Like it or not, our incoming Commander in Chief changed the rules of journalism. Come January, Donald Trump will become the 45th president of the United States of America, and as we look back at this past presidential campaign, the media has a lot of self-examination to do. Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan called out the media a day after the election, saying journalists didn’t want to believe Trump could win, so they turned the other way.
“It would be too horrible. So, therefore, according to some kind of magical thinking, it couldn’t happen,” she wrote. And although Sullivan believes journalists didn’t create Trump, she believes they did not take him or his voters seriously enough.
James Poniewozik of the New York Times wrote in an article last month, “The press covered Hillary Clinton like the next president of the United States. The press covered Donald Trump like a future trivia question (and a ratings cash cow)…From the get-go, too much coverage of the race has been informed by a belief, overt or unconscious, that Mr. Trump couldn’t win.”
Make no mistake, both Clinton and Trump were guilty of avoiding reporters and news interviews, instead choosing to appear on late night talk shows or taking to social media to reach voters.
With Trump on his way to the White House, the next four years will be a tough period for the press. We got a taste of it during his campaign, where it often seemed as if he was running two of them—one seeking the presidency, and the other aimed at attacking the media. Whether it be decrying the “dishonest” press or alluding to a global media conspiracy against him, Trump held no punches when it came to expressing his distaste of seemingly standard practices of journalism.
We can’t sit back and take those punches anymore. Now more than ever, the need to protect journalists and the freedom of press in this country has never appeared more evident.
A History of Tension
As outrageous as Trump’s ongoing battle with the media was to watch, the concept of a politician wary of the press is nothing new, especially from the country’s highest office. Despite being known as the media darling during his presidency, John F. Kennedy secretly approved the wiretapping of a New York Times reporter. Meanwhile, Lyndon Johnson felt journalists spent too much time reporting on the realities of the Vietnam War instead of accepting the government’s version of what was happening.
And although Richard Nixon ultimately met his downfall thanks to a pair of relentless Washington Post reporters, his opinion of journalists was never a positive one. His vice president, Spiro Agnew, appeared to be expressing the opinion of his boss when he famously called the news media “the nattering nabobs of negativism.”
Even our very first president, George Washington, couldn’t escape the scrutiny of the press, as newspapers became heavily critical of his administration’s domestic and foreign policies by the end of his first term. The relationship between the media and those seeking or holding the highest public office in this country has been contentious, to say the least, from the very beginning.
Setting a Dangerous Precedent
However, to simply disregard Trump’s antics over the past year and a half as being ordinary would be reckless. While his distaste for the press isn’t atypical at all, the viciousness of the attacks his campaign leveled toward reporters is at an entirely different level—and poses a dangerous precedent for the future.
The public nature of his hostility was a first in many respects. Toward the end of 2015, Trump slammed New Hampshire’s largest newspaper, the Union Leader, after its publisher Joseph McQuaid declared in an editorial that the “Trump campaign insults NH voters’ intelligence.” That same day, the former Republican Party candidate let loose at one of his rallies in the state.
“You have a very dishonest newspaper, it’s also a failing newspaper,” Trump told the crowd. “I believe in hitting back. I watch this guy, and honestly, he’s a loser.”
Just a few weeks later, he managed to amplify his attack on The New York Times by singling out the name and ethnicity of one its investors—Carlos Slim.
Slim, a Mexican billionaire, is the largest shareholder of The Times, with about 17 percent ownership. He has also personally donated $500,000 to the Clinton Foundation.
“I know why I get bad treatment in The New York Times: because it’s owned by Mexico,” Trump said at a campaign rally back in February. “I don’t know if you know. A rich guy in Mexico actually has power at The New York Times. I wonder why they don’t like us, you know? I just wonder.”
Once again, this wasn’t the first time a presidential candidate from the Republican Party threw a jab at the paper. In the final days of the 1996 election, Senator Robert J. Dole urged his supporters not to “let the media steal this election.”
“The country belongs to the people, not The New York Times,” Dole said.
And yet, Dole never made specific references to any single person at The Times, alluded to a media conspiracy against him or invoked the ethnicity of its investors as a derogatory trait, which Trump did on multiple occasions very publicly.
Another first may also soon be headed our way as well. Despite numerous obstacles standing in their way, Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has explored the idea of a Trump-branded television network. While Trump has expressed little interest in the idea publicly, who’s to say he would turn down such an opportunity if it arose?
Becoming the Enemy
The consistency and viciousness of Trump’s public attacks on the media led to a mob mentality amongst his supporters against journalists. This collective view of the media as being the enemy was never clearer during his rallies, where reporters were confined to the “press pen,” typically situated at the center of each crowd.
At one Florida rally, a Trump supporter hurried over to the press pen, raised his middle finger and called the journalists “traitors” while declaring himself a “patriot.” At another in Ohio, the crowd chanted in unison to “Tell the truth!” as reporters filed into the press pen.
Additionally, Trump banned as many as a dozen news organizations from attending his events, including The Washington Post and Des Moines Register, before deciding to end his media blacklist in the first week of September.
“I’ll tell you what, I think the media is among the most dishonest groups of people I’ve ever met,” Trump said to raucous cheers at a rally last February. “Believe me, if I become president, oh, do they have problems. They’re going to have such problems.”
At one point, he even threatened to “open up” libel laws, if elected, to give public figures like him more ability to sue news outlets whose reporting he disliked.
Though comparisons between Trump and Adolf Hitler may have seemed outlandish at first, the latter’s infamous censorship of the press sounds eerily like Trump’s vision as president. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, supervised more than 3,600 newspapers at one point, and met with editors of the Berlin newspapers on a daily basis to inform them what could be printed and what could not. Every editor was expected to praise Hitler and senior Nazi officials in their newspapers.
Who’s the Boss?
While Trump’s antics presented its own set of unique challenges for the media, journalists continue to face another threat—the emergence of a “new media baron” With many newspapers struggling to survive, a new class of owners which lack any journalism experience have entered the fray. In fact, the vast majority of newspaper outlets across the country are no longer independently owned and operated. Instead, consolidation is now the norm. According to a recent study by the University of North Carolina, the three largest companies own about 900 papers that have a combined circulation of 12.7 million. If you refer to the sidebars in this story, you will see over the course of 10 years, the changing tide of privately-owned newspaper companies as more of them became businesses owned by investment groups.
Though billionaire owners like Jeff Bezos with the The Washington Post, and John Henry with The Boston Globe, have made a positive journalistic impact on their respective papers, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson’s mysterious purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal in December 2015 offered a more troubling picture. After Adelson was confirmed as the buyer, a number of red flags surfaced, particularly when it came to how the newspaper would cover his personal interests in a region with little alternatives for local news. In Clark County, which contains Las Vegas and nearly three-quarters of the state’s population, the only other daily paper is The Las Vegas Sun, and even that is published as a section within the Review-Journal.
If the public’s perception of Adelson’s influence in the paper’s daily coverage remains uncertain, inside its newsroom, the verdict has been much clearer. According to a New York Times article published last May, at least a dozen journalists had quit since the new ownership.
The University of North Carolina study also suggested that saving community journalism and returning to private ownership will help save newspapers.
“Without a local paper, there is a strong risk of news deserts emerging across vast regions in the country with communities that can least afford it with political, economic and social consequences for society as a whole,” the report said.
The report continued that “to survive and thrive in the digital age, community newspapers need to transform their advertising departments and develop revenue strategies that more closely align with the marketing needs of their local businesses.”
But perhaps it’s a return to the basics of journalism that will lead to a revival. Michael Oreskes wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review, “To build, or rebuild, bonds of trust we need to be a lot more thoughtful about what political journalism needs to look like. But you can’t do that in the heat of an election. You can’t, in fact, do it around political journalism at all, at least not national political journalism. We have to be there the rest of the time, too. That means stronger roots in communities, both geographically and in terms of affinities. To rebuild trust, we have to start showing up in communities where we haven’t been much seen in recent years.”
Roles and Responsibilities
Despite the hostility and negativity the press had to endure this past year and the rise of a “new media baron,” journalists still have to do their jobs—find the truth and report it. This election showed the cracks and weaknesses in all media, but now we must learn to heal and become stronger.
In an interview with media analyst Ken Doctor, New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet said covering Trump gave them “courage…I think he made us—forced us, because he does it so often, to get comfortable with saying something is false.”
Dylan Byers of CNN said that Trump provided journalists with a unique challenge. “In his frequent lies and baseless insinuations, he went against the thing journalists claim to value most: truth…he challenged fundamental American values. In attacking the media, he threatened the freedom and safety of the press itself.”
No longer can journalists just write “he said, she said” journalism, Byers said. They toughened up and became more aggressive in their reporting especially when it came to fact-checking.
Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold told Byers, “In 2008, there was the news story, then there was the fact-check. Now fact-checking has become the news story. This is a good thing for journalism. Fact-checking is not a separate endeavor.”
The past election has taught journalists that they are at the frontlines, and they can’t be passive reporters, now that readers have more choices to pick where they want to get their information.
Martin Baron, the Washington Post executive editor, told Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times, “If you have a society where people can’t agree on basic facts, how do you have a functioning democracy?”
Moving forward, the newspaper industry has to fight against the threat of fake news and shed light on the facts. Now is the time for newspapers to take the lead.
“The cure for fake journalism is an overwhelming dose of good journalism,” Rutenberg continued. “And how well the news media gets through its postelection hangover will have a lot to do with how the next chapter in the American political story is told.”
And we need more good journalism. We can’t afford to lose more reporters. We can’t afford to shut down more newspapers. But with the struggles taking place in our newsrooms (and the recent collapse of the Gannett and tronc acquisition is another indicator that more challenges lay ahead of us), the industry will need more allies in this new presidency. Unfortunately, we won’t find them in Washington.