How the Press Spins a Partisan Act of Obama Holdovers

A set of resignations two days ago is being portrayed by the press as another indictment of the Trump administration. But instead it reveals the interest of Obama holdovers in making the President look bad. Even worse, it shows that while the press (rightly) prides itself on holding the Trump administration to account, it does not make even the most modest attempts to the same with his opponents, preferring instead a relentless narrative about the nefariousness and incompetence of the administration.

The Washington Post broke the story that ten of the twelve members of National Park System Advisory Board reigned. It duly publicized the reasons the letter gave — that the Secretary of Interior had not met with them and that they were concerned for the National Parks. The story put their resignations in the context of a concerted effort of the administration to “marginalize advisory boards.” The New York Times wrote a somewhat similar story.

Left completely out of the narrative were some inconvenient facts: All the members of the committee were Obama holdover appointees. And nine of those who resigned either were former Democratic politicians, former appointees of federal or state Democratic politicians, or exclusive (at least recently) political contributors to the Democratic party. (It was impossible to determine the political affiliation of the tenth). This is a more partisan lineup than independent agencies which have far more balanced representation of officials.  And the term of everyone but one was due to expire anyway in four months.

The newspapers thus did not offer the reader the necessary context to come up with the obvious counter-narrative to what those who resigned portrayed as a public spirited act of conscience — that this was instead a Parthian shot by Obama holdovers in the waning days of their tenure to embarrass the administration.

And the failure to give this obvious context was either inattention on the part of these reporters or a desire to build the usual anti-Trump narrative. Their date of appointments and termination were on the National Park System Advisory Board website. It took me less than a half hour to determine the contributions and affiliations of all the members.

I confess that the action of the advisory committee members particularly irritates me because I remember being in a somewhat similar position at the beginning of the Obama administration. I was chair of an official committee at the Labor Department advising on NAFTA, having been appointed by the administration of George W. Bush. Not surprisingly, the Obama administration never consulted me: as my article in the Harvard Law Review shows, I was a known opponent of expanding the role of environmental and labor standards in trade agreements. In short, my views on trade were as different from the Obama administration’s as those on the National Park System Advisory Board were different from those of the Trump administration. But I never considered resigning in protest before I was replaced. That would have been an act of churlishness and showed a lack of respect for the transition of power in a Democratic system. And of course the mainstream media would not have reported on it anyway.