Donald Trump Wants to Eviscerate the Public’s Trust in Journalism. If He Succeeds, Our Democracy Is at Risk. | Soapboxer
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Thursday, August 16, 2018

Donald Trump Wants to Eviscerate the Public’s Trust in Journalism. If He Succeeds, Our Democracy Is at Risk.

Posted by on Thu, Aug 16, 2018 at 9:37 AM

click to enlarge This is a real shirt you can buy. Tell us again that the free press isn’t under attack by the authoritarian right.
  • This is a real shirt you can buy. Tell us again that the free press isn’t under attack by the authoritarian right.


Today, hundreds of newspapers from all over the country—including members of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, to which the INDY belongs—will take up the Boston Globe’s call to editorialize against the Trump administration’s attacks on the free press, which the president has taken to calling the “enemy of the people,” something more than half of Republicans now believe to be true. There’s even a hashtag we’re supposed to get trending: #FreePress.

It won’t do much good.

Editorial boards don’t have the sway they did a generation ago, and opinions on all things Trump are pretty fixed. The majority of Americans already believe Trump is a shit president, even though the economy’s doing well; nearly three-fifths of voters think he’s a shit human being, too. On the other hand, the MAGA folks who think it’s hi-lar-i-ous to wear shirts that say “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required” and believe Trump should be able to shut down media outlets he finds offensive are unlikely to be moved by three hundred words in the Globe or the N&O or the INDY or any other bastion of the Deep State Librul Media™. If anything, this exercise will only reinforce paranoia that the elite, out-of-touch MSM is out to get them. (Just watch how Fox News’s primetime crew spins this.)

So what’s the point?

That’s a good question, and one to which I don’t have a great answer. There’s also the nagging sense, as pointed out by a contrarian colleague in Boston, that this initiative is really a Globe PR effort to puff up its national profile. But as the editor of this paper—and as the editorial chair of AAN’s board of directors—I nonetheless feel compelled to add my voice to the choir. Because, like no point in American history, the free press is under attack—an assault on truth and fact and reporting led by a thin-skinned narcissist, his gaslighting sycophants, and special interests seeking to profit from weakened watchdogs, pitched at an authoritarian-inclined, racially anxious rabble all too willing to lap it up.

If they prevail, our very democracy is at risk. That’s not hyperbole. This is how democracies fail and totalitarians rise. Truth is the first casualty. Freedom follows. There’s a reason the First Amendment came first.

The media, of course, doesn’t find itself in a precarious position because of Trump. (Indeed, presidents have been complaining about the press since John Adams signed the Sedition Act.) Our present crisis predates him. There are market forces at work, many of them a product of media organizations’ failure to adapt to the economics of the internet age and rapacious hedge funds that have hollowed out newsrooms in search of a quick buck. In 2017, there were 45 percent fewer newsroom positions at newspapers than there were in 2008. The consequence of those cuts isn’t less coverage of the White House and Congress and national elections; that stuff is ubiquitous. Rather, it’s closer to home: fewer journalists investigating corruption at city hall, fewer journalists covering the statehouse, fewer journalists reporting on police abuse or impoverished neighborhoods or economic inequality.

That’s not to say that good work isn’t being done. Quite the contrary. In North Carolina and across the country, hardworking and often underpaid journalists are digging into deaths in N.C. jails and prisons, exposing the environmental injustice of the pork industry, reporting on the effects of decades of redlining on African Americans in Tacoma, Washington, pulling back the veil on the Flint water crisis, documenting a week of the heroin crisis in Cincinnati, and so on. But it is to say that consistently producing this kind of journalism—the kind of journalism that holds power to account, that comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable—is getting much more difficult.

Enter Donald Trump, a belligerent, largely incoherent reality TV show host who catapulted to the GOP nomination in large part because cable news producers loved the ratings his freak-show rallies generated throughout the latter part of 2015, and then won the presidency because the mainstream media felt they had to pretend that Hillary Clinton’s emails were a scandal on par with Trump boasting of sexual assault, scamming the “students” of Trump University, having ties to the mob, and being rather openly racist—you know, for balance. Yet all the while, he complained that any coverage he didn’t like was “fake news” propagated by “very dishonest people.”

His followers believed him.

As the Mueller investigation has closed in and his administration has been beset by one scandal and misstep after another, his attacks have become more ferocious, more desperate. Now the media is no longer fake, but reporters are “enemies of the people”—language he deployed even after a gunman murdered five journalists in a Maryland newsroom. It is, in his view, the media’s fault that he surrounded himself with the gang that can’t shoot straight—incompetent, malign plutocrats who have a habit of fucking up in public view.

Again, his followers believe him.

Trump lies—wantonly, openly, carelessly—more than any president in modern history. His spokespeople lie. His media propagandists lie. Most of his fellow Republicans, too timorous to stand up to him, either lie for him or pretend not to notice, as they might just get a Supreme Court justice who will overturn Roe. The whole point of the “fake news” slander is to erode trust in the people who are exposing his corrupt, inept, bigoted administration for what it really is; Trump can just say they’re lying, and his followers will accept that as gospel.

There are immediate dangers to this kind of authoritarian gaslighting: There’s heckling and threats of physical violence, which any reporter who's been to a Trump rally can tell you about. There’s hate mail and vicious online harassment, especially for female journalists. And there’s the fact that, this summer, the desk jockeys at every newsroom in the country (including ours) began to plan for an active-shooter situation. (Thanks, Don.)

But the bigger problem is that this erosion of trust will outlive Trump’s administration. This is a business built on a premise of integrity; for newspapers to work, the communities we serve have to believe that we’re not making shit up for fun and profit. Here’s the reality: I’ve been in this game for nearly two decades in one form or another; I’ve gotten to know hundreds of reporters and editors and publishers all over the country, from all walks of life. Some are, of course, better at their jobs than others. Some are smarter. Some are better writers. Some are better at developing sources. Some are more willing to ruffle feathers. Some are more enterprising or less prone to mistakes.

But I’ve never met a journalist who invents stories or makes up sources just for the hell of it. (Except for me. I did a satire thing one time.) It simply doesn’t happen. The industry doesn’t tolerate it. Journalists take their craft much too seriously.

Look at how quickly the N&O bounced Anne Blythe, who apparently plagiarized a few stories. Blythe had been around forever and was well-regarded, but she’d also been asked to aggregate a metric ton of content. I don’t know the particulars, but it’s not hard to imagine how the copy-paste happened. Even though it was almost certainly a matter of being rushed, the paper had no tolerance. As editor Robyn Tomlin succinctly explained: “Journalism is a daily act of faith. It’s a contract between our journalists and you, the reader, that is built on a foundation of trust that we will produce stories we believe to be both accurate and original.”

If Trump succeeds in eviscerating that foundation of trust—if a city council member caught in a corruption scandal or a police chief whose officers are exposed for routinely beat up black people or a county commissioner handing out deals to donors can yell “fake news” and have a significant portion of the population shrug the accusations away because self-interested politicians have taught them not to believe the source—then accountability will vanish.

That’s how the underpinnings of our democracy collapse.

Journalists aren’t perfect. We make mistakes—too many mistakes. We don’t cover enough. We have blind spots. We have biases. We’re rushed and harried and sometimes don’t dig as deeply as we should or cover marginalized communities like we should. But those of us who remain in this thankless business do so because it’s a calling. We make little money, we work long hours, we get more derision directed our way than anyone should. And yet we keep showing up because we have a mission: to effect change in our communities through the stories we tell, to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, to hold power to account.

Will Trump knock off this nonsense because a bunch of newspapers whined in unison? Of course not. I mean, come on:


So what? The hell with that guy.

Here’s what you do: Subscribe to your local newspaper (emphasis on local; the Post and the Times are doing just fine). If your local newspaper is free (ahem), support its advertisers. (Or, you know, send us a check. And if you happen to be a millionaire looking to bankroll local nonprofit investigative journalism, give me a holler.) Trump’s not going to change. His minions aren’t going to change. If we want a free and vigorous media, the kind that democracy demands, we’re going to have to defend it ourselves. 

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