The Media Prepares for a Post-Trump Era

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Since President Donald Trump lost his bid for re-election to Joe Biden in November, the media industry has been asking one important question: “What will we do without him?” A switch to a more “normal” or “boring” administration has rained down fears of low television ratings and a drop in subscriptions. However, the better question might be how much time will the media devote to covering Trump now that he is no longer in office?

Some media veterans don’t believe that Trump is done dominating the news cycle. Eric Nelson, the editorial director of Broadside Books (HarperCollins’s conservative imprint), told Ben Smith of the New York Times, “Trump will keep tweeting, and new scandals from his presidency will keep unfolding for well into 2022. By the time that all chaos and nonsense runs out, Trump could be running again for 2024.”

Axios CEO Jim VandeHei echoed the same sentiments in a conversation with CNN’s chief media correspondent Brian Stelter, where he said Trump would announce his candidacy, have the Republican National Committee under his control and “shoot spitballs at Joe Biden.”

As we saw with the presidential election, the 45th president of the United States has already proved to be an unyielding force. As reported by TIME magazine, less than half an hour after the news broke that Biden had won the election, Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, alleged without any evidence that the electoral system in Philadelphia was peppered with fraud. At press time, Trump had filed more than 10 lawsuits in five states, according to TIME, most of them aimed to stop vote-counting or disqualify ballots.

In 2021, newsrooms will still face tough challenges covering the COVID-19 pandemic, the Biden Administration as well as Trump and his supporters, but with Inauguration Day around the corner, don’t forget to pack an umbrella because the storm has not let up.  

The Trump Show

Before his talk of “fake news” and journalists being the “enemy of the people,” Trump once loved the media. As a rising real estate star in the 1970s, he welcomed reporters and gave them positive coverage. In a glowing 1976 New York Times profile, he was described as “tall, lean and blond, with dazzling white teeth.” He made his first appearance on “60 Minutes” in 1985 and over the same decade, he sat down with the likes of Tom Brokaw, David Letterman and Oprah Winfrey. For many years, Trump continued to court the media, but by the summer of 2015—when he announced his presidential candidacy—that relationship quickly changed.

Throughout his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump berated the media, and after winning the election, he singled out multiple journalists. He referred to CNN anchor Don Lemon as “the dumbest man on television” and then-ABC correspondent Brian Ross as a fraudster “after the network was forced to correct a report saying Trump had directed his former national security adviser Michael Flynn to make contact with Russian officials during the campaign,” according to The Hill. But it was shortly after his inauguration that Trump declared a war on the media when he referred to them as “The FAKE NEWS media” and “the enemy of the American People” in a tweet, which has been retweeted more than 80,000 times.

One of the highly publicized confrontations of reporters versus the White House was when CNN’s Jim Acosta attempted to ask the president a question during a 2018 press conference and was rebuked. After Trump told Acosta to “put down the mic,” a White House staffer attempted to take the microphone away from him. A statement was later issued that said the reporter’s “hard pass” was suspended because of Acosta’s attempt to keep control of the microphone.

That was not the last time the media saw that kind of reprimand. According to the Washington Post, the White House had revoked the press passes of numerous reporters after implementing a new standard in 2019. To qualify for a hard pass, journalists had to be present in the White House for at least 90 days out of 180 days. The Post article stated that while they couldn’t obtain specific numbers, it seemed that most of the White House press corps didn’t qualify for credentials, including regulars for the Post and the Associated Press.

The president’s disdain and harmful rhetoric for the media became rallying cries for his supporters, and journalists across the nation began to face more threats.

In 2018, Cesar Sayoc was charged with five federal crimes in connection to explosive devices that were sent to Democratic politicians, donors and CNN offices in New York, as reported by CNN. The media outlet also reported that Sayoc’s social media accounts showed he was a “fervent supporter of Trump and had posted criticism of CNN and other media outlets.”

 Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron told BBC in November 2018 that the newspaper had increased security for its building and journalists due to Trump’s rhetoric.

“The kind of rhetoric that’s being used makes life much more dangerous for journalists,” he said. “It is likely to lead to more threats, it has already led to more threats and that is a dangerous path to travel.”

Additionally, a mass newsroom shooting occurred in 2018 in Annapolis, Md., where Jarrod Ramos attacked the Capital Gazette’s office and killed five employees. The gunman had an ongoing feud with the newspaper regarding a 2011 column he claimed in court defamed him. Even though the president condemned the act, many journalists noted that Trump’s continued hostility toward journalists could provoke other acts of violence.

A Capital Gazette survivor Rachael Pacella stated in a tweet that “seeing generalized media-bashing tweets from the president makes me fear for my life. His words have power, and give bad actors justification to act.”

When Trump is not utilizing Twitter to attack the press, he is also dangerously spreading false information on the platform. For instance, in 2017, he accused former President Obama of “wiretapping” the Trump Tower just before his victory—with zero evidence. The claim was later debunked by the FBI and NSA. During this past election cycle, he caused thousands of Americans to panic about mail-in voter fraud. According to the Washington Post, Trump tweeted false claims about voting by mail more than 100 times in 2020.

And yet the media struggled to call these falsehoods what they were—lies. While the New York Times used the term during Trump’s campaign, the Washington Post waited until August 2018 to mention it for the first time in regard to the hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, according to CJR. Days after Biden was named the winner of the 2020 presidential election, major networks cut away from Trump’s news conference at the White House seemingly for the first time, when he started deploying several false statements about voter fraud.

Despite the back-and-forth criticism between the media and Trump, the media needed Trump, and Trump needed the media. With Trump dominating headlines over the last four years, the media industry also enjoyed a boom known as the Trump Bump. Last November, the New York Times reported it had hit 7 million paid subscribers.

“There is little doubt that Donald J. Trump’s presidency has helped lift the Times’ subscription business, and the readership numbers have risen at a steady pace during his years in office,” Edmund Lee, who covers the media industry for the Times, wrote.

The Washington Post is nearing 3 million digital subscribers, a 50 percent year-over-year growth in subscriptions and more than three times the number of digital-only subscribers it had in 2016, as Axios reported in November.

CNN reported that The Atlantic gained 20,000 subscribers after Trump wrote it off as a “dying” magazine in September after it published a story about him allegedly mocking Americans who died in war.

Cable news outlets also experienced the same phenomenon. According to Variety, “Tucker Carlson on one October night lured 7.56 million viewers to Fox News, while Rachel Maddow drew her largest audience to MSNBC—5.7 million viewers—in July.”

An Election for the Ages

Everyone knew the 2020 presidential election would be an unusual and stressful one because of the abundance of false information circulating, and the fact it was taking place during a global pandemic. The pressure was on for newsrooms in several battleground states, such as Wisconsin, Michigan, Nevada, and Pennsylvania.

At the Detroit Free Press, readers were promised that state and local races would be constantly updated on their app, and teams of reporters and photographers would be ready across the state to “scramble on Election Day should there be incidents at polling places.” The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel thoroughly explained their process of reporting, which included verifying claims made by politicians and parties through PolitiFact Wisconsin. Seemingly, news outlets had a plan, although many had to adapt to covering the election during the pandemic.

The Philadelphia Inquirer began to shift gears in March, when they moved to a remote newsroom and altered it to keep the public informed about the pandemic. Resources were moved away from politics, including the political editor who was reassigned to the business desk to coordinate the coverage of the impact of COVID-19 on businesses in the city, region and state.

The political coverage they did manage to publish in those early months was overwhelmed by COVID-19 reporting, said Gabriel Escobar, editor and senior vice president. However, when May arrived, the Inquirer knew the pandemic would continue to be an ongoing story and the decision was made to reconstitute the political desk. Although limited by the pandemic, a political team was sent out across the state and into communities to get feedback from voters.

“When I look back, we did a really good job (because) a lot of it was impacted by COVID-19,” said Escobar.

It was a slightly easier adjustment for The Nevada Independent, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news and opinion website founded in 2017 by veteran political journalist and commentator Jon Ralston. His newsroom was already working remotely. However, Ralston explained that reporters were not able to head out onto the field and meet in-person with sources, so they had to adapt to other methods of communication, such as phone, email and social media.  

It was also important to note that journalists faced a toxic political climate when covering this election. Escobar stated that toxicity on social media seemed to reach new levels and in the aftermath of it. Columnists were targeted in even more vile ways than what he had seen before.

Amidst all this, another major news story broke in October, when Trump confirmed that he and the First Lady, Melania Trump, had tested positive for COVID-19.

“It was a major event because you did not know what would happen over the next few days,” Escobar said. “There was the uncertainty over how serious it was (and) the lack of information from the president’s own doctors.”

Finally, as votes were counted on Election Day—including thousands of mail-in votes that turned Election Day into Election Days—all eyes were on the news.  

Across the nation, Americans were eager for Nevada to confirm which presidential candidate won its six electoral votes. The Independent kept a close watch on the race in the state.

“We were covering one of the key half-dozen or so states, so it was all hands-on deck,” Ralston said. “We had coverage every day for a week as votes here were counted. There was a lot of national attention.”

A look at the newsroom’s coverage reflects Ralston’s statement. In the early morning hours of Nov. 4, the newsroom reported that Biden was narrowly leading the race, but it was too close to call. The newsroom also covered the lawsuit the Trump campaign filed which sought to overturn the state’s presidential results.

For some states like Pennsylvania, 2020 was the first time that residents could vote by mail, which caused delays with the state calling a winner. When asked about this long wait, Escobar said the newsroom was “prepared for it.”

“We had written well in advance that it could take days or weeks to get the results from Pennsylvania and that we’re a critical state in determining the outcome of the election…the election itself would be uncertain for days or longer,” he said. “Avid readers of the Inquirer knew this coming.”

Other news outlets in swing states also warned of a long wait, like the Free Press which reminded readers that “the election, at least in Michigan, likely won’t be resolved on Election Night.

Four days later, on Nov. 7, Biden was named the winner of the race. A concession speech by Trump did not immediately follow, and media veterans like Escobar and Ralston knew this was to be expected. Instead, Trump refused to accept Biden’s win and tweeted out messages about a rigged election, adding to the already chaotic news cycle he created.

A New Media Industry

Shortly after being named president-elect, Biden got right to work. According to CNN, he urged Americans to wear a face mask, stating that doing so “is not a political statement, but a good way to start pulling the country together.” Arguably, the pandemic will be the biggest challenge he will face heading into the White House, and it’s an issue that was politicized under the Trump Administration.

The media industry can likely look forward to a president who uses less hurtful language as well as a return to formal press conferences in place of the unpredictable release of information via Trump’s Twitter account. A significant reduction in falsehoods can also be expected. PolitiFact recently rated 38 percent of Biden’s statements as “mostly false,” “false” or “pants on fire,” while 73 percent of Trump’s statements were among those categories.

While it seems like the media industry can anticipate the next presidency will be in stark contrast to the previous one, it’s clear that the media will continue to face challenges because of the lasting effects of the Trump Administration.

“The last four years have been marked by a deliberate and systemic attack on the press by the president of the United States. The label fake news, of course, but the far more serious label, the enemy of the people, created a toxic environment for journalists,” Escobar said. “It has—I suspect—contributed to the lack of trust in journalism which was not great to begin with.”

This will be a major challenge moving forward. According to Ralston, people are more skeptical and cynical of news than ever. The lack of acceptance of facts will continue to contest journalism.

And the division we have seen will linger. We know this because Trump still garnered more than 70 million votes in the election. Navigating the divide will present its challenges. However, the media has learned that listening to the discourse at all ends of the political spectrum is crucial. Feedback from voters can tell us more than polls can, which have come into question as of late. At the Inquirer, Escobar said that the newsroom learned to spend far more time in parts of the state where Trump’s support is solid.

“Going forward we have to be as comprehensive or more so and try to tap the different opinions that exist in the state and the nation,” he said. 

We should also be aware that although Trump may be leaving office, he will not be going far from the media spotlight. As media analysts stated, when Trump leaves the White House, we can expect to see scandals from his presidency unfold, and journalists will have to decide how much time to dedicate to the former president. Trump will also most likely openly-criticize Biden’s every move, and future politicians are prone to take a few plays out of Trump’s book.

The last four years have irrevocably changed journalism. The Trump Administration forced the media to adopt a new degree of scrutiny, transparency and forceful fact-checking. The latter became a prominent tool. Axios recently reported that there has been a 200 percent increase in the number of fact-checking organizations that have launched worldwide since Trump was elected. While other administrations may not warrant as much fact-checking as the Trump Administration, it is a tool that is sure to stick around.

Going forward, the media will have to decide whether to apply the same level of scrutiny to the Biden Administration.

The News Media Alliance has already sent recommendations to Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris’ transition team, which would help build a future for local journalism. The recommendations highlight public policy positions like the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, which would allow news publishers to negotiate new terms with tech platforms for the online publication of their content. Other suggestions include a comprehensive revision of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 that would hold platforms accountable for third-party content, and a new COVID-19 stimulus package and extension of the Paycheck Protection Plan to include local news publishers owned by newspaper groups.

To that end, it may be important for journalists to heed Ralston’s advice: “Call out lies. Don’t cotton to trolls. Never be afraid to stand your ground.”

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