Having heard some of President Donald J. Trump’s news conference on February 16, and having seen and read dozens of media stories about the first month of President Trump’s presidency, here five words of advice for both parties.
Stop fighting. Get along. Collaborate.
First – to the managers, directors, editors, publishers and reporters who comprise the media in 2017: To turn one of Brooke Gladstone’s phases a bit, you have the government you deserve. Public opinion survey after survey shows that distrust of the media, and a belief that the media is biased, are both at all-time highs. President Trump’s election came about, in part, as a result of that distrust. So if you’re unhappy about the outcome, you’ll find one leading cause for it just by looking at a mirror.
A lot of media analysts have stated this as well, as have countless editors and reporters working within the profession. One is Derek Thomspon, senior editor of The Atlantic and author of Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction. Below is a link to his article citing four main reasons for the distrust. There are more reasons, but this is a strong starting point.
Billy Graham has been on the Gallup Polls as one of the “Ten most admired men in the world” for the past 60 years. His son, Franklin Graham, has a blunt assessment that concurs with President Trump: The media is lying. When the occupant of the White House and major religious leaders agree on an issue as important as this, the owners and managers of newspapers, television news-gathering divisions, and news-based websites had better take notice and change their ways.
Let’s also admit the obvious: All too often, today’s media has become the pawn (willing or unwitting) of special interests. The WikiLeaks revelations from John Podesta’s emails included the existence of a lengthy list of media members who were “friendly” to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign. It also revealed details about a huge party which dozens of media on her “friendly” list attended, around the time Clinton announced her candidacy for President in Spring 2015. Gallup and other polls show that the public believes the media supports the Democratic Party, by a margin of 3.5 to 1.
One way the media could begin to redeem itself is to change its direction and focus. Don’t be overly concerned about the White House, but instead look at the plight of the average Jane and Jose in our land. It’s quite telling that Margaret Sullivan, public editor of The New York Times, admits that her newspaper made a mistake by not thoroughly covering the Flint, Michigan, water contamination crisis.
Part of what made journalism great in the last quarter of the 20th century was its ability to focus on what Ed Murrow and Fred Friendly (creators of “See it Now,” the first in-depth television news program) called the little picture. This concept of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable,” as stated in a column in the Chicago Evening Post 125 years ago, is something still taught in journalism colleges and universities across the country.
It’s time to refocus. How many more Flints are out there in the nation? If the media returned to a vital role of being a champion of the little people, its reputation would improve.
Now, let’s look at what’s happening at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, in the Executive Office Building, and elsewhere in the Trump Administration, with respect to the media and the practice of journalism.
Mr. President: You gave a prescient speech about six months ago on the campaign trail. On August 16, in Wisconsin, you said this:
“Every day you pick up a newspaper, or turn on the nightly news, and you hear about some self-interest banker or some discredited Washington insider says they oppose our campaign. Or some encrusted old politician says they oppose our campaign. Or some big time lobbyist says they oppose our campaign.
“I wear their opposition as a badge of honor. Because it means I am fighting for REAL change, not just partisan change. I am fighting – all of us across the country are fighting – for peaceful regime change in our own country. The media-donor-political complex that’s bled this country dry has to be replaced with a new government of, by and for the people.
You not only won the election, you defeated the very complex which you eloquently identified on the campaign trail. Now you face a new challenge – Working with at least a portion of the enemies you conquered. Some of them are political. Some are donors. And some are members of the media.
Whether or not the media deserves it (in my humble opinion, most don’t), as a statesman and the leader of the world’s greatest democracy, you need the media to report, accurately and fairly, upon your administration and its accomplishments. If democracy is to grow and thrive around the world, then the U.S. media is in a unique position — has a unique responsibility — to broadcast truth and light in places where all too often there are only messages of hate and doom.
They don’t get it. They don’t understand that your usage of Twitter belongs in the same category at John Kennedy’s employment of live TV news conferences or FDR’s radio fireside chats. You are utilizing a newer medium to communicate directly to improve the lives of the people – the oppressed, the downtrodden, and those who seemingly have had no voice and no way to improve their own lives.
Because they don’t get it, you need to exhibit both exceptional leadership and exceptional restraint in showing them a path towards some degree of collaboration and respect for each other.
Here’s a suggestion – Try some one-on-ones. Invite new NBC News President executive Noah Oppenheim to the White House. Have dinner with the New York Times’ Dean Baquet. Do a two-for and have both Marty Baron (executive editor) and Jeff Bezos (owner) of The Washington Post over for a conversation.
Let them realize that you understand the business challenges and pressures they face. Give them an opportunity to have an exclusive and see if they are willing to work with you or continuously write or broadcast story after story which attacks you.
You have proven that you don’t need the media to campaign and win an election. However, governing is easier if the public isn’t divided and walled off into dozens of “echo chambers” where everyone is seeing and hearing nothing but their own point of view.
Something beyond winning or losing an election is at stake here. E Pluribus Unum should be more than just a motto. Extend an olive branch from your position as the victor. Media leaders would be wise to accept that offer. Then, just maybe, we can obtain some equilibrium in a land that’s becoming increasingly less civil and more hostile.
Our first president could have been a king, but he wanted a democratic republic to govern the land. George Washington said, “While a courteous behavior is due to all, select the most deserving only for your friendships.”
Try imitating President Washington’s advice, at least for a while, with respect to the media, President Trump. Give them some courtesy, and offer an opportunity for them to change course. It’s in everyone’s best interests – including the nation — that this happens.
I am an associate professor of journalism/mass communications at Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C). These views are my own, and not those of Tri-C.
Hanson, Ralph, “Mass Communication,” Sage Publications, sixth edition, pages 127-128