same people who have preached daily for the last few months about the sanctity of the free press don't seem to care at all.
State Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who accepted multiple donations from Planned Parenthood during his more than 20 years in Congress, announced Tuesday evening that activists David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt would face a total of a 15 felony charges.
Daleiden's team, the Center for Medical Progress, made headlines in 2015 when it released several hours of surreptitiously recorded videos showing Planned Parenthood executives discussing compensation for packaging and delivering salvaged fetal tissue.
The CMP posed as a legitimate healthcare group and organized several meetings with Planned Parenthood employees in California to discuss pricing and availability. The undercover tapes, which were filmed without the knowledge of Planned Parenthood staffers, were released in batches.
The pro-life group has been accused repeatedly of "selectively editing" its tapes, though not a single one of the reporters who has repeated this charge, which originated with Planned Parenthood, has been able to say if they watched all of the unedited footage. CMP's complete and unedited tapes have been available online from the get-out. To this day, no one can say what necessary and exonerating context was omitted from the videos.
CMP may have indeed broken the state's two-party consent law, but there's still a big question about prosecutorial discretion and whether the charges are politically motivated. (Remember: The state didn't pursue similar charges in the very similar Donald Sterling case, nor have they been filed in other cases, such as hidden-camera investigations of factory farms.)
Like Becerra, Harris has also accepted cash from Planned Parenthood, including a $2,600 campaign donation in 2016.
She also received a total of $39,855 in 2016 from the abortion policy and pro-abortion rights lobby, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Further, Harris' office appears to have colluded in 2016 with Beth Parker, chief legal counsel for Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, over the drafting of a bill that amended the state's penal code to make it illegal to publish, "the contents of a confidential communication with a health care provider."
The bill was a direct response to Daleiden's videos. California Gov. Jerry Brown signed it into law in September 2016.
The press' apparent lack of interest in these details is nothing short of astounding.
Here's a story about a State Attorney with financial ties to Planned Parenthood moving against two pro-life activists who are now on the wrong side of a state law Planned Parenthood apparently workshopped with the previous State Attorney, who also received cash from Planned Parenthood.
That's enough material for at least two front-page stories.
It has conflicts of interest, shady emails and, unlike nearly every Trump-is-dangerous-for-the-press trend story, it is a concrete example of the state moving to squash individuals from shining a light on a powerful, well-subsidized institution's clearly controversial practices.
Amazingly enough, many of the same reporters who've paraded around with self-righteous tirades about the sacredness of the Fourth Estate don't seem all that interested in the CMP charges. There have been no newspaper editorials calling for an investigation of California's Department of Justice. There have been no calls for Becerra to recuse himself. There have been no hashtag campaigns. There have been no calls to action from stony-faced cable and network television hosts.
This blasé response stands in sharp contrast to media's continued hypersensitivity to the Trump administration's handling of the press.
Reporters circled the wagons this week, for example, after White House press secretary Sean Spicer told American Urban Radio Networks' April Ryan to stop shaking her head during a press briefing.
Before that, media swarmed in defense of MSNBC's Katy Tur and NBC's Megyn Kelly after Trump disparaged each by name during the 2016 election. Kelly, whose past reporting credits include dubious stories on the New Black Panthers and the so-called Knockout Game, was rewarded with glowing profiles in mainstream publications before jumping the Fox News ship for a show that has yet to find a start date. Tur, who is admittedly new to political reporting, was rewarded with the lead spot on a temporary MSNBC program chronicling the first 100 days of the Trump administration.
Several newsrooms, including Time magazine, People, Vanity Fair, the New Yorker and Bloomberg, also announced this year they would not host events for the annual White House Correspondent's Dinner. The decision for several of these groups came after Trump published a tweet calling the New York Times, NBC, ABC, CBS News and CNN the "enemy of the people."
Reporters were likewise fit to be tied when Trump and Spicer broke tradition this year by calling first on smaller, friendlier media groups during the administration's first press conferences. Legacy newsrooms, including the Associated Press and Reuters, normally get the first questions.
Since the election, there has been a non-stop deluge of angry, anti-Trump tweets from Journalist Twitter. There have been no shortage of angry op-eds denouncing Trump's supposed attacks on free speech. There have been editorials in the nation's most famous newspapers calling for readers to stand guard against the president's supposed war against the First Amendment.
There has been sermonizing on cable news television, and there has been a steady supply of angry commentary from the entertainment wing of media.
The press' "I am Spartacus!" response to Trump's rhetoric seems less brave when you notice it comes from the same people who are shrugging at California's threats to investigative journalists and their trade.
The California charges may come in response to a group that most in media don't consider real journalists, but there is no journalism license. If a credentialed reporter crosses the wrong person, this could happen to them in California, and perhaps elsewhere in the near future. Precedent is a dangerous thing.
In case you were wondering whether media's constant post-election praise for media has been more about advancing the brand and padding bottom lines than about defending the industry and the First Amendment, this should tell you the answer.
In the few short months since Trump's Nov. 8 victory, journalists have grown excessively fond of complementing each other on their supposed bravery. They rush to make very public shows of solidarity whenever the White House says something crummy about a certain newsroom or reporter.
Being the target of White House criticism doesn't make a reporter brave. Writing scathing takedowns and crafting the perfect response to a Trump tweet are also poor substitutes for actual courage. There's nothing gutsy about staking out a popular position, especially when your own industry overwhelmingly agrees with you.
What's brave is standing by one's stated principles, even if it means defending a group or individual that one dislikes personally. There were a few in media, including the Week's Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry andMother Jones' Kevin Drum, who warned California's actions against CMP set a bad precedent. These voices were in the minority.
The great majority of journalists and pundits who've warned for months that Trump would try to muzzle the press have been totally indifferent to, if not a little pleased by, the California charges story. Media were presented this week with an honest-to-God example of the state working to punish the type of investigative methods reporters have used for decades, and it shrugged.
It was the press' first big test in the age of Trump, and it failed miserably.