How should journalism function in the age of Trump?


Our nation’s media are in uncharted territory with President-elect Donald Trump, and they know it. What is the best path forward for them to do their jobs?

Media have taken some much-deserved criticism for their failings in covering the election. But a few seasoned journalists are offering some advice, and it seems like some in the media are starting to wise up.

Marty Baron, the executive editor of The Washington Post, recently received the Hitchens Prize, honoring the memory and legacy of the late Vanity Fair contributing editor and columnist Christopher Hitchens. The award goes to a “journalist or author whose work reflects a commitment to free expression, a depth of intellect, and an unwavering pursuit of the truth.”

Baron, you might remember, served as editor of The Boston Globe when it exposed the priest sex scandals in the Catholic Church’s Boston archdiocese. His low-key character was played by Liev Schreiber in the film Spotlight, which won the Academy Award for best picture as well as a slew of other awards.

A story in Vanity Fair describing the award and why Baron was chosen said the Post editor “shared certain attributes with the prolific contrarian and polemicist Hitchens, who died in December 2011, most notably a shared respect for the truth and for the media’s duty to hold government to account.” Baron said Trump’s “frequent denigration of the press was probably a taste of things to come and that the media in general now faces an enormous challenge.”

At the dinner where Baron received the award, he shared some thoughts on how to move forward, as have other media notables.

Baron told his audience that he knows the profession is facing a new kind of challenge.

Values are what matter most. And this is a good time to talk about them. A good time to reaffirm what we as journalists stand for.

This is a time we are compelled to fight for free expression and a free press—rights granted us under the Constitution, yes, but also the very qualities that have long set us apart from other nations.

We will have a new president soon. He was elected after waging an outright assault on the press. Animosity toward the media was a centerpiece of his campaign. He described the press as “disgusting,” “scum,” “lowlifes.” He called journalists the “lowest form of humanity.” That apparently wasn’t enough. So he called us “the lowest form of life.” In the final weeks of the campaign he labeled us “the enemies.”

As always, Trump was never the master of subtlety.

Baron talked about the real dangers faced by his reporters.

It is no wonder that some members of our staff at The Washington Post and at other news organizations received vile insults and threats of personal harm so worrisome that extra security was required. It is no wonder that one Internet venue known for hate and misogyny and white nationalism posted the home addresses of media executives, clearly inviting vandalism or worse. Thankfully, nothing that I know of happened to anyone. Then there was the yearlong anti-Semitic targeting of journalists on Twitter.

Donald Trump said he wanted to “open up” libel laws. And he proposed to harass unfriendly media outlets by suing them, driving up their legal expenses with a goal of weakening them financially.

Despite all of that, Baron said he still saw a path forward.

Many journalists wonder with considerable weariness what it is going to be like for us during the next four—perhaps eight—years. Will we be incessantly harassed and vilified? Will the new administration seize on opportunities to try intimidating us? Will we face obstruction at every turn?

If so, what do we do?

The answer, I believe, is pretty simple. Just do our job. Do it as it’s supposed to be done.

Jack Shafer, senior media writer for Politico and a longtime media critic, offers seven points on how to cover Trump, with some pretty specific and useful tips. “There has never been a president like Trump before, and the usual press reflexes won’t produce copy that allows readers to see through his lies and deceptions. The Trump challenge demands that the house of journalism gives itself a makeover,” he advises. From his suggestions:

Always pair the latest Trump deception with the news story he’s deflecting attention away from. Feel free to qualify Trump’s thrust by writing something like “in an apparent attempt to bury negative news about his recent proposal” when he tweets his cockamamie best. …

By decoding his misdirections we can make it harder for his administration to impose its bull on the majority that didn’t vote for him. In other words, many times the story isn’t what Trump says but the meta concept behind why and how he’s saying it. …

John Dickerson of Slate and CBS News, whose thinking informs mine on this topic of Trump coverage, suggests that the key to covering a Trump administration will lie in the cabinet departments, the states, the Pentagon, and the courts—venues with entrenched bureaucracies. We can expect gushers of leaks, especially from the agencies, as Trump flexes his authority and they defy him. Obviously, Trump’s lies must be policed, but news consumers will profit more if the press digs harder into what the fake news-generating president is actually trying to do rather than what he’s saying. Let a billion FOIAs bloom!

Where were these approaches during the last 18 months? Too late for all of that now — it’s time to look ahead. Media across the board made some pretty dunder-headed moves in covering the election. That includes The Washington Post, broadcast media, and The New York Times, which is now asking in all seriousness if Trump’s tweets should be treated as news, even when those tweets are blatantly false.

But election coverage also offered some high points and great work, even if that work didn’t move enough voters in the right direction. David Fahrenthold of the Post did dogged and top-notch reporting on the Trump Foundation. Sopan Deb of CBS News (now moving to The New York Times) was tireless in his Trump coverage, even when it got him arrested for resisting arrest (he wasn’t) while covering protests at a Trump rally in Chicago. Kurt Eichenwald of Newsweek was must reading about Trump. The New York Times did a terrific roundup of Trump’s business conflicts of interest, even if it was published after the election, not before.

Christiane Amanpour, CNN’s chief international correspondent, recently received the Burton Benjamin Memorial Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists. Her whole speech from the awards ceremony is worth reading. Says Amanpour:

We must also fight against a post-values world.

And let me hit back at this elitist backlash we’re all bending over backwards to accommodate.

Since when were American values elitist values? They are not left or right values. They are not rich or poor values, not the forgotten-man values.

Like many foreigners I have learned they are universal. They are the values of every American from the humblest to the most exalted. They form the very fundamental foundation of the United States and are the basis of America’s global leadership. They are brand America. They are America’s greatest export and gift to the world. …

For better or for worse, this is the world’s only superpower. Culturally too.

The political example, the media example set here, are quickly emulated and rolled out across the world.

We, the media, can either contribute to a more functional system or to deepening the political dysfunction.

Which world do we want to leave our children?

As Marty Baron said in his speech:

When there are allegations of grave wrongdoing, we can’t settle for the truth never being known. … The truth is not meant to be hidden. It is not meant to be suppressed. It is not meant to be ignored. It is not meant to be disguised. It is not meant to be manipulated. It is not meant to be falsified. Otherwise, wrongdoing will persist.

Covering a president who sidesteps the media and communicates tweet by tweet is going to make it harder to uncover the truth. Trump already ditched the reporting pool once by going out for a fancy dinner, and given the mockery of the photo of Trump and Mitt Romney eating frogs’ legs, he’s likely to do it again. Trump banned certain news media during the campaign. Traditional media are being shut out, and Trumpland thinks that’s just fine. As former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told USA Today:

He argues that Trump, who hasn’t held a news conference since July, should feel no obligation to hold any as president, suggesting instead he solicit questions from the public to answer. “The news media so totally disgraced itself in this election, if I were Trump I would just say no,” Gingrich says. “And if the White House Correspondents’ Association doesn’t like it, I’d say, ‘Fine, disband.’ “

I think we might disagree with the Newtster on exactly who was being the most disgraceful during the election.

But if Trump is going to disappear to Trump Tower or Mar-a-Lago on weekends—if he’s not there during the week, too—at least we won’t have to put up with a “comedy routine” from Trump during the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. Let’s face it: Following up Barack Obama’s epic mic drop in 2016 would be a hard act to follow. (And as my old college roommate, who was a White House reporter during the Bush I and Clinton administrations once told me, those dinners were basically an excuse for reporters to get drunk.)

So no matter how bad the media can be, they’re all we’ve got. Let’s hope they’re learning from their mistakes.

Subscribe to your local paper. Those ads on media websites don’t pay for good reporters’ salaries. Because when it comes down to it, many of the decisions that affect us the most occur on the local level, even when they’re as mundane-sounding as building code variances, municipal projects, and property tax rates. So we need to pay attention — and vote.

Originally posted on Daily Kos on Dec. 4, 2016.

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