After This Presidential Election, the Press Learns to Adopt a More Aggressive Approach

By: Nu Yang and Sean Stroh
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Illustration by Tony O. Champagne

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.

+E+P Feature_Protecting_media.indd

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.

+E+P Feature_Protecting_media.inddIf 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.”+E+P Feature_Protecting_media.indd

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.

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Published: December 1, 2016

13 thoughts on “After This Presidential Election, the Press Learns to Adopt a More Aggressive Approach

  • December 1, 2016 at 4:57 am
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    I find it interesting that there is no mention of the Wiki leaks showing collusion of the press with the democrats. Surely, that had no bearing on Trump’s or the public’s opinion of the press. The press has broken its basic trust and taken sides. It has made itself the enemy. That should be the catalyst for the press’s self examination.

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    • December 1, 2016 at 9:44 am
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      I agree. I even find this original article insulting. If we clearly have a divided electorate, there is clearly a similarly clearly divided readership. People no longer look to media to sway opinion toward that media’s editorial slant. Many smaller markets in the center of the country are actually killing their own circulation with liberal biased reporting. ( They come off as elitists, implying intellectual superiority, speaking down to it’s less than intelligent minions.) Even this implication that ‘they’ lost this election is pure stupidity. ‘They’ are, (or should be), an unbiased, reflection on the communities they serve. By ripping copy from an AP, driven by urban and coastal content providers, they only alienate at the very least half of their consumers. ( To what end?) Stay nuetral if you serve a divided marketplace, and return to a more acceptable level of YOUR publics opinions.

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  • December 1, 2016 at 5:00 am
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    Excellent, timely analysis, and a rallying cry reminder of the power and critical importance of our free press. Truth matters. Facts matter. Perseverance matters. This focus on circumstances, consequences and the job at hand will go a long way toward protecting our democracy. Thank you!

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  • December 1, 2016 at 5:11 am
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    The authors Godwin this article without irony and blame Trump for the state of relations. Your total lack of self-awareness is representative of the problem with the media. Why would anyone respect a media that relentlessly called them racist, sexist, homophobic etc. and attributed sinister motives to everything they did? That applies not just to Trump but those who voted for him. Just look at the image accompanying this piece. They only people burning stuff in reality are Hillary supporters. The media made it possible for Trump to win by because of their bias not despite it.

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  • December 1, 2016 at 6:13 am
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    However, to simply disregard the media’s antics over the past year and a half as being ordinary would be reckless as well.

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  • December 1, 2016 at 6:21 am
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    The press needs to go back to reporting. Commentary should be a separate function. I’m ashamed to have ever called myself a journalist.

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  • December 1, 2016 at 7:20 am
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    This article is still disturbing that we have not yet grasped why the hostility toward the press is at an all-time high, how Trump asserted it, and the people agreed. From the moment Trump entered the race, anyone who watched his announcement saw him say that some illegal immigrants were criminals, and they had instant access to enter the United States. Trump’s entire quote on the issue was, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people. But I speak to border guards and they tell us what we’re getting. And it only makes common sense. It only makes common sense. They’re sending us not the right people. It’s coming from more than Mexico. It’s coming from all over South and Latin America, and it’s coming probably— probably— from the Middle East. But we don’t know. Because we have no protection and we have no competence, we don’t know what’s happening. And it’s got to stop and it’s got to stop fast.”
    But the media continued to portray Trump as a racist wanting to keep all Mexicans out. Trump pointed this out, and the people agreed that the press was not being honest about his immigration plan. When a Trump surrogate said Trump was not racist, a CNN panel including the host started to laugh. Don Lemon said, “even people in the studio are laughing.”
    To believe that the press is simply being criticized for doing their jobs is what is laughable. The press clearly took sides in an election, with some like the USA Today taking the unprecedented step in calling for no support for Trump because of his “racism” etc. Criticism of policy is completely fair. Questioning a candidate’s policy proposals, sure.
    But intentionally mischaracterizing Trump with the inflammatory words of racism, misogyny, homophobic, anti-Muslim language was easily refuted by Muslims, women, gays and people of color who came out in support of Trump. If we do not learn and take responsibility for allowing the left to infiltrate and dominate the news perspective, we are doomed as an industry. Self-reflection requires us to first recognize our role in why the press is perceived as untrustworthy, and trying to be tougher when the initial data is biased only leads to a wider rift.
    The premise of this article indicates the problem. “It would be too horrible. So, therefore, according to some kind of magical thinking, it couldn’t happen.” We don’t make those assumptions in journalism. We simply provide for our readers and viewers what is happening on the campaign trail, we fact check the statements, we don’t jump off the racist, bigot cliff. That is the job of the opposing candidate, not the media. When we report what was said by the candidates without adding bias, we can regain the trust.
    Trump didn’t rewrite the rules for journalism, but he did offer the people a reminder of how important it is to stick to the facts. We do not get the luxury to believe anything is “too horrible” as that indicates the bias already exists. We have to work harder at telling the story without the belief in a “false equivalency.” From a journalist’s view, candidates are equal if their name is on the ballot. The voters may not see it that way because there will always be a winner and loser in every election, but we do not have a choice to see it any other way if we believe in being fair.
    Instead, we at looking at ownership structures and anything else to blame rather than following the simple rule of eliminating bias in reporting. The people really don’t care who owns the paper. They care about who is writing the news, and if the reporters and editors can be trusted to be fair and unbiased, even if it is reporting what we may not always want to share, such as Trump’s economic message appealing to women and minorities rather than a constant barrage of criticism without recognizing and reporting on the appeal as well.
    We share the candidates’ platforms, report on their spending, their rallies, we pepper them with questions about policy and issues, and we leave our own bias off the printed page. We continue to miss the point by making comments like “The cure for fake journalism is an overwhelming dose of good journalism.” The only good journalism is unbiased journalism. If we believe we provided good journalism in the last election cycle, or believe our criticisms didn’t go far enough, we are already doomed. Until we learn that lesson, expect journalism to continue to be the villain rather than the hero. Unbiased reporting is what the people are desperately seeking, and we are not providing it.

    Reply
  • December 1, 2016 at 7:21 am
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    The problem with this story is that you do not mention the many stories printed by the liberal press that were recanted by the very people they wrote about. You speak mostly in defense of the iberal press and that is was so righteously correct. Well we all know now it was not.
    I agree the press needs to be agressive and fact check but -for both sides and that was not the norm.
    If you want this to be a credible story then you have to discount the times the liberal press was caught stating and quoting untruths . I have worked in the press for 40 years of my life. It is a sad state. But the worst tragedy is that people don’t listen, read or watch all the news outlets so they can make a judgement of their own from all perspectives. It is critically important to me that the audience does not stick its head in the sand and allow themselves to be brainwashed by one news source or no news source at all.
    The power is in the people , not the press and until all voters learn to inform themselves of all news that is being put out there and making their own judgements we are doomed anyway. The press should not be pushing their own bias. The people should be informing themselves and voting for who is right for their own agenda. Fortunately, I think more people paid attention. Thank goodnes for Waters world sticking a mic in the face of people on the street showing us how extremely ignorant and uninformed most people are.
    All news media need to be reporting and supporting and giving our elected president support now. Not trying to derail him before he even has a chance. Everything going on so far looks like good things for our country and I for one will give him the chance.
    Trust but Verify.. Our country has been severly crippled over the past years by so much. No President has been able to help any of it, Democrat or Republican.
    So ” what if” this business man just happens to be able to make things better for all. We all need to stand behind him and let him do all his many new ideas. it just might work. And wouldnt that be good for us all?

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  • December 1, 2016 at 7:38 am
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    It would be most helpful to our credibility in the news media, if reporters and editors would stop making campaign donations. Hundreds in the DC press corps did so this year. How can we claim objectivity and a lack of bias when we put our own money on one of the ponies in the race? I always thought one of the great benefits of being a journalist was that I had a good excuse not to donate to anyone.

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  • December 1, 2016 at 9:22 am
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    Blah, Blah, Blah. My point is simple. Most media employees are liberal. Therefore, from the get-go, most all reporting will become biased. No republican candidate will be treated fairly, it’s not in the nature of most reporting. Media took on the role as the “hit-man” for Clinton. And they did it so effectively they actually believed in their own reporting, embellishments, and off-the-wall arguments and comments. Media shot themselves right in the heart because they failed to remove their own personal bias and report objectively.

    Never before has the facade of main street media been so effectively stripped down for all to see. The open bias and prejudice of media reporting has become a cancer that turned on it’s own originators.

    Reply
  • December 1, 2016 at 9:23 am
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    I for one would love to see all internet news gone. It will always be too easy to post fake news. ALWAYS. It’s the exact same thing as companies getting hacked. They fix it and say it’s safe, but forever and always things will be able to be hacked. It’s the nature of tech.

    If the world continues to see everything online as needing to be free and as fast as possible, the problems will never be fixed.

    Add on top of that the fact that 24/7 news isn’t really a necessary or good thing. Especially in it’s current use online. Every day there is a plethora of stories covering death and destruction worldwide. Any idea on what that does to the human psyche? Day in, day out, something to fear. It’s really a bad lifestyle if you ask me, especially where the masses are considered. It serves to cause anxiety, frustration and feelings of hate and worry every – single – day. Why is that important? Why is that necessary? Why is that a good thing?

    Reply
    • December 1, 2016 at 9:30 am
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      To add one more thing, if “news” organizations cannot make enough money to sustain themselves, what happens? We’ve seen what happens. They need money. Investors provide the money. Investors with special interests or agendas. Poof, goodbye free press.

      I’ve felt this way about the internet since at least 2006 and not much has changed for the better. It’s only gotten worse. The only good thing to happen was this election … which really speeded up the destruction of online news and provided a glimpse of the future of news. It’s a good thing the people are upset. The sooner they stop believing online news (which gets to play by its own rules) and stop going online for it, the better.

      Reply
  • December 21, 2016 at 4:27 pm
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    The media needs to realize that the more PC they try to force people to be. The more they only cast minorities, the more they only cast women, the more they try to put everything in a light based on “class” the more people are going to distrust and hate the media. The fact that the media was actively colluding with Hillary just makes the media even more of the problem. I’m to the point where if I am unlucky enough to see something from a major news network I will usually just assume the exact opposite of what they tell me is true.

    Reply

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