Ryan J. Reilly
White House chief strategist Steve Bannon says the press “should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut.” President Trump, building on such previous slurs as “slime,” “absolute scum,” and “lying, disgusting people,” has proclaimed the media “the enemy of the American people.” Reporters he doesn’t like are accused of being “fake news” and denied access.
Trump’s attacks on the press, like those on the judiciary, are meant to neutralize a check on his incompetence, dishonesty, and corruption. But they are not mere expressions of resentment; they put journalists and our press traditions—in fact, our democracy—in danger. As practitioners of journalism, and citizens who rely on it, we have to respond.
First, the press must embrace new approaches, specifically with regard to passing judgments on false statements. We can’t politely stand aside out of some misguided notion of objectivity and fairness. We must identify and expose misstatements of fact.
This is already happening, with the boom of fact-checking outlets to evaluate the pronouncements of politicians. We are also seeing journalists go to great lengths to call out lies and avoid being the conduit of false information.
“President Trump got his facts wrong again,” declared Scott Pelley on the CBS Evening News of February 7: “The President’s false claim that the media are consciously underreporting the murder rate comes the day after he made the false charge that the media are conspiring to cover up terrorist attacks.” You go, Scott!
Second, members of the media must stand up for each other. This, too, is happening. After Trump’s astonishing first solo press conference of February 15, in which he lashed out at the press and ducked questions, Fox News host Shepard Smith delivered a stunning on-air rebuke.
“It’s crazy what we’re watching every day. It’s absolutely crazy. He keeps repeating ridiculous throwaway lines that are not true at all and sort of avoiding this issue of Russia as if we’re some kind of fools for asking the question,” Smith said. “Really? We’re fools for asking the questions? No sir, we are not fools for asking the questions. And we demand to know the answer to this question.”
“Really? We’re fools for asking the questions? No sir, we are not fools for asking the questions. And we demand to know the answer to this question.”
Some Trump supporters, predictably, demanded that Smith be fired. But when I played a portion of his remarks to an audience at an event in Plover, Wisconsin, they responded with applause.
Which brings me to point three: The public also needs to stand with the press. Print journalism, battered by technological and economic trends, has seen a drastic reduction in reporters, editors, and old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting, especially in local communities and state capitols around the country. Those who remain must do more with less.
The journalists I know, from my more than thirty years in the profession, work hard and care deeply about their country and their communities. They display, by any measure, a much higher commitment to fairness and accuracy than does Donald Trump. And when they get things wrong, they admit it. Trump’s attacks, in contrast, are unhinged and unfair.
Consider what happened when Zeke Miller, a reporter from Time magazine, mentioned in a press pool report that, during his visit to the Oval Office, he had not seen a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. that had been there before. Shortly after another reporter put this out, the White House denied it. Two minutes later, Miller emailed a correction to a large list of reporters, followed by more than a dozen tweets acknowledging his error and apologizing for it. But Trump nonetheless seized on this, and has continued to cite it, as an example of deliberately false reporting. Responded Time editor Nancy Gibbs, “It was no such thing.”
Of course not. A reporter, unlike the President, can’t just say demonstrably untrue things and expect to get away with it.
The press is not above criticism. Mainstream reporters and editors are far too willing to cozy up to people in power. But the job of journalism has never been more important, and the media—from The Progressive to National Public Radio to The New York Times—need the support of the American people to withstand the Trump Administration’s attacks.
Let’s stand together and push back.
Let’s stand together and push back.
White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, in the same interview in which she coined the term “alternative facts,” scolded NBC’s Chuck Todd, saying: “Your job is not to call things ridiculous that are said by our press secretary and our President. That’s not your job.”
I’ve got news for her: It is our job. And it’s the public’s job, too.