After four years, three months of baseless voter fraud allegations, two impeachments, and one attack on our nation's capitol, we've finally done the unthinkable -- we made it to the end of Donald Trump's Presidential reign of terror. Yet as the press has struggled to keep up with our Commander in Chief, getting wrongfully booted from briefings, working tirelessly to find new ways of sourcing information from a notoriously closed-off, media-hating administration, and, even for several public figures like Jim Acosta, becoming the story themselves -- it seems the events of this presidency no longer exist in a quadrennial vacuum. The rules of engagement for the press in Trump's America will seemingly live on, leaving behind four cautionary tales of how opportunistic politicians can beat us at our own games -- and how to act before it's too late.
From recognizing when you're being played to learning to fearlessly wade through a flood zone of "shit," as Steve Bannon put it, these are the four biggest takeaways as the press corps begins to grapple with the aftermath of Trump's America.
1. Donald Trump played the media like a fiddle.
Ahh, folks, remember the 2012 election? The good 'ol days when the year's biggest scandal du jour stemmed from Republican challenger Mitt Romney's comment about having "binders full of women"? Rich with headlines noting this dryness, like Rolling Stone's straightforward jab, asking, "Is This The Most Boring Election Ever?" America's decision and its surrounding fanfare were relatively unpassionate, a far cry from the exciting messages of "Hope" and "Change" from Barack Obama's legendary campaign just four years earlier. Yet as the election came and went, securing 44 a second term in office, it seems Donald Trump, fresh off a short-lived White House run in 2011, saw a golden opportunity. Through a throwaway campaign rich with controversy, he could set America's political institutions and the media, ablaze; dominating the news cycle, the national conversation, and reportedly create the groundwork to establish his own TV news network. To manifest the second act of his already successful television career, Trump did what seemingly no politician could before -- use the media establishment, and each of its then ironclad conventions, to further his own agenda.
How, exactly could he pull off this unprecedented feat? Regularly appearing in film, television, and the news since the late 1980s, the pop-culture icon that is Donald Trump had more than 40 years of experience mastering our ever-shifting media landscape. This equipped him with an arguably unparalleled ability to manipulate reporters, social platforms, and in turn, the American people. Aside from his experience hosting and producing the wildly successful reality series, The Apprentice, and making himself a pervasive presence synonymous with both wealth and New York, Donald Trump was also a relatively early adopter of Twitter, launching his now bygone page back in 2009, which he grew to two million followers in 2012. Through running this successful multimedia empire, both personally and professionally, Trump garnered an expert understanding of what exactly makes the media tick. From hosting SNL to appearing on several late-night talk shows, we grappled with how to treat Donnie's new persona, questioning if he should be categorized with other celebrity politicians, who often ran unsuccessfully for their leadership positions, or recognize him as a serious candidate in our election.
On November 8, 2016, Donald J. Trump won the United States' presidential election after receiving an unparalleled gift of nearly $3 billion in free advertising, according to MarketWatch, "blowing away rivals in both parties."
Moral of the story? If you can't adapt quickly, you can and will pay the price.
When I was a young reporter, I worked at a well-known publication absolutely obsessed with maintaining the illusion that each of its staff members, from the lowliest of interns to each of their editors in chief, were essentially political eunuchs, the embodiment of neutrality in an increasingly polarized society. Each month, we'd convene for company-wide meetings, consisting of our team's PR manager, who ironically worked for a recent presidential administration, lecturing us on how one even slightly politically-charged social media post could send our whole operation crashing down.
"We were consistently commended for our coverage on the 2016 election," he'd say. "Don't ruin this hard-earned credibility. Unless you're being paid to share your opinion, you must keep your views to yourself." Amid these regular conversations, it became clear that at this outlet, social media posts on all things short of selfies, dog pictures, and wholesome family posts were seemingly off-limits, a sentiment highlighted by an incident in which an environmental reporter was once told to avoid sharing too much climate change-affirming scientific literature on their social media accounts, as it would appear imbalanced. While I do believe it may be worth exploring with a transparency-based model in which journalists are candid about their political views, allowing readers to have more context on the implicit biases of the writers that serve them, this corporate philosophy spanned beyond just social media and into the reporting.
Considering the publication's history as a reputable, albeit niche, news source that once faced highly-publicized scrutiny for allegedly fumbling a critical industry story, an oversight that some say caused harm to their viewers, this urge for absolute fairness and overcorrection makes sense. Yet when the different perspectives are imbalanced, with one point of view lacking a factual basis, problems begin to arise.
Objectivity is a crucial hallmark of successful journalism. Period. Full stop. Reporters are ethically, morally, and often contractually bound to ensure all of their facts are correct before sharing their work with a public eager to hear about the stories that matter to them. Yet appearing unbiased and politically neutral should never come at the price of promoting unfounded ideas, no matter how politicized they've grown. Furthermore, extreme dedication to an arbitrary "one size fits all" model of fairness can often backfire, leading to something known as a "false balance." The phenomenon of overlooking crucial contextual cues that render one side of a story moot in order to create the illusion of fairness on (an often political) topic, false balance, unlike other types of bias in the media, often occurs when journalists are reporting fairly.
Take, for example, the concept of climate change. Although a politically divisive topic, both sides of this debate are not created equal. Climate change is agreed upon by "97 percent or more" of "actively publishing climate scientists," NASA reported, as most deniers of global warming base their views off of bad information or ulterior motives (a.k.a financial incentives), according to the Governor of California's Office of Planning and Research. To appear fair, some publications give both sides equal merit, even when doing so can give dangerous misinformation a broader platform, especially when juxtaposed with a data-based perspective.
Considering many of the claims stemming from Donald Trump and his administration are blatant falsehoods, ranging from "alternative facts" about the attendance at his 2017 inauguration to dangerous medical advice, like when 45 irresponsibly advised his followers to inject bleach as a potentially deadly DIY treatment for coronavirus, dignifying these ideas with the same amount of space and legitimacy as their factually-proven counterparts can spread misinformation, and in the case of the latter example, even physically maim unknowing readers.
While it appears our news corps has begun the process of internalizing this lesson, as exemplified through calling out the Trump campaign's baseless allegations of voter fraud in the 2020 election, and the beliefs of "anti-maskers," as the Covid-19 pandemic rages on, solving this complicated issue will take time, trial, and error.
To find new ways of making sure our reporting is accurate and genuinely balanced -- even in such extreme circumstances - - reporters must look to the past, learning from the reporters of yesteryear.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the southern United States, leaving 1,833 dead, as 1.5 million people were forced to flee their homes. Amid this devastating natural disaster, Louisiana's Superdome became a "shelter of last resort" for individuals unable to evacuate in time. Yet in reporting on this tragedy, some journalists fumbled the facts, sensationalizing what happened there in the days following Katrina.
A widely-read article on the horrors of the makeshift shelter cited several evacuees and two members of Arkansas' National Guard alleging that "30 or 40 bodies" were being held in the Superdome's freezer. The only problem? A formal review later revealed that neither soldier had seen the corpses themselves and that their information, and likely that of the additional interviewees, came from several baseless rumors, according to the Seattle Times.
The moral of this morbid parable is that if you want the truth in dicey situations, you can't always assume your sources are credible, even if they have been in the past. You must "check the freezer" yourself to make sure your information is accurate. The sentiment of this grim story, first imparted to me by one of my mentors during my senior year of college, applies beyond natural disasters, working as an effective blueprint for how to report on an administration defined by "alternative facts" and opacity from their first days in power.
While Presidential administrations on both sides of the aisle have been known to bend the truth to fulfill their agendas, it seems there was a general "honor code," where our nation's leaders and their representatives would abstain from spewing flagrant lies when interacting with the media. Amid Trump's reign, those rules of engagement have suddenly stopped, leaving reporters out in the cold -- sometimes even literally after denying credible news outlets entry to important press briefings.
"To be sure, all politicians lie, but they generally don't like to be called on it," wrote Susan Benkelman and Harrison Mantas in a recent installment of American Press Institute's "Factually" column. "Most of them don't have the same degree of shamelessness as Trump, who responds to fact-checkers by calling them part of the 'fake news.'"
In coping with this jarring shift, reporters have found new ways to ensure the accuracy of their stories in light of these unprecedented circumstances, turning to rigorous fact-checking, analyzing the Trump administration's motives, and even exploring why 45's loyal fan base sometimes blindly believe his every word, Benkelman and Mantas reported.
Disclaimers, too, have become a more commonly used tactic in uncovering the truth in a famously opaque administration. Often, if reporters have conflicting information from different, credible White House sources, they'll share both sides, allowing the reader to grasp the bigger picture of the situation at hand. Take, for example, this week's reports of POTUS's new beef with Borat 2 star Rudy Giuliani. CNN's coverage of this alleged feud, based on "a person familiar with the matter," claims that in a fit of post-secondary-impeachment rage, President Trump instructed officials to refrain from paying Rudy Giuliani's legal fees. It should be noted that outlets, especially those of CNN's caliber, generally thoroughly vet anonymous sources, meaning this person is likely very trustworthy. Yet it quickly became clear there was more to the story, a notion CNN recognized by also including a tweet dispelling this rumor from the Trump campaign's senior advisor, Jason Miller, alleging that all was well between the pair. "Just spoke with President Trump, and he told me that @RudyGiuliani is a great guy and a Patriot who devoted his services to the country!" he wrote. "We all love America's Mayor!"
By including both of these credible sources in their reporting, their audience not only understands the complexity of the situation at hand but sees a snapshot of the chaos from within the administration, making for a richer and more accurate work of journalism.
While some have questioned whether or not President Trump's time in office has forever changed the standards to which we hold our leaders in terms of transparency, it seems it will take years, if not decades, to fully understand the implications of this unusual administration. Still, until we know, it's better to play it safe -- when in doubt, check that freezer.
Yet even when it seems you're constantly opening that freezer door, doing the exhausting but extremely necessary work to complete your due diligence in such extreme circumstances, it is crucial to continue to call out falsehoods at every turn, holding those in power accountable for their words, as moot as it may sometimes seem.
Back in 2018, Steve Bannon, President Trump's ex-chief strategist and the former Executive Chair of Breitbart, shared his philosophy on handling the mainstream media. "The Democrats don't matter," Bannon reportedly said. "The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit." And by flooding the zone with shit, as the former Biosphere 2 exec so aptly put it, the media's role in maintaining a successful democracy becomes significantly more difficult.
"The press ideally should sift fact from fiction and give the public the information it needs to make enlightened political choices," Vox's Sean Illing said of Bannon's remark. "If you short-circuit that process by saturating the ecosystem with misinformation and overwhelm the media's ability to mediate, then you can disrupt the democratic process."
However, just like President Trump once famously said he "could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody" without losing voters, it seems 45 also sees himself immune from the consequences of touting false information, his blatancy and willingness to double down when called on spreading misinformation, leaving him invulnerable to the efforts of fact-checkers. He relies on the notion of plausible deniability to continue passionately spreading falsehoods, a disturbing trend that seems to be encouraged by those in his corner, whether his voters or those looking to profit from his historic tenure in office.
Now, reader, I know what some of you may be thinking. What's the point in publicly holding our government officials accountable if they're going to proudly stand by their false claims when challenged or, well, just blame it all on Game of Thrones, like good ol' RuGiu? The answer is less about attempting to change Trump and Co., but more proverbial. It's about showing our current administration that mental gymnastics doesn't exempt them from facing the consequences of their actions in serving --or failing to serve -- the American people, even if it is irrelevant to their own interests. It's about setting a precedent for future politicians, illustrating that they will be taken to task for their words and actions, regardless of how they conduct themselves in the face of fact-based criticisms from the press corps. And most importantly, it's about showing readers that the reporters they trust will continually go to bat for them, doing everything possible to give them the quality news coverage they deserve.
When the going gets tough, we writers should continue to fact check the hell out of everything in sight, finding new ways to hold leaders accountable, even when mind-bogglingly frustrating -- a task easier said than done, but so, so, worth it.
As I dole out these criticisms, I do so well aware of my own shortcomings and position as a pop culture/social media/political news writer in the broader media landscape. I am not a White House reporter. I do not run the AP News wire. I am not Maggie Haberman, Jim Acosta, or Abby Phillip (as much as I've had a j-crush on her since I interned at CNN back in the fall of 2018). I'm a journalist who has studied media and its accompanying theories extensively but still has a lot to learn. What I've laid before you are the findings of my extensive research into this topic, the contents of my rationale/senior colloquium from my time at NYU, and a handful of important lessons I've gleaned in this early stage of my career.
As simplistic and clear-cut the above points may sound to novice journalists learning the ropes, to armchair media enthusiasts (as a non-reporter friend once unironically told me amid a heated argument, "I've read a newspaper. I know how the media works") or, well, even me with no DC reporting experience, -- the lessons listed above are deceptively complex. To this day, media experts who have worked and studied journalism for decades on end still preside over these issues, looking for new, effective ways to navigate the unique challenges of the Trump administration -- as well as the different set of challenges the incoming Biden administration may present -- and most importantly, better serve their audience in these trying times.
While the press corps should be held accountable for their mistakes, as demonstrated with this piece, it's important to remember that we are not your enemy, no matter what any political leader says. The vast majority of reporters, myself included, have chosen this career path because it's their life's passion to be a public servant, informing the people, uncovering overlooked truths, helping the survival of our democracy -- or in my case, entertaining you with bad puns and Rudy Watch. So, as we navigate these uncertain times, remember, journalists are here to serve you, are always striving to do better -- it is our duty, and it's more important than ever that we get it right.