The media are taking a tougher stance against Republican front-runner Donald Trump after his campaign promise to keep Muslims out of the country as a means to stop the terrorist threat of ISIS.
Trump's high poll numbers have survived the fire he has drawn for making inappropriate statements on Mexican immigrants, questioning the heroism of Sen. John McCain as a prisoner of war, and suggesting that Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly was menstruating when she asked him tough questions at the first Republican primary debate.
But the candidate's recent remarks about Muslims in the aftermath of the shooting rampage in San Bernardino and its ties to terrorism by extremists have hit a new level of outrage — with conservative leaders and opinion makers associating Trump's views with fascism.
That, in turn, has put more pressure on the media to hold Trump to account for his remarks.
Typically, the billionaire TV personality is able to bluster his way through morning talk shows. But Trump had an unusually contentious appearance Tuesday morning on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," where co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski grilled him on his proposals to keep Muslims out of the U.S. At one point during the 45-minute exchange, Scarborough even went to a commercial break as Trump was speaking.
"It certainly puts the burden on the people conducting the interviews to be tougher the more controversial his comments are," Scarborough told The Times after the exchange. "When you have [chief foreign correspondent for NBC News] Richard Engel saying Trump's comments hurt America's standing overseas and compromises our fight against ISIS according to the military [intelligence] officials he's spoken with, the burden does go up."
Trump's appearance with Chris Cuomo on CNN's "New Day" was also far more heated than past appearances on the program in which the real estate mogul frequently calls in.
David Westin, former chairman of ABC News who is now a morning anchor for Bloomberg Television, believes viewers may be seeing a shift in which TV journalism will focus more on Trump's policies than his personality.
"This is not an entertainment phenomenon," he said. "This is a serious question of leadership in the country. It's the news media's job to hold all candidates to account."
Trump represents something of a quandary for the media, especially TV networks. Privately, TV news producers acknowledge that Trump has turbocharged their ratings, making him a highly desirable booking. And Trump has taken advantage of his appeal at a time when most candidates are cautiously scripted.
"So much of Trump's success with the media is based on the fact that he grants access in a way that no other candidate has since John McCain in 2000," Scarborough said. "When John McCain was letting members of the press on his Straight Talk Express bus, George W. Bush's campaign and other Republicans always said he got the benefit of the doubt."
Other media outlets, not just TV, have sharpened their coverage of Trump.
The Philadelphia Daily News put a photo of Trump with his arm raised in a "Sieg Heil" salute on its front page with the headline "The New Furor." Michael Days, the editor in chief of the tabloid, said he decided to go with the image after receiving outraged texts throughout the day about Trump's comments.
"I thought, 'Is this the same country that I pledge allegiance to?'" Days said. "While we don't tell readers what to think, I felt like it was our opportunity to say that they better sit up and pay attention. This may be what you want, but this is not a reality show. This gentleman is a real contender to be president of the United States."
The Huffington Post made a similar point earlier in the week. The website had put Trump's campaign in its entertainment section instead of making it part of its political coverage, a statement that it was a sideshow not to be taken seriously. The decision was reversed as Huffington Post founder and editor in chief Arianna Huffington wrote that Trump "aided by the media, has doubled down on the cruelty and know-nothingness that defined his campaign's early days, the 'Can you believe he said that?' novelty has curdled and congealed into something repellent and threatening."
But subjecting Trump's views to deeper media scrutiny and criticism will not necessarily drive down his support.