BY JERRY LANSON
One crucial check [on President Donald Trump] could be the news media—if we are up to it. ... We need to be watchdogs, not lap dogs.
— Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times
Despite producing several terrific investigative pieces, American news outlets did not bathe themselves in glory during the 2016 presidential election.
You likely know this. You’ve heard of the nearly $2 billion in free media Donald Trump received during the GOP primaries. You’re well aware of the wall-to-wall coverage of Hillary Clinton’s emails during the general election campaign. And you’ve probably read of the sharp drop-off in issue-related news throughout the campaign.
That, however, is in the past. Now the question is whether American reporters can regain their footing and uphold their reputation in the face of a fiercely anti-news-media administration, defend their role in America’s democracy, and find a way to hold accountable a man who has proven himself such a pervasive liar that much of the public in certain respects seems to have stopped listening.
It will be a daunting task—one that already is demanding a fundamental rethinking of long-held ethical guidelines about how to define “fair” coverage.
Yet if the news media fail, American democracy may fail, too. I’d like to propose five steps as a start in reporting honestly and ethically in the age of Trump.
1. Pay close attention to the meaning of words.
"In a time of deceit," George Orwell once was reputed to have written, "Telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act."
American journalists are always nervous when they are perceived to be taking sides. And yet our mandate is to seek and report the truth, with a small "t." The starting point is to use words precisely. With this administration, that just might mean calling a prominent appointee a “white supremacist” rather than a “member of the alt-right.” And it will mean avoiding the clichéd terms for which others grab.
Is Donald Trump a "populist," as reporters have said frequently? Or is he a billionaire who is surrounding himself with a cabinet of fellow billionaires and multi-millionaires? Can he get nearly all his advice (for both domestic and foreign affairs) from a super-rich inner circle and still claim the mantle of populism? Many reporters and editors are letting him do just this.
Is Stephen Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, a “populist,” or someone whose mission is to rally the white male working class at the expense of everyone else?
I would argue that “populist”—a member or adherent of a political party seeking to represent the interests of ordinary people—is an awfully imprecise definition of either Trump’s or Bannon’s politics. Yet it has appeared repeatedly in places such as the Nov. 27, 2016 front page of The New York Times (“Combative, Populist Steve Bannon Found His Man in Donald Trump”).
Word choice can shade subtly, too. It doesn’t have to be blatant. As America awoke to Trump’s victory Nov. 9, NPR anchor David Greene remarked, “The Trump campaign will go down as stunning in many ways.” Would the word “unique” have been better? Diamond necklaces are stunning. Trump’s ugly campaign? Not so much, regardless of party loyalty. (Greene apparently was referring to the campaign…not the surprise almost the entire electorate admitted to when the returns came in on Nov. 9.)
But perhaps the most pernicious misuse of language has been the constant repetition of the term “alt-right.” That’s why I was glad to read in the Nov. 29 Times that the media are beginning to rethink its use. Reporter Sydney Ember noted that The Washington Post received 2,600 comments when it profiled a prominent leader of the “so-called alt-right.”
“Please, please stop referring to a white Christian supremacist movement as the ‘alt-right,’” began one. Ember noted that some major news organizations are now instructing writers to define the term when they use it. (The Washington Post defined it as “a small, far-right movement that seeks a whites-only state” and whose adherents are “known for espousing racist, anti-Semitic and sexist points of view.”)
2. Redefine norms of fairness and reject the false “objectivity” that affords as much space, time or weight to what’s untrue as to what’s true.
The news has paid much attention to the enormous proliferation of “fake” news in the final stages of the 2016 election. “Fake news” was so widely disseminated on social media sites that views of its most widely read online “stories” ultimately surpassed those of “real news,” BuzzFeed discovered.
That’s extraordinary. But the fear of fake news ignores an even bigger challenge: Old standards of “objectivity”—always a journalistic ideal—will have to change as Trump continues to fill his late-night tweets with lies and obfuscation.
Some elite journalists are beginning to grapple with this. Others should follow.
When the president-elect tweeted that “millions of people” had voted illegally in the presidential election, some leading news organizations stopped just short of calling his assertion a blatant lie.
The New York Times headline for the story was: “Trump Claims, With No Evidence, That ‘Millions of People’ Voted Illegally.”
Yet, in a fascinating Atlantic discussion titled “How to Deal with the Lies of Donald Trump: Guidelines for the Media,” James Fallows argued that even The Times didn’t go far enough.
Fallows noted that both The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times labeled Trump’s claim “as false.” (“Trump falsely claims that millions voted illegally, costing him the popular vote,” read the Los Angeles Times headline.)
Such aggressive journalism has its detractors. They’d likely argue that the journalist’s role is to listen to “both sides” and report only what has been said. But the true definition of “fairness” has never been “balance” or “equality.” “Fairness” means uncovering and publishing all pertinent, valid and reliable facts, regardless of who is involved, figuring out the patterns of those facts, and clarifying to the extent discernible what those patterns mean to the readers, listeners and viewers. Fairness, in short, means calling a lie just that, if the liar produces no evidence to support his assertion.
Fallows’ discussion began with this provocative question: “A man who will literally have life and death power over much of humanity seems not to understand or care about the difference between truth and lies…is there any way for democratic institutions to cope?”
The answer for the media, he suggests in part, is to:
1. Identify lies for what they are, rather than burying them in the coverage of what’s described as “controversies."
2. Resist the temptation to treat the Trump presidency as “normal.” (He calls this “fighting for reality itself.”)
Fallows links to a piece by Ned Resnikoff of ThinkProgress, who writes:
"Journalists need to understand what Trump is doing and refuse to play by his rules. He is going to use the respect and deference typically accorded to the presidency as an instrument for spreading more lies. Reporters must refuse to treat him like a normal president and refuse to bestow any unearned legitimacy on his administration. They must also give up their posture of high-minded objectivity — and, along with it, any hope of privileged access to the Trump White House."
3. Strive mightily to reclaim the agenda-setting function of the news media.
Whether somewhat true or entirely false, outrageous or inflammatory, Donald Trump’s tweets seem to always make news. He and his advisors know this. They use them not merely to appeal to their base, but to distract and confuse a broader public, and to change the subject.
What better way to leave behind a potential scandal—allegations of serial sexual groping or failing to pay taxes—then to create a new headline on a different subject, even if it is one that’s outrageous in its own right? News becomes fragmented and disjointed, losing both context and staying power.
The media should resist this, though it will be difficult.
Social media have stripped most of the gatekeeper function from news outlets. Trump already has shown that as president he probably will use Twitter and YouTube to sell his story, largely ignoring traditional media. For this very reason, it’s imperative that the media stay laser-focused on the path of big stories and resist the temptation to follow wherever the presidential tweets lead. The media’s watchdog role has never been more important than with an administration already settling into the shifting sands of potential ethical scandals.
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke the Watergate scandal by sticking with the story through lonely and lean weeks, plodding along, step by step. Reporters must emulate that doggedness.
New outlets also shape the agenda in the way they frame their reports. One subtle example helps show this.
The New York Times and The Washington Post covered the same political appointments on Nov. 13. An early dominant headline on The Times webpage was “Trump’s First Hire is Washington Insider: Reince Priebus, the GOP Chairman, is Named Chief of Staff.”
The Post webpage head, meanwhile, read: “Trump Faces Backlash over Bannon Pick: Critics say Appointment of Former Head of Breithart News Will Empower White Nationalists.”
Both stories were accurate. Both were true. But which was more newsworthy and which was more fair? The fairest headline, I’d argue, would have incorporated both appointments. But Bannon’s was more controversial and demanded top billing. It's the kind of thought, and, discussion with colleagues, editors should have at least daily.
The first of these headlines stuck to who would hold the key position of chief of staff, with the implication that Priebus, as “GOP chairman,” is a mainstream figure. The other referred to the more controversial appointment of Bannon, noting that “critics” see this as outside the mainstream and an invitation to the views of extremists.
The headlines clearly both had the potential to influence how readers might perceive the news.
4. Let’s do more to listen to all of our communities.
If Donald Trump has a legitimate gripe, it is that our urban-centric big media have largely looked away from the small-town and rural heartland of this country.
Not that Trump comes close to “seeing America whole.” To the contrary, he’s a master at demonizing “the other.”
But to serve the entire public, reporters have to spend time with representatives of all who populate our society. They have to cover the stories and issues faced by people of all races, religions and ethnic backgrounds. And they have to cover those of all regions, ideologies and economic classes. Most importantly, they have to listen at ground level.
Only then can they parse individual differences, reflecting the reality that no major group is monolithic in its viewpoints.
This has become harder as traditional media fragment and shrink, leaving local outlets scrambling to cover more news with fewer reporters. And while reportorial staffs have shrunk, the number of copy editors at a typical news operation has been reduced even further. This, in itself, may explain some of the differences in agenda-setting headlines.
On Sept. 12, I tweeted: “We know precious little about Trump voters because most in the media make coverage of them a quaint oddity.” This remained true right up until election day.
American journalists can’t await the second coming of Alexis de Tocqueville to tell them about social and cultural forces in our country. They have to be curious. For the elite urban news media to rediscover the country’s heartland they’ll need to assign reporters to live in places like Oklahoma City and Dubuque, not merely “parachute in” once in a while. As cuts decimate the staffs of smaller newspapers, major media players have to pick up the slack…if they can.
5. Unflinchingly report what’s “out there.”
Again, these are not normal times. So the media must resist the temptation to retain access by downplaying the excesses or oddities of the Trump presidency.
The blowback will be fierce.
No one likes to be in the glare of a president’s high beams. But reporters have to remember that they serve the public, not the most powerful.
That can be particularly lonely when the public itself is regularly incited to see the media as "the enemy."
The writer and essayist George Orwell had advice here. “If liberty means anything at all,” he wrote, “it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”