4 Hard Lessons for the Media in the Age of Trump

February 1, 2017, 3:47 PM UTC
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There’s been much chatter about journalism since Donald Trump started his march to the White House. What is the media’s role in the process? If people get their news from the president’s Twitter (TWTR) feed—or in the case of his Supreme Court nominees—via Facebook (FB) Live, what does that mean for journalists and their audiences?

A panel of media pros—Gerard Baker, editor in chief of The Wall Street Journal; David Leonhardt, a columnist for the New York Times; and Lydia Polgreen, editor in chief of the Huffington Post—had lots to say about this Tuesday night during a panel discussion at Harvard University. Here are some lessons from “The Future of News: Journalism in a Post-Truth Era.

The good old days weren’t that great.

People forget that after World War II, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy capitalized on fear of communism to intimidate and blacklist people he suspected of having communist ties. Alabama Governor George Wallace’s segregationist presidential campaign won five states in 1968. This was in an era of strong newspapers and network TV broadcasts—and zero social media.

“I’m a little dubious about claims of the power of the media,” said William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard in preliminary remarks for the event, co-sponsored by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism and the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

For all the claims that conservative news outlets shape electoral outcomes, Kristol noted that the biggest conservative victories—of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and George Bush in 1988—came before Fox News (FOX) or Rush Limbaugh. “That was the era of the New York Times, Washington Post, and three networks—all of which were moderately liberal,” Kristol said.

Since Fox News arrived, Republicans have lost the popular vote in every presidential election since 2004, Kristol added.

Mind the Gap

The disconnect between media and Trump voters is partly due to the fact that journalism has become an elite profession. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal have a hard time getting access to working class people while Fox News and Breitbart created products that talk to those people, not just about them, Polgreen said.

Last March, for example, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote that he had been blindsided by Trump’s primary victory largely because he—like many in his profession—did not venture out beyond their own bubbles.

Of Trump supporters, he wrote at the time:

…Many in the media, especially me, did not understand how they would express their alienation. We expected Trump to fizzle because we were not socially intermingled with his supporters and did not listen carefully enough. For me, it’s a lesson that I have to change the way I do my job if I’m going to report accurately on this country.

In the past, reporters like Mike Royko, who wrote for The Chicago Tribune, and Jimmy Breslin of The New York Daily News and Newsday, had deep ties to their working class communities, Polgreen noted. “Who is the Mike Royko of the gig economy? Journalism needs to rediscover its roots as a blue-collar profession,” she asked.

Baker agreed: “Most contemporary journalists went to the same universities, move in the same circles, have never seen anyone with a gun. That’s a big challenge. We have to be more willing to get out and find stories.”

Facts Do Matter

The notion that there could be “facts” and “alternate facts,” as espoused recently by Trump aide Kellyanne Conway, poses a thorny issue for reporters.

Baker noted that this indicates a fundamental change. He cited late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was famous for saying: “You’re entitled to your own opinion but are not entitled to your own facts.”

The problem now is that it’s hard to get people to even agree on facts, Baker said, because people choose their own facts and ignore those that are inconvenient.

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It is not unusual for a president’s staff to tell reporters to focus on some facts and not others, but things are qualitatively different now in the Trump administration compared to that of his predecessors Barack Obama and George W. Bush in terms of “the number of untruths,” said the Times‘ David Leonhardt.

If a paper reports on statements that are likely untrue, it has an obligation to characterize the veracity of those statements (or lack thereof.), “If you are putting the falsehood out there in the headline and saying in the sixth graph it’s false, that’s a problem,” he said.

Baker said characterizations have to be careful: “We are all cautious about using the word ‘lie.’ What we’re not cautious about is truth, telling the truth, finding it, reporting it, and when someone says something that is not true, saying it’s not true.”

One big, sometimes painful, bonus of online media is that mistakes get corrected very fast, usually before they end up in print, Leonhardt added.

It’s not all doom-and-gloom.

Wrapping up, Brian Stelter, host of CNN’s Reliable Sources, found reasons for cautious optimism about the media’s future provided it rises to the challenges of the “post-fact” world.

“On January 22, Trump’s second morning in the White House, I asked: ‘Will he deny reality on a daily basis? Will he make up fake facts and false statistics? And so far the answer, unfortunately, is yes. Every president spins, but Trump makes them look like amateurs,” Stelter recalled.

For more on Trump and the media, watch:

But in his view, reporters are invigorated. “This is the time journalists live for. You can feel it, the sense that journalists know this is a historic time for the country and for journalism. It is the best of times and the most unpredictable of times,” Stelter said.

And Stelter thinks consumers are starved for news and for facts, remarking: “They are craving journalism.” Outlets like The New York Times and Washington Post are gaining subscribers. And, he noted, The Atlantic set an all-time daily audience record Sunday and broke that record again on Monday.

“Readers may be skeptical of reporting, but they want it,” Stelter said.