In his important year-end post for his site PressThink, New York University journalism professor and critic Jay Rosen warned, “the world has changed and journalists are in the fight of their lives.” Rosen’s point is that the way for journalism to earn trust has changed because users now have more choices and more control. He then provides a thoughtful list of ways is which journalists can win trust through transparency.
But how does one win the trust of everyone in the era of Trump, who now is a bully with the White House pulpit? The president proudly claimed in an interview with the Fox Business Channel last October that he “started this whole fake news thing.” Of course, that is not true. In fact, according to the Washington Post, “President Trump has made 1,950 false or misleading claims over 347 days.”
That the president frequently lies is not fake news, and it is not new news. A Morning Consult/Political poll last December found that only 36 percent of those sampled thought the president is honest. In fact, 51 percent of those polled believe he is dishonest, while 60 percent think he is reckless. Yet his almost daily attacks against the press, mostly false or misleading, have staggered many members of the press.
The First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees freedom of the press. Freedom House reports that freedom of the press is in decline around the world, including here in the United States. A record number of journalists have been imprisoned worldwide, including 21 on “fake news” charges. Senator John McCain issued this warning to President Trump in December on Twitter, ”@POTUS must understand his harmful rhetoric only empowers repressive regimes to jail reporters and silence the truth.”
Soon after his return to the White House, following a holiday break in Florida, the president launched another fusillade on Twitter against one of his favorite targets, The New York Times. “The failing New York Times has a new publisher, A.G. Sulzberger. Congratulations! Here is a last chance for the Times to fulfill the vision of its Founder, Adolph Ochs, to give the news impartially, without fear of FAVOR, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved,” his first tweet read. He continued in a second tweet, “Get impartial journalists of a much higher standard, lose all your phony and non-existent ‘sources,’ and treat the President FAIRLY, so that the next time I (and the people) win, you won’t have to write and apology to your readers for a job poorly done!”
Clearly, the president’s claims of fake news and his attacks on news organizations are all a tactic. If he was innocent of sin, if his White House was free of scandal, if his agenda was popular with the masses, he wouldn’t have to protest too much. But he doth protest an awful lot! He loves to spin his own alternate reality and lash out at the press. His communications staff, assorted acolytes and members of Congress echo his attacks because it is in their own personal interest and the mainstream media are easy targets. Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron stoically observed last year, “We are not at war with the administration, we are at work.”
But for more news channels, more online news sites, and the growing amount of users who get their news from social media, opinion is now the currency of the realm. An enormous number of Americans get their information only from sources they feel agree with their views, i.e., one’s that are consistent with their core beliefs. And some news outlets carefully craft their content to appeal to their likely viewers, and to advance a political agenda. This has left America so politically divided it is hard for people from different regions or ideologies to agree on basic facts, let alone have an rational and calm discussion.
More transparency is important, absolutely, but do Sean Hannity’s 3.2 million viewers care if he is transparent? Few of his viewers check around with different sources to get the other side of the argument. And they don’t care that Hannity regularly consults with President Trump, who is a big fan of his program. Sure, Hannity is not a journalist, but he is on the Fox News Channel.
The big question is at what point will Americans say enough is enough with the attacks on the press. At what point will Americans be motivated enough to devote time to study all sides of the issues. At what point will Americans take the time to be well informed before making decisions about elected officials, as our founding fathers had intended when they wrote the First Amendment. The fathers wanted to assure that America would not be ruled by a despot, rather that it would always be ruled by the people.
The press is not perfect, but most major news organizations have a process to assure that all of the facts are fully vetted before they are published, and to assure fairness, impartiality, independence and accountability. On the other hand, the administration, the Congress, and government agencies are not always transparent and accountable to the people. That will only happen with a strong and vibrant press.
Journalists may be in a fight for their lives, due to evolving business models and rapid changes in technology, but their survival is essential for the maintenance of this great democracy.