Editor’s note: The following is the second in a series of Western Journalism reports exploring the new challenges and opportunities impacting American news media. Read part one here.
Throughout the election cycle, the transition period and into the first few days of the new administration, there has been ample evidence of a persistently contentious relationship between President Donald Trump and the mainstream American media.
Nearly a year ago, the then-Republican presidential nominee shot back at the press over what he considered unfair reporting, promising to “open up the libel laws” in order to go after certain outlets. He further indicated doing so would allow him to “sue them and win lots of money.”
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The tension mounted throughout the campaign, culminating in an abrupt exchange between Trump and CNN Senior White House Correspondent Jim Acosta during a press conference last week.
A few days later and just one day into his presidency, Trump confirmed he was engaged in a “running war with the media,” an industry he said was filled with “the most dishonest human beings on Earth.”
First Amendment Fears
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While Trump’s election-season rhetoric caused consternation among many in the news media, some experts are sure honest journalists have little to fear from a Trump administration.
Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, told Western Journalism he does not believe the White House is looking to silence legitimate voices — even those of dissent — within the press.
“This comment about opening up libel laws was off-the-cuff campaign speech,” he said. “He modified the comment later. I believe what President Trump meant is revealed in his later comments and in a general feeling among many about the bias of the media.”
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During a post-election meeting at the headquarters of The New York Times, Trump addressed and seemed to distance himself from his previous comments. He reportedly said someone told him he could personally be sued more often if he succeeded in legally redefining libel, a realization that prompted his reconsideration.
“I think you’ll be happy,” he said in response to reporters’ queries regarding the administration’s protection of a free press.
University of Denver journalism professor Derigan Silver pointed out Trump’s rocky relationship with the media is hardly a new phenomenon.
“There is a long history of antagonistic relationships between the media and politicians,” he told Western Journalism. “I think President Trump is probably taking it farther than almost any politician, perhaps than Nixon.”
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Silver cited reports of President Richard Nixon’s list of enemies, which included members of the press.
“These Washington journalists,” he said, “when they heard about this enemies list and heard they were on it, they kind of took it as a badge of honor and a badge of courage.”
Though Staver said “reporters should not be worried” about covering Trump, he noted those “who release articles like the one that Trump removed the bust of Martin Luther King Jr. should be concerned.”
He credited Time’s Zeke Miller for correcting the story, but added, “A simple question before pressing ‘send’ would have answered this reporter’s question.”
Rather than fearing Trump’s wrath, Staver suggested reporters take a look at their own industry.
“Free speech is threatened not by asking media to be accountable,” he said, “but by allowing media to distort the truth and fabricate stories.”
The American Civil Liberties Union declined Western Journalism’s request for comment on the issue.
Bypassing established news outlets
In addition to maintaining the offensive posture toward mainstream media sources he exhibited throughout the presidential campaign, Trump could restrict their influence by granting White House access to a wider and more diverse pool of news sources.
While he retreated from a pre-inauguration plan to move press conferences out of the existing briefing room and to a larger room in the White House complex, Trump said his administration will be selective about which reporters are able to gain entry.
“The press went crazy, so I said, ‘Let’s not move it,'” he explained in a Fox News interview days before his inauguration. “But some people in the press will not be able to get in.”
Days before becoming the White House press secretary on Inauguration Day, Sean Spicer signaled more total reporters will be included in press briefings, though many will represent outlets outside of traditional media.
“There’s a lot of talk radio and bloggers and people that can’t fit in right now and maybe don’t have a permanency because they’re not part of the Washington elite media,” he said earlier this month.
Trump acknowledged his intention to open briefings to additional sources when he announced he would not be moving the media events from their current West Wing location.
He said reporters will be “begging for a much larger room very soon.”
Reports this week indicating Trump will begin offering off-site reporters remote Skype access to press briefings served as further evidence of the administration’s commitment to expand access to alternative media outlets.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a frequent Trump surrogate during the election, suggested the White House should go even further by including ordinary Americans in the press briefings.
“Why is there this presumption that somebody who calls themselves the press even though they’re total left-wing propagandists, they’re somehow privileged creatures? The question is, should people be allowed to ask questions of the White House?” he asked this week during a Fox News interview.
Media Research Center Research Director Rich Noyes told Western Journalism reporters are simply working in a different environment based on a mixture of Trump and technology and must adapt to the changes.
“Journalists will have to live with the fact that politicians have a way around them and not overreact,” he said. “The same is true for Trump’s frequent criticism of reporters.”
Treating Trump differently
For some in the media, Trump’s attitude toward the profession seems to justify covering his presidency with an inherent bias.
Writing for the New York Times in the wake of Trump’s Jan. 11 press conference, Jim Rutenberg concluded the “news media remains an unwitting accomplice in its own diminishment as it fails to get a handle on how to cover this new and wholly unprecedented president.”
In the same article, though, he warned his colleagues to “change the things they can, in the right ways, not the wrong ways,” going on to chastise BuzzFeed’s infamous report detailing the sordid accusations against Trump included in an unsubstantiated dossier.
“If you view a Trump presidency as something that’s potentially dangerous,” Rutenberg wrote about two months before the election, “then your reporting is going to reflect that. You would move closer than you’ve ever been to being oppositional.”
The Times previously acknowledged its reporters were among the overwhelming majority of media figures to underestimate Trump’s popularity among American voters.
Days after November’s election, Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and Executive Editor Dean Baquet penned a letter to readers indicating Trump’s victory had prompted the newspaper to “rededicate” itself to the “fundamental mission of Times journalism.”
That promise was met with incredulity by others in the press, however, including New York Post columnist Michael Goodwin.
“Had the paper actually been fair to both candidates,” he wrote, “it wouldn’t need to rededicate itself to honest reporting.”
During the campaign, The Huffington Post made its opinion on Trump clear at the end of each article about him with a disclaimer stating in part that he is “a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther.”
After Election Day, however, the outlet took a conciliatory tone by removing the editor’s note and offering the new president a “clean slate.”
Still, polls show the perception among many Americans that the press in general was antagonistic, if not unjustly harsh, toward Trump has further damaged the industry’s already sagging credibility.
Instead of being influenced by ideology or personal opinions, Silver said reporters should seek fidelity to the truth and their mission of “constantly serving as a check on power.”
He said journalists can “take a deep breath” and realize their experience is nothing new.
“We need to not give anybody a pass,” he said, “regardless of whether they’re Democratic leaders or Republican leaders.”
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