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The Media Is At Risk Under Trump — Now What?


Editor’s note: On June 28, 2018, a man opened fire and killed five people at the offices of the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland.

In a matter of weeks, the most unprepared and openly bigoted president in modern U.S. history will take office. And with so many important rights at risk under Donald Trump (abortion, access to health care, and civil rights, to name only a few), now, perhaps more than ever, we need a Fourth Estate with a spine of steel that is prepared to do whatever it takes to protect the interests of the American people and those abroad who are impacted by U.S. policies. After all, the public interest is supposed to be at the very heart of the media’s mission.

And yet, chillingly, at this time when we need the media most — the media is most at risk.

Trump has bashed the press and repeatedly told his followers that the media is a dishonest bunch of liars whenever they do their job by reporting on his past, his policy plans, or his rhetoric. Trump is in fact the liar, but he has sold his millions of followers on the idea that they can’t believe trustworthy news sources; they can only trust him.

Trump’s anti-media views — which, frighteningly, echo those of his buddy and abetter Vladimir Putin — have manifested as a multi-thronged approach to undermining the press and dismantling its crucial influence.

He has attacked individual reporters — from Jorge Ramos with Univision, who Trump had kicked out of a campaign rally in August of 2015; to the New York Times Serge Kovaleski, whose disability Trump cruelly mocked at another rally in November; to Fox host Megyn Kelly, the target of his infamous “bimbo” and “blood coming out of her wherever” barbs.

More broadly, the president-elect has gone after virtually every major news source that doesn’t generate revenue solely by kissing his ass. He has nicknamed the New York Times the “failing” New York Times, and canceled a meeting with the publication in November before changing his mind and sitting down with key staff. He further called CNN the “Clinton network,” suggesting that any unfavorable coverage of him by the network was simply a bias for his Democratic opponent.

Beyond the reporters listed above and CNN and the New York Times, Trump has made a sport of maligning virtually every popular news source based in the U.S. He’s ripped apart Meet the Press, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and Vanity Fair, among others, and blacklisted several outlets from covering his campaign events in person. Univision, Buzzfeed, Politico, the Huffington Post, the Daily Beast, and the Des Moines Register were all banned by the middle of June this year.

As if all of this weren’t enough cause for concern, the president-elect and his transition team still haven’t formally established a protective “press pool,” a rotating group of reporters that travels with the president and is kept apprised of his schedule, allowing the public relatively wide access to the president via the press. When a press pool has been allowed to travel with Trump, he’s been known to ditch them. This is an alarming breach of protocol, as it cuts the world off from what he’s up to.

And this is to say nothing of Trump’s vows to “open up” libel laws in an effort to legally challenge media outlets that deign to criticize his policies.

This behavior is unlike anything we’ve ever seen from a U.S. president in modern memory, and should scare anyone who has something to lose if a free press and free speech are compromised (note: We should all be uncomfortable with this).

So what now? As a businessman with no experience on any level of government or in the military, Trump is about as prepared for the responsibilities of the Oval Office as a parakeet who has Twitter, which means it’s of the utmost importance that members of the press thoroughly and boldly cover his presidency. But how is anyone supposed to accurately cover (much less investigate) someone who hates them and their profession, and resents and fears their ability to expose him?

If it all sounds hopeless, don’t worry, it’s not. The situation is serious, but it is possible to do good journalism under a president Trump; it’s just not going to be even a little bit easy.

Four experts on the media spoke to The Establishment about where we’ve been with Trump and what needs to be done going forward to protect the integrity of the industry and support the kind of journalists Trump doesn’t want: fearless ones.

Our illustrious panel includes:

Dr. Melissa Zimdars, an assistant professor of communication at Merrimack University, where she teaches radio production, feminist media studies, and new media and digital communication, among other topics. Her list of fake, misleading, and satirical news sources recently went viral.

Anita Kumar, a White House correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers.

Dr. Charlton McIlwain, a professor of Race, Media & Politics in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU Steinhardt, and the author of Race Appeal: How Candidates Invoke Race in U.S. Political Campaigns.

Jennifer Pozner, a media critic, public speaker, and founder and executive director of Women in Media and News. She is also the author of Reality Bites Back.

Trump was hostile toward the media from the outset of his campaign. In the last several weeks, we’ve seen reports of continued tough relations between the press and the president-elect. Should the media or the public be concerned about what kind of access to the president the media will have starting in 2017?

Melissa: The public, including those who work in media and news, should absolutely be concerned about what is happening. News organizations have long played an important watchdog role in terms of reporting on our government and public officials. If a president-elect or president limits access to certain media organizations, perhaps because one is being more critical of their actions, it could result in freedom of speech or freedom of the press being stifled. I worry an editor might think twice about publishing something if it means they will no longer have access to one of the most powerful people in the world.

Anita: Yes, I think the media — and more importantly the public — should be concerned. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump limited media access during the campaign, compared to previous nominees, and I think no matter who won we were going to be worried. For example, neither nominee allowed us to form a protective pool, a break from previous nominees in modern history. The president-elect still has not allowed reporters to travel with him and a couple weeks ago slipped out for dinner after telling us he was in for the night.

Dr. Charlton McIlwain

Charlton: Yes. The media and the public should both be concerned. The media, particularly journalists covering the White House and the president, serve a vital purpose of reporting, interpreting, verifying, and providing context for presidential and administration communications. They mediate public knowledge about politics and public policy. We should be worried about Trump’s penchant to bypass the press because in doing so he also bypasses this critical apparatus that provides, more or less, a sense of shared verifiable facts the public relies on for both information and political debate. Trump’s tendency and perhaps growing propensity to bypass the press by limiting access risks us all further being invited to constantly make political decisions in alternate realities that change from day to day and have no basis in truth, no matter how you define it.

Jennifer: It’s really important to talk about how to do accurate, impactful journalism when you have a person in power who is hostile to the very concept of a free press and who, not only that, is himself a master of manipulating false narratives, and spinning them in his favor. People in the press have been making snide remarks about the “reality TV president,” but people are not talking about what it means that we have a president who was in American living rooms every week for almost a decade, spinning a narrative about himself that presented somebody who has been multiply bankrupt and has stiffed contractors and is known for shoddy business deals as if he were the very model of wealth, success, and business acumen.

People think he’s stupid. He’s not stupid. He is incredibly savvy as a master manipulator of facts and narrative to get people to believe what he wants them to believe, and we can be damn sure he’s going to get people to believe what he wants them to believe about his administration.

It’s going to be extremely important for the media to resist normalizing Trump, a phenomenon that’s already fully in swing. What are the best ways journalists can refuse to normalize Trump in their work for the next four years?

Melissa: I think some of the normalizing we’ve seen is a coping mechanism or wishful thinking that his presidency won’t be as bad as people fear. I think we have to hope that’s the case, but we can’t act as if this is an ordinary situation. The main thing reporters and news organizations can do is continue to be vigilant in drawing distinctions between what he’s doing and who he’s appointing and what has been done in the past. That’s not to say we should look to the past with rose-colored glasses, but rather that we need to acknowledge that he is resisting traditional practices and setting questionable precedents.

Anita Kumar

Anita: I think we just need to do our job. That means we report what the president and his staff say and do, but we factcheck, hold accountable, and provide context to those actions and statements. It’s what we should be doing everyday.

Charlton: I think it is crucial that journalists don’t sacrifice their critical edge for access. I think journalists have to be willing to tenaciously call bullshit at every turn, when warranted. The more gross distortions go unchallenged — even the small ones — we take one step closer to normalizing Trump’s tendency to say that he is the sole arbiter of reality.

Jennifer: It’s important for the press to get used to being repetitive. We need to get very comfortable with saying “fascism,” and we need to get accustomed to saying it often. We have to get accustomed to calling things by their correct terms even if it’s uncomfortable for people in power or for readers. Instead of calling Stephen Bannon “a member of the ‘alt-right,’” we need to call Bannon and this administration “members of hate groups” and “white supremacists.” And we need to do this every time. Not just every once in awhile and not just in the op-ed pages. It is not opinion that some people in Trump’s administration are white supremacists, it’s a fact. And we need to be reporting that fact.

With the recent deluge of fake news — not to mention the widespread distrust of the media among Trump supporters and those who are disillusioned after the press failed to accurately predict the election — how can the press rebuild trust with the public?

Melissa: The press can start rebuilding trust with the public by examining many of its own practices, and acknowledging that those practices are contributing to the fake and misleading news problem. A recent story reported on by dozens of news outlets turned out to be a hoax based on a tweet. The story was that CNN accidentally aired porn instead of their regular programming. After one outlet reported on this, clearly without really digging into the claim (or contacting CNN!), it spread among media and news websites with no one really “hitting pause” and figuring out the veracity of the story until it was already spreading.

Equally as troubling as this kind of reporting of news like a game of telephone is the fact that when articles were updated to reflect changing information, Facebook descriptions and share attachments weren’t necessarily updated. For example, Vulture’s social media post about the story had the Facebook description “Shocking viewers who’d forgotten people watch porn on their TVs” with the headline “Boston CNN Channel Airs Porn Instead of Anthony Bourdain.” But when you click the article, the headline is totally different, as is the content of the story because it was updated several hours earlier.

Why wouldn’t they also update the now totally misleading social media post? I imagine it’s because such an update would probably generate less clickthroughs, but this is precisely the stuff that feeds distrust with the public.

Jennifer Pozner

Jennifer: That’s a complicated question now, after 30 or more years of right-wing organizing and financial investment in creating the myth of the liberal media, intentionally eroding trust on the part of the American people toward media outlets. Then at the same time we will have a president who tweets like a drunk 16-year-old about how the press is corrupt, and his rabid followers believe him.

Corporate journalism outlets have tried to twist themselves into pretzels to get the American public to believe they’re trustworthy when in the meantime, these same institutions have chosen profit over truth, accuracy, and standing up for the little guy. It’s difficult to imagine these corporate news outlets are suddenly going to grow a backbone under arguably the most anti-free speech, anti-media, anti-journalist president in modern times. But in order to protect the last gasps of American democracy, they have to grow that backbone.

Do you feel there’s a renewed importance for investigative journalism in the coming years under Trump?

Melissa: Definitely! My hope is that our current spotlight on fake news, misleading news, and traditional news will encourage and improve sustained and investigative coverage. I think the contemporary moment, which is one of distrust, also demonstrates the importance of alternative and nonprofit news organizations in reaching people. They can be an important place for breaking news and the debate of complex ideas, as well as for digging in deeper to the work of mainstream journalism, but we all need to be more careful with how news and information changes as it moves between these entities via secondary reporting.

Anita: I think there’s a renewed importance in accountability journalism, holding Trump and those in his administration responsible for what they say and do. I always think that’s important, but I think it’s even more so now.

Charlton: Investigative journalism is critical now more than ever. Trump and those he’s chosen to lead his administration have demonstrated they have little to gain by maximizing transparency. Investigative journalists must fill that gap. Investigative journalism may be our best hope — along with activists — for uncovering the implications and harms that will likely follow from the kinds of policies Trump and his administration are set to champion. Investigative journalism is one of our best checks on power and it has waned considerably in recent years. If we let it continue, we risk tyranny’s triumph.

Jennifer: Investigative journalism has always been extremely important. It’s why journalism is the only industry enshrined in the constitution. However, there’s been mass divestment on the part of corporate media from investigative journalism. So people who are still doing investigative journalism need to be equipped with the resources that they need to stand up to and fight the corruption, much of which will be hidden, of this administration. There needs to be more fellowships, grants, and foundations endowing independent news outlets and reporters with proven track records. There needs to be more news companies willing to take risks in what they will spend money on over the long term.

Investigative reporting isn’t going to give you clickbait, but do you want to live in a country that’s free or not? This might be our last stand.

How can the press try to bridge the readership gap between those who critically engage with a variety of news sources, and those who primarily read inside a biased and inflammatory echo chamber (on the left and right)?

Dr. Melissa Zimdars

Melissa: This is the perennial question among researchers, but I think we need to think more critically about what we mean by “echo chamber.” A lot of us seek out information that we may already agree with, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t exposed to a variety of viewpoints and political orientations during our daily lives. While filter bubbles are definitely a thing, as is the phenomenon of Red Facebook and Blue Facebook, a lot of people exist in a purple area and see content from across the political spectrum in their Facebook feeds. Ultimately, it’s not just up to the media to bridge this gap, although they can by rebuilding trust, it’s up to people exposing themselves to as many sources of information as possible. No one should only read Breitbart just as no one should only read The New York Times.

Anita: I wish that I knew the answer to this. I think an independent media that offers both sides of the story is more important than ever and yet I worry fewer and fewer people have any desire to look beyond their like-minded information sources. All we can do is keep doing what we do and do it well — inform, explain, and hold politicians accountable and hope for the best.

Charlton: I’m not optimistic that the media can do anything to bridge this gap. Perhaps it can, but years of evidence suggests that it may not only be not possible, but may not be desirable for media outlets. There’s lots to be gained financially from echo chambers where one does not have to compete with a wider array of news outlets with varying levels of credibility. Niche markets, even in media, are potentially profitable, and the sound of one’s own voice, bouncing off of every mirror, can be quite seductive.

Jennifer: We have a society that has been trained by Fox News and a poor educational environment (thanks to George W. Bush’s education policies) to be drawn away from critical thinking. Within this climate, we are faced with a conservative community that has decided facts don’t matter and that says wrong opinions are just as valid as facts. If as an industry we’re going to wrestle with how to bridge that divide, maybe we need multiple outlets writing service pieces about how news stories get reported and who our sources are.

We also need to be much better about eliminating false equivalencies. We can’t do a story that is 90% sources from the Trump administration and corporate America and 10% sources who say “they’re wrong,” and consider that a balance. Are we quoting sources from the public interest, or just government and corporate interests?