Winter is coming: prospects for the American press under Trump
How bad is it? Bad. I will explain why. Any bright signs? A few. This is part one. Part two is about what can be done. Out tomorrow.
By Jay Rosen
Dec 28 2016
This started as a thread on Twitter about “things to look for” in the next six to eight months. Readers asked what could be done in response. I will try to meet that request in part two. First we have to understand how deep and interconnected the problems are.
How bad is it? Pretty bad.
For a free press as a check on power this is the darkest time in American history since World War I, when there was massive censorship and suppression of dissent. I say this because so many things are happening at once to disarm and disable serious journalism, or to push it out of the frame. Most of these are well known, but it helps to put them all together. Here is my list:
1. An economic crisis in (most) news companies, leaving the occupation of journalism in a weakened state, especially at the state and local level, where newsrooms have been decimated by the decline of the newspaper business. The digital money is going to Google and Facebook, but they do not have newsrooms.
2. A low-trust environment for most institutions and their leaders, the same ones who are regularly featured in the news.
3. A broken and outdated model in political journalism, which tries to connect to the public through “inside” or access reporting about a class whose legitimacy is itself eroding. And since almost everyone got the result wrong in 2016, responsibility for this massive error is evenly distributed across the press, which means that no one is responsible for fixing what is broken.
4. An organized movement on the political right to discredit mainstream journalism, which stretches from Steve Bannon in the White House to Trump’s army of online trolls, with Breitbart, Drudge Report, talk radio and Fox opinion hosts mediating between the two, while the “alt reality” fringe feels newly emboldened. Its latest tactic is to shout down as “fake news” any work of reporting that conflicts with its worldview, leaving the term useless as a fraud alert. “Over the years, we’ve effectively brainwashed the core of our audience to distrust anything that they disagree with,” said John Ziegler, a conservative radio host, to a New York Times reporter. “Because the gatekeepers have lost all credibility in the minds of consumers, I don’t see how you reverse it.” In fact, no one knows how to fix this.
5. The rapid escalation of this drive-to-discredit as Trump gained traction with the electorate. Since 1970 it has grown from questioning the motives of people covering a Republican president in the speeches of Spiro Agnew, to countering liberal spin with the personalities at Fox News, to mistrusting all of the mainstream (or “drive-by”) media with Rush Limbaugh, and now to a place beyond that. Sean Hannity — who is probably closer to Trump than any other media figure — recently said on air: “Until members of the media come clean about colluding with the Clinton campaign and admit that they knowingly broke every ethical standard they are supposed to uphold, they should not have the privilege, they should not have the responsibility of covering the president on behalf of you, the American people.” In other words, the mainstream press should not be allowed to cover Trump. A few years ago that was a bridge too far. Now it’s a plausible test of poisoned waters.
6. After the debacle of 2016, trust in the news media as an institution feels lower than ever in living memory, while popular anger reaches an all-time high. The resentment is coming from the left, the right and what remains of the center. Pew Research Center: “Only about two-in-ten Americans (22%) trust the information they get from local news organizations a lot, whether online or offline, and 18% say the same of national organizations.” Gallup in September of this year: “Republicans who say they have trust in the media has plummeted to 14% from 32% a year ago. This is easily the lowest confidence among Republicans in 20 years.”
7. A homogeneity and coastal concentration in American newsrooms that can be described in many ways — lack of diversity is the most common, with disagreements on what kind of diversity is most desired — leaving the press ill-prepared to take creative action across a cultural divide. The situation was summed up in the most quotable line written by a journalist about Trump’s candidacy: “The press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” (Salena Zito in The Atlantic.)
8. A figure in power who got there in part by whipping up hatred against the press, and who shows no signs of ending that abusive practice… coupled with a disturbing pattern in which Trump broadcasts through his Twitter feed outrageously false statements, the press reacts by trying to “check” them, and the resulting furor works to his advantage by casting journalists in the role of petty but hateful antagonist, with Trump as the man who takes the heat and “tells it like it is.”