Symposium | America After Trump

What Did the Press Just Do?

By Alex S. Jones

Tagged Donald Trumpmedia

The sins of the news media in the Trump/Clinton campaign battle created ample cause for soul searching by journalists. The cardinal sin was a colossal one: We missed the story.

From the moment Donald Trump descended the escalator in Trump Tower to announce his candidacy and declare that he would build a huge wall to keep out Mexicans, the news media feasted on the sensation of such statements and mocked and ridiculed the man who made them.

What far too few did instead was to plumb the electorate that steadily voted Trump into the lead in the Republican primary and then gathered in cheering, jeering thousands at his rallies. The only pollster who seemed to grasp what was afoot was Pat Caddell, who had been a pollster for Jimmy Carter and saw something profound that other pollsters and virtually all journalists simply didn’t see, though it was screamingly on display.

Instead, as Trump threw off insults and outright lies like sparks from a scythe being sharpened, the media focused on how unthinkable it was that such a boorish sexual predator with no political experience or apparent knowledge could become President.

While there were a multitude of stories about the white working class, the issue of anger at the political establishment and resentment at the “elites” went far deeper and swallowed every other aspect of the campaign. What was missed was that this was the only issue for much of the electorate and they voted for a man many of them found odious.

What they missed was that his constituency were people floundering in the sea who felt they were being thrown a rope. In that situation, is it really any surprise that many didn’t much care about the character of the person throwing them a life line?

The journalistic issue here is missing the story, regardless of politics. The reality that journalism is supposed to reveal simply wasn’t the reality that unfolded on election night. That is a major failure of craft.

There were other sins that are also worth serious pondering. News organizations gobbled up hacked emails wholesale and used them as grist for ratings, without apparent thought to the precedents they were setting.

One of the most problematic moral challenges in journalism is what to do with information that has been effectively stolen and then turned over to news organizations. One of the proudest moments in journalism’s history was publication of the Pentagon Papers by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and others. These were documents, many of them classified, which told the story of government duplicity in America’s role in Vietnam. They were stolen and leaked and the story that they told was one of sweeping bad behavior by both parties.

When President Richard Nixon sought to stop publication, the Supreme Court ruled that the newspapers could go forward under the constitutional guarantee of no prior restraint. What is less remembered is that the court’s decision left open the door for the government to punish the news organizations for what they had done.

The importance of the information in the Pentagon Papers justified the decision to publish such secrets, but news organizations also frequently don’t publish secrets because they feel it would not be in the national interest. For instance, military and intelligence secrets rarely see the light of day.

Where do stolen emails fit into this moral landscape? Not comfortably, I would submit. This information is more like knowledge gleaned from illegally tapped phones. Is potential public interest in private conversations sufficient reason to publish? Are there to be no boundaries of privacy, even for people involved in a presidential election?

This is in one sense moot, because the web makes wholesale publication possible with the press of a button and the gatekeeping role of major news organizations has been greatly diminished. But not entirely diminished, and the example set by the major journalism powers still matters.

Had I been the editor of the Times I would have made the point that hacked emails were not a legitimate source of news unless they revealed something that was truly important. Being revealing or merely interesting was too low a standard to breach privacy wholesale.

And then, only very selectively, I would have scrutinized the hacked emails and used only the ones that met that standard, with an explanation and justification for doing so. The Times applied such a standard during the Monica Lewinsky episode and, though other news organizations did not follow suit, a standard was set then that should have been applied here.

Then there is what to do about what might be termed The Trump Trap: how to cover a powerful figure’s lies and insults without simply becoming a vehicle manipulated to garner attention. The news media failed at that miserably.

That Donald Trump, Republican candidate for President, was saying outrageous things was news because of who said those things. This was the gambit of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s when he began declaring that the State Department was riddled with communists. He offered no proof, but he said it, and because he said it, it made news.

This is a true conundrum, because it is news when someone of great prominence and power hurls insults and says outrageous things. But it would be better to accompany such accounts of rude behavior with an explanation of the apparent motive behind the behavior—manipulating the media. The behavior, and the accounts of it, become less toxic and less commanding of attention if viewed through the prism of being manipulation via media.

The media world is riven by competition and rivalry these days and so anything that attracts eyeballs is hard to resist. Donald Trump understands the seductive nature of an outrageous comment. He knows too that pairing that with a willingness to be vastly accessible to journalists redoubles the likelihood that he will be on the front page and in the news cycle.

He played the media, and the media played the patsy, albeit with fact-checking and a negative frame on his comments. That didn’t matter. As Trump famously said, his people would vote for him even if he shot someone on Fifth Ave. That may have been the moment when the media truly missed the story. It didn’t matter that what Trump said or did, and that, it turned out, was the story.

The bitter irony is that the news media even acted as the agent of their own demonization by repeating again and again Trump’s crowd-pleasing taunts that the press was crooked. Having been used by Trump, he then reused the nation’s journalists as a whipping boy to further inflame the pain or injustice or grievance that was in the hearts of Trump’s supporters. The media make a reliable whipping boy, and Trump whipped.

These would have been grist for a serious postmortem for news organizations to ponder, but we may be past that discussion now.

It is perhaps vanity that prompts journalists to believe their work is essential to democracy. I share that view, and I fear that a Trump Administration will try to throttle journalism and thereby do great damage.

We are in new and terrifying territory in which serious critical journalism may well face an existential threat. The ways President Trump could throttle news he doesn’t like range from banning selected news organizations from access to the White House to simply refusing to respond to media inquiries.

But that’s child’s play.

A President could order a sweeping campaign to classify documents. If such a document leaked and became news, a Trump Justice Department could bring criminal charges against the journalist and the news organization and put people in jail as examples. In the case of the Pentagon Papers, criminal charges were not brought because President Nixon feared public opinion. But the law was there to go after The Times and The Post.

It is easy to imagine critical reporting about the Trump Administration based on leaked documents and similarly easy to imagine an enraged Trump instructing his Justice Department to find the source of the leaks. The reporter would likely have promised to keep that secret, and it would be—in theory—a short step for this President to put the reporter in jail for contempt of court. The Obama and George W. Bush Administrations were tough on this sort of thing, but didn’t usually pursue reporters to the point of incarceration.

Would public opinion restrain this President? Perhaps, and perhaps not. The result of a few high-profile jailings of journalists could do wonders for chilling any leaks or critical reporting based on leaks. The public is apparently eager for the media to be punished and Mr. Trump probably wouldn’t care anyway.

A Trump-majority Supreme Court would have the power to redefine what the First Amendment protects and what it does not. After all, the First Amendment is what the Supreme Court says it is. For instance, if the court were to reconsider Times v. Sullivan’s protection of news organizations writing about political figures, a new libel standard would be born, fulfilling one of Trump’s campaign threats.

Times v. Sullivan is the bedrock of protection for news organizations to be critical of public officials and public figures even to the point of being wrong factually. The reasoning was that if the standard was strict factual accuracy, the media would be inclined to be too restrained in its coverage for fear of breaching that rigid line. Instead, the court ruled that for there to be libel in such a situation the public official had to prove that the information was not only untrue, but had been published with “actual malice,” meaning that it was published with knowledge that it was not true or reckless disregard of its truthfulness.

A conservative Supreme Court could narrow those boundaries, making litigation for libel even by a President something conceivable…something that is now virtually inconceivable.

Indeed the pattern of the rich and powerful bringing libel actions as a way of silencing news is well-established, and one of Trump’s biggest supporters has recently used it effectively. Peter Thiel, a tech billionaire, was enraged when the gossipy website Gawker outed him as gay. He retaliated, over the course of a decade, by financing libel suits that have now put Gawker out of business.

The loss of Gawker is not a terrible blow to journalism, but the principle of what Thiel did is sobering because it can just as easily be applied to a news organization that publishes something that displeases someone rich and powerful. Newspapers, which are still the main source of serious reported news, are in economic distress, which makes the prospect of expensive lawsuits a menace to be avoided, often by self-censorship. Similarly, news websites are not usually well capitalized and a few more Gawker cases could chill political reporting dramatically. The potential for a muzzled media, cowed into self-censorship, is obvious.

So, what do we journalists and others who believe in journalism do?

First, journalism needs to look hard at itself. The sins of this election are bitter to contemplate, but must be faced with humility and sincerity rather than the usual journalistic defensiveness. There was some excellent reporting, of course, but the sins are the point and they need to be addressed.

Leaders in the media need to do something clear and dramatic. They need to come together and deliberate. And if some won’t take part, so be it. Those who see the problems—who acknowledge the sins—must take the lead.

We must not miss the story of the Trump Administration as we did of the presidential election of 2016. We must call out manipulation and explain—again and again—what is happening when the manipulation is working. We must set a standard for publishing news based on private communications and it should be one that honors the concept of privacy. This would be a good start.

And we also need to come together to resist a Trump Administration that would silence journalistic scrutiny. We need to recognize the threat. We need to fight it if it comes. We need to be united. We need to do our best to withstand the pain of having our work mocked and reviled. We need to continue to believe that we are indeed essential to democracy.

And we are. Now we must prove it to our country, to the world of journalists who look to American journalists for inspiration, and perhaps most of all to ourselves.

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Alex S. Jones is the co-executive editor of DailyChatter and former director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.

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