How media can hit back on Trump’s ‘alternative facts’

Chuck Todd wasn't buying what Kellyanne Conway was selling.

Chuck Todd wasn’t buying what Kellyanne Conway was selling.

No question: The media love to write about the media. And Donald Trump offers an opportunity for fresh fodder from journalists to give advice to other journalists on how best to do their work when confronting the lies of the Hair Twittler administration.

There’s no shortage of “how-to” pieces on media coverage of a President Trump. They run the gamut from “We’re all going to die” to “Now we’re free to be real journalists again.” Reporters are even getting advice from Russian journalists: “Welcome to the era of bullshit.”

The truth—and there still is such a thing these days, even in an “alternative facts” world, as Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway claimed as she lied through her teeth on Meet the Press — is likely somewhere in the middle. Official “news” certainly will lean toward exaggeration, lies, and propaganda from the Trump administration.

Reporters know they’ll be forced to climb “Bullshit Mountain,” as Jon Stewart used to say on The Daily Show. The ridiculous and laughable claims by Trump Press Secretary Sean Spicer — living up to the moniker of “Baghdad Sean” — about the small size of Trump’s inaugural crowds are just the latest example. But as long as reporters remember to do their jobs honestly, without worrying about getting skewered in an unpresidential tweet, we’re likely to be served better by the Fourth Estate.

The reaction to the possibility of closing the White House daily briefing room went from  “about damn time — it’s too small, anyway” to “OMG we’ll no longer have access.” When the Trump team conceded that they wouldn’t close the room but would make decisions about who would be in or out of the 50-seat space, the reaction turned to “but that’s the White House Correspondents’ Association’s job!” to Democracy is under assault.

Trump’s shit-show of a press conference and Spicer’s equally bombastic briefing room appearance while refusing to take any questions shows that any news conference by team Trump is going to be worthless anyway. So what is a White House reporter to do?

From the “We’re all going to die” camp comes Washington Post Media Columnist Margaret Sullivan, who predicts that Trump’s presidency will be a “hellscape of lies and distorted reality.”

Trump will punish journalists for doing their jobs. Famously touchy and unable to endure serious scrutiny, he has always been litigious — although, as journalist Tim O’Brien has pointed out based on Trump’s failed suit against him, sometimes unsuccessfully so.

Imagine that tendency, now with executive powers, a compliant attorney general, and a lily-livered Congress. Trump’s reign will probably be awash in investigations and prosecutions of journalists for doing their jobs, stirring up the ugliest of class wars along the way. …

So, we can expect President Trump to lie to the media, manipulate reality, and go after those who upset the notion that adulation is his birthright.

After Spicer’s “news” conference (and we’re using that term loosely), Sullivan had moved on to declare that The traditional way of reporting on a president is dead.

On the other hand, Politico writer Jack Shafer claims that Trump will offer journalism opportunities like never before because now reporters won’t be bound by the usual inside-the-Beltway rules and decorum.

If Trump’s idea of a news conference is to spank the press, if his lieutenants believe the press needs shutting down, if his chief of staff wants to speculate about moving the White House press scrum off the premises, perhaps reporters ought to take the hint and prepare to cover his administration on their own terms. Instead of relying exclusively on the traditional skills of political reporting, the carriers of press cards ought to start thinking of covering Trump’s Washington like a war zone, where conflict follows conflict, where the fog prevents the collection of reliable information directly from the combatants, where the assignment is a matter of life or death.

In his own way, Trump has set us free. Reporters must treat Inauguration Day as a kind of Liberation Day to explore news outside the usual Washington circles. He has been explicit in his disdain for the press and his dislike for press conferences, prickly to the nth degree about being challenged and known for his vindictive way with those who cross him. So, forget about the White House press room. It’s time to circle behind enemy lines. … Opportunities to ignore the White House minders and investigate Trump announce themselves almost daily. …

It’s not winter that’s coming with the inauguration of Trump. It’s journalistic spring.

Hmm. A rogue journalist vs. President News in 140 characters or less? It’s going to take a lot of those rogue journalists — and an even greater number of readers — to have an impact. And those rogue journalists must make sure not to be distracted when Team Trump wants to change the subject of a potential scandal with an outrageous tweet.

Also at Politico, Roger Simon writes that Team Trump’s real problem is that they are upset because the rest of us aren’t obsequious enough.

This is what Trump wants. Our humble submission and respect. Sort of like what a dog gives his master when he comes home at night.

Or the touch of the cap the lower classes used to give the upper classes in days gone by.

Trump wants figuratively, if not literally, a nod of the head, a bend of the knee, a curtsy. A recognition that even though approximately 3 million more Americans voted for his opponent, he deserves not only our submission, but our humble submission.

Simon’s ending advice:

We do not fight against the things we hate. We fight for the things we love.

Do not hate Trump. Love America. And the next four years will fly by.

(Roger, when you’re sitting in a comfortable office in D.C., you have the luxury of letting four years “fly by.” People who could lose health coverage; be deported; get sick because of health hazards from weaker environmental and workplace protections; become the targets of hate crimes because of their skin color, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or politics don’t have that luxury. And those are just a few examples. Just sayin’.)

A group of journalists from alternative media outlets writing at FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting) offers a manifesto of advice to U.S. journalists covering Trump. Their six rules (discussed in depth at the link) are:

  • Don’t consent to closed-door meetings.
  • Stop normalizing hate.
  • Cover real issues.
  • Diversify the newsroom.
  • Cover local issues.
  • Cover political dissent.

Speaking of lists, the folks at Bill Moyers & Co. offer 10 Investigative Reporting Outlets to Follow. They are Pro Publica, the Center for Public Integrity, the Center for Investigative Reporting, now online at Reveal, Frontline on PBS, Mother Jones, the Intercept, Real Clear Investigations, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, Investigative Reporters and Editors, and BuzzFeed. (Even if you disagree with some of the suggestions, it’s still quite a list.) Moyers & Co. will regularly offer a roundup of the week’s Best Investigative Journalism.

Katrina vanden Heuvel offers some advice in The Washington Post about the need for reporters not to be conned by Trump’s game of “divide and conquer”:

To function properly, the media have to be more than an echo chamber. At the same time, journalists should remember that we all face a common threat from an administration that is hostile to the very notion of freedom of the press. But instead of lamenting Trump’s contempt for the media, the best defense is to get to work and prove that watchdog journalists committed to digging up the truth still have a vital role to play in our democracy.

Indeed, if Trump’s news conference last week taught us anything, it’s that he intends to deploy the same strategy against the media that he used so ruthlessly with voters during the campaign: divide and conquer. As journalists, we can’t allow him to pit us against one another. If he succeeds, it will become even more difficult to defend the American people’s right to know.

Dan Rather is now 85 years old, but he’s still not afraid to take on Trump. He tells reporters that they can’t “back up or back down or turn around.” This interview was in Variety:

Coverage of middle America — what some people call “the flyover states” — needs to increase. But that comes up against the hard reality that the old business model of journalism is shrinking or gone, and the new business model has not yet arrived. So at the very time we need more on-the-ground reporting, there are fewer reporters to do it. …

I think what’s needed now is a re-dedication to the idea that the press, the media, has a special responsibility as part of the checks and balances in our system. We can’t back up or back down or turn around. We can’t get distracted or lose focus or, for that matter, deal in any kind of cowardice, small or large.

On a post on his Facebook page that quickly went viral, Rather also minced no words about “alternative facts.”

What can we do? We can all step up and say simply and without equivocation. “A lie, is a lie, is a lie!” And if someone won’t say it, those of us who know that there is such a thing as the truth must do whatever is in our power to diminish the liar’s malignant reach into our society.

There is one group of people who can do a lot — very quickly. And that is Republicans in Congress. Without their support, Donald Trump’s presidency will falter. So here is what I think everyone in the press must do. If you are interviewing a Paul Ryan, a Mitch McConnell, or any other GOP elected official, the first question must be “what will you do to combat the lying from the White House?” If they dodge and weave, keep with the follow ups. And if they refuse to give a satisfactory answer, end the interview.

Facts and the truth are not partisan. They are the bedrock of our democracy. And you are either with them, with us, with our Constitution, our history, and the future of our nation, or you are against it. Everyone must answer that question.

The Columbia Journalism Review published An open letter to Trump from the US press corps. It’s a little late to throw down the gauntlet, and I doubt that such a letter will have members of the Trump team shaking in their boots. Anyway, here are some samples from the letter.

But while you have every right to decide your ground rules for engaging with the press, we have some, too. It is, after all, our airtime and column inches that you are seeking to influence. We, not you, decide how best to serve our readers, listeners, and viewers. So think of what follows as a backgrounder on what to expect from us over the next four years. …

We will set higher standards for ourselves than ever before. We credit you with highlighting serious and widespread distrust in the media across the political spectrum. Your campaign tapped into that, and it was a bracing wake-up call for us. We have to regain that trust. And we’ll do it through accurate, fearless reporting, by acknowledging our errors and abiding by the most stringent ethical standards we set for ourselves.

We’re going to work together. You have tried to divide us and use reporters’ deep competitive streaks to cause family fights. Those days are ending. We now recognize that the challenge of covering you requires that we cooperate and help one another whenever possible. So, when you shout down or ignore a reporter at a press conference who has said something you don’t like, you’re going to face a unified front. We’ll work together on stories when it makes sense, and make sure the world hears when our colleagues write stories of importance. We will, of course, still have disagreements, and even important debates, about ethics or taste or fair comment. But those debates will be ours to begin and end.

We’re playing the long game. Best-case scenario, you’re going to be in this job for eight years. We’ve been around since the founding of the republic, and our role in this great democracy has been ratified and reinforced again and again and again. You have forced us to rethink the most fundamental questions about who we are and what we are here for. For that we are most grateful.

Some decent advice from a variety of sources. Let’s see who listens — and what their results are.

Originally posted on Daily Kos on Jan. 22, 2017.

One Comment on “How media can hit back on Trump’s ‘alternative facts’

  1. Pingback: Political murder is on holiday and drinking Guinness | Political Murder

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