The Facts and the Furious: A New Era of Journalism in Donald Trump’s America
“Fake news” – the term has graced news feeds and dominated headlines nearly every day for the past year, becoming a global phenomenon and household phrase. It has burned through the politics of Europe, and has amassed a following amongst authoritarian leaders worldwide. The origin of the phrase comes from the mind, and Twitter, of Donald Trump, who remains its most stalwart adherent, championing the crusade against what he believes to be fraudulent media at every turn. One year ago, I wrote an article about journalism and the lashing it would inevitably take from the administration bent on its destruction. Now, nearly a year later, media is still very much alive, but is it faring better or worse now than pre-inauguration?
Trump’s attacks on the media have been relentless. Hope for a reprieve with a more “presidential” Trump disappeared when, days after the inauguration, spokesperson Kellyanne Conway stated that “alternative facts” were anything other than falsehoods. The administration only ramped up from there. The year that followed was defined by a relentless barrage of attempts to discredit any unkind news the President and associates faced, via all channels available, from press secretaries Sean Spicer, followed by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, to Trump’s notorious Twitter. On average, Trump has tweeted the phrase “fake news” almost once a day, with a maximum of eight separate tweets containing the term in a single day in September. He has even gone so far as to announce the “Fake News Awards”, which could violate government ethics rules and encroach on the First Amendment. The postponed event finally took place on January 17, and was posted on the Republican National Committee’s official website. The “winners” are the top 10 articles believed to be “fake news”, and was basically a list of the biggest journalistic errors in the past year, as well as predictions, tweets from journalists private accounts, and op eds. The context surrounding the articles listed actually demonstrates journalistic integrity, because, while the initial reporting was either false or misguided, statements rescinding the stories were quick, and in some cases the editors and reporters resigned.
Free press is under attack on multiple fronts, not just from President Trump. Many news companies are taking major economic hits, putting newsrooms on the offensive, hunting for ad revenue. This has resulted in clickbait-style headlines and increasingly partisan reporting, which pander to select groups of readers. Prioritizing entertainment over hard hitting journalism and conflating analysis, opinion and factual reporting have been added to the list of the media’s sins. This isn’t quite enough to explain the staggering distrust most Americans have for the news they receive. However, when coupled with the White House’s “fake news” attacks, the fact that 55% of Americans share the belief that news organizations are “often inaccurate” isn’t all that surprising.
The problem isn’t relegated to America or to fake news. The issues plaguing US journalism have been spreading globally, and with it has come a new wave of authoritarian denouncements and harsh regulations of the press. Some stems directly from President Trump. In Libya, a Trump tweet lambasting CNN as “fake news” was used as evidence in an attempt to discredit a report labeling the country a home of modern day slave auctions. Authorities in Syria, China, and Russia have adopted the “fake news” epithet as well, attempting to delegitimize any reporting critical of their regimes.
Media alone can’t fight this battle – an echo chamber of news junkies can hardly be expected to shift the tide of trust in the American public. Support from politicians seemed unlikely, but Republican Senator Jeff Flake, in an address to Congress, denounced Trump’s attacks on press as Stalinist. “It is a testament to the condition of our democracy that our own president uses words infamously spoken by Joseph Stalin to describe his enemies,” Flake said in response to Trump’s statements calling the media “the enemy of the people”. In doing so, Flake dared the remainder of the Republican establishment, who thus far have defended the President’s outlandish and dangerous statements, to continue to support a leader who regularly utilizes notoriously authoritarian rhetoric. More politicians within Trump’s party need to stand by the statements that Flake is making, and, more importantly, act on what they say. Simply condemning the administration’s actions and words isn’t nearly good enough. Flake provides an example of doing as well as saying: he has decided against seeking reelection in protest of the GOP’s unwavering support of Trump.
The general public has a responsibility as well. If we demand high quality journalism, if we make a concerted effort to fact check and cross reference and reward good journalism, the fourth estate can flourish. It’s a trend that has been kick started by the Trump administration. Directly after the election, news subscriptions and donations to major news outlets – magazine, newspapers, and nonprofits alike – jumped. Complacency is what allowed Trump and associates to build such traction; the public must double check the media just as vigorously as they must check politicians.
Ultimately, however, the media is responsible for how they are viewed. If the public demands a change in the course of reporting, outlets should deliver. More resources need to be devoted to investigative, long form work. This is already happening in a number of organizations. The Times, The Washington Post, and many other enterprises conducted valuable and important reporting before and especially after the election, and should be used as a model. Partisan bias needs to be avoided. Agencies need to take more care in remaining separate from the melee of politics, while still remaining achingly aware of the role they play in inevitably shaping the political arena. More than anything, everyone and everything needs to revolve around a central tenant, the one thing that Donald Trump has been so mercilessly attacking: facts.
While the untimely death of journalism is not likely, it is a possibility. However, with work from inside the profession, from politicians committed to truth, as well as from the masses, the fourth estate can return to its original job – reporting the truth.
Edited by Marissa Fortune.