Think Anew, Act Anew

observations and opinion

Press and President in the Era of Trump


Slack, deferential press practices have compromised American democracy. That should have been obvious before, but it’s painfully clear now. The rules must change – before it is too late.

* * *

If the last 18 months’ experience wasn’t enough of an education, Trump’s January 11th press conference ought to have driven home lessons to reporters and news outlets: if they play by Trump’s rules, Trump rules.

Mr. Trump is not the first US politician to engage in bad practices with the press, but he demonstrates a unique facility for, and comfort with, abusing reporters. He doesn’t answer questions he doesn’t like. When he does answer, he often (usually) lies. If particularly uncomfortable, he attacks the reporter – often with lies. We saw all this January 11th in his unholy smear of CNN’s Jim Acosta, whom Trump – with his unique shamelessness – accused of spreading “fake news.”  (Full credit to Shep Smith of FOX, for calling Trump out on this).

The media must learn the lesson, now – finally – that they cannot continue to be sheepish and deferential with Trump. The Donald is a pure bully, an animal which interprets politeness as weakness, fairness as fear – and attacks. Trump requires unique management.

Reporters and their employers need to agree upon rules of engagement with the new President (and his spokespeople) that will keep a chain around the neck of the dragon. These are some approaches to reining in Trump (and when I say “Trump” I also mean his surrogates, press secretary et al):

  1. Not accepting opportunities, such as one on one interviews, which are not afforded to other outlets. No favors, no fear.
  2. Insisting on regular press conferences.
  3. Insisting that no “fans” or audience be present (that was appalling, a classic form of mob bullying. It will only get worse if it’s tolerated now).
  4. Choosing not to cover the stories released by the White House, just because they’re released by the White House. In other words, not letting the White House dictate the news agenda.
  5. Operating on the assumption that what the White House says, is likely to be partially or largely false. Sorry but that is a cloud which the Trump crowd (and most others) deserve to live under.
  6. Fact checking everything, all the time. Everything. Whenever a statement is issued, or tweeted, or spoken, subjecting it to the quickest possible fact checking. Identifying the falsehoods and reporting the statement, referencing the falsehoods at the start. (“President Trump lied today when he said…”). Seriously. Nothing else will work.
  7. If Trump says something that sounds untrue (which will happen all the time) saying “That answer does not sound accurate. What evidence do you have for that, sir?”
  8. Establishing a rule that the reporter posing a question, is the one who decides when that question has been fully answered. Do not change the topic, because Trump or his spokesperson want to change it.
  9. If Trump fails to answer a question, repeating the question. Following up with “Mr. Trump, you didn’t answer the question. Please answer the question.”
  10. If Trump moves on to another reporter, the next reporter should repeat the question just asked, that Trump failed to answer. No one should change the topic, until the unanswered question is given a proper response.
  11. Where Trump attacks a reporter, refusing to ask him any further questions.
  12. Where Trump attacks a reporter, asking the question “Mr. Trump, do you think by attacking the press you will change the topic?”
  13. When (not if) Trump decides to punish a reporter or a news outlet, punishing him back. If a reporter or news outlet is banned, no one else should engage with the White House at all, until the ban is lifted. And so on.
  14. Abandoning the practice of “balanced” panels where partisans from both sides are asked to comment upon and defend their parties’ positions. That was never news – it was just noise. The White House does not need or deserve the services of free media surrogates who, by virtue of simply being seated in front of a camera, present the impression that every argument has two equally valid arguments. They don’t.

This will take some guts. It requires the recognition that reporters, for all their flaws and vulnerability, are important and deserve respect. It requires a true understanding of the constitutional role of the reporter, not to repeat what the authorities have said, but to question it. Over and over and over again. That’s what the free press was intended to do.

Honest Democrats will admit that practices such as these would have done much to improve the performance of the Obama White House. Indeed, almost every political candidate and office holder deserves the kind of treatment outlined above. Who can you name, who does not lie, spin, dodge, blame and obfuscate? If there is someone, treat them as the exception, not the rule.

America’s news media long ago became megaphones for partisan and official spin. The era of cozy cooperation between power and the press has corrupted and defiled both. That unholy alliance has compromised American democracy. That was true under Bush 41, Clinton 42, Bush 43, Obama and would have been true under Clinton 45. Trump simply makes it more obvious that those responsible for this – the press themselves – must break the ties that bind. If they don’t, they have betrayed their social responsibility. And themselves.

The free press is constitutionally recognized and sacred. Journalists are critical to democracy. They cannot function if they are intimidated, excluded, bullied or silenced. Their employers and fellow reporters have to stand up for the people asking questions. They must demonstrate solidarity now, or they will be broken. As Ben Franklin said, they must all hang together or they will surely hang separately.


One comment on “Press and President in the Era of Trump

  1. Pingback: We call it the Oldernet | Think Anew, Act Anew

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This entry was posted on January 12, 2017 by in Free Press, Free Speech, Journalism, The U.S.A., Trump & Trumpism.
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