Is the Press Doing Its Job?

The job of the press in the calmest of times is to put pressure on power; in being “adversarial,” the media forges a back and forth with the government that should play out almost like a trial in a court of law, with each side pursuing its own responsibility to the public. In a period of turbulence and perhaps unprecedented threat to democratic norms and institutions, that role acquires enhanced importance. But other realities have changed as well – as a resistance begins to form among citizens, and the role of journalists within that resistance – as private citizens or as professionals – may sometimes become blurry, team Trump is using the tactic of calling the press “the opposition,” in an effort to try to paint its adversarial responsibilities as treasonous rather than fundamental to the functioning of democracy. These new circumstances coincide with a period of unprecedented media polarization, in which large sections of the population believe that everything in the “mainstream media” is presented with inherent bias; many among this group of people are instead disposed to place their trust in “untraditional” media, such as Breitbart News, in spite of manifestly unscientific methods, choosing to believe that such outlets present the “truth” about which the “establishment” has kept silent in a kind of omertà.

How should the media navigate these new realities? I won’t profess to offer hard rules, only a few examples. A few days after Trump took office, Maggie Haberman of the New York Times published a much remarked-on account of Trump’s new routine in the White House. Yes it was funny, for a certain set of loyal Times readers. But every other line contained a sly value judgment – “Mr. Trump, who does not read books, is able to end his evenings with plenty of television”; “’They have a lot of board rooms,’ [Trump] said of the White House, an apparent reference to the Cabinet Room and the Roosevelt Room”; “The kitchen has been stocked with the same types of snacks that Mr. Trump had on his private plane, including Lay’s potato chips.” The same kind of subtle condescension was present in much of the reporting on Trump’s voters over the last year. One may find inspiration in the example of the Munich Post, which mocked Hitler “mercilessly,” until it was shut down. But in our United States of 2017, there is an unmistakable class/culture war taking place, and one has to wonder if this manner of attack disserves the media’s ultimate pursuit of representing the interests of every American.

A different scenario: the press, in its admirable zeal to hold the Trump administration accountable for every minutia, reported on January 28 that the executive order that named Steve Bannon to the Principals Committee of the National Security Council also “downgraded” the status of the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This, in fact, was not the case. Reporters reading the text of the EO had made an assumption without being familiar with the underlying context. Also, it’s clear that communication between a mutually mistrustful press and executive government had broken down. When Sean Spicer tried to correct the error at a press conference, journalists (with good reason) didn’t believe him, and continued to report on the supposed “downgrade.” The record still has not been publicly amended, and the press of course has not owned up to the fact that they responded as a hive in reporting on the wrong information in the same way – naturally, this makes a mistrustful public even warier. One of the greatest challenges, then, is to figure out how to be oppositional but still maintain the necessary communication with government officials, to figure out ways to confirm or contradict what the Trump admin is saying in a minefield of lies, probably by way of confirmation through independent experts.

The Mike Flynn case is, happily, an exceptional example of the media being on point. It was the press who exposed that Flynn had lied about the contents of his conversation with the Russian ambassador — not only to the public, but also to members of his own government, specifically, Mike Pence, thereby humiliating Pence when Pence’s own public statements then turned out to be false. The debacle forced an unqualified demagogue to resign his position, which is beneficial to the national security interests of every American.

One of the media’s most pressing needs right now is to find a way to speak to, and for, every American, as part of an aspiration to reunite the country. Its role as an “adversary” to government needs to be constantly reexamined. If the purpose of the press is to protect the well-being of every American, and the security of the country, then the question of whether its actions are furthering that effort should be asked at every turn.

Elisabeth Zerofsky

11 thoughts on “Is the Press Doing Its Job?”

  1. I appreciate your admonition to the liberal press to keep itself accurate and on target and to correct its mistakes. My question is this: since the present Trump administration relies on the suppressions and propaganda of media such as Fox News, how do honest reporters and media respond to a public that increasingly listens to such sound bite blitzes — the dumbed-down rhetoric that apparently has political power to persuade. Does apologizing for a mistake work in this climate? Some have argued that “alt right’ or “tea-party” tactics need to be taken up by those on the Left. What think you?

  2. What comes next?

    The US media in condescending to Trump and in acting as if it is a responsibility of the Fourth Estate to reverse the election result is going to come unstuck.

    You might have 8 years to think about “what comes next”.

  3. Very grateful to Ms Zerofsky for pointing the way to the much needed high road for journalists to follow in these murky, chaotic times. So very important.

  4. Excellent article. I agree that the press MUST figure out a way to stay relevant and trusted. Trump’s claims of a “dishonest press” must not be confirmed by our press corps by accident or intention. Likewise, the press must continue to hunt for truth in an era that discredits truth consistently. Here’s what I hope: that the press stays as professional as possible. That they do not bait or taunt an unstable president, but that they, instead, report the facts with dignity, integrity, and assertiveness. Conjecture and opinion reporting only diminishes the important role the press plays. We need you more than ever!! Don’t let us down!

  5. Just discovered you reading Atlantic Containing Trump. I am a Canadian suffering from severe anxiety about US SCENE. Have family, colleagues and friends living in your country. It is such Solace for me that your nature and thoughtful work is providing me. I am a near full time Twitter user @jimkoziak Let’s stay in touch. Warmest regards. And Cheers, Jim

  6. This is an excellent and well thought out article. It’s important for all of us who are opposed to the Trump administration to maintain a clarity of analysis as well as purpose.

  7. Of course the press is doing their job! Donald Trump is widely known for his dishonesty, and now that he has become our President he has to be fact-checked on every utterance. He and his administration must be constantly scrutinized. Keep up your good work.

  8. The press is doing its job. But it’s the job of the American people to READ and THINK and ANALYZE. Trump’s followers seem to simply believe what the strong man says. Meanwhile he lies at every opportunity. The press should fact check every statement and people should read about his lies. The press is not “the enemy of the American people” as Trump says.

  9. Without the independent press we would be completely at the mercy of alt right determined social reality, a la Berlusconi in Italy. However, I love the focus of this website which is the vision after Trump. I’ve understood that Italy after Berlusconi is a cynical place where no one trusts any politician and there is little hope for a communal future.
    While I want every one of Trump’s lies exposed, I also want to explore the construction of a shared future in which trust and hope solve the crisises of inequality and institutionalized exclusion. There are models of economic development which use different parameters so that environmental destruction is not an inevitable consequence of growth. Production cooperatives, such as Mondragon, offer models of democracy in the workplace which build a culture of democratic participation in society at large. There are excellent alternatives to the mechanics of democracy currently in place such as run-off voting and election by majority rather than plurality as recently described by Eric Maskin and Amartya Sen in the New York Review of Books and previously by Lani Guanier in the Tyranny of the Majority.
    There are examples of businesses in the US which are organized as cooperatives and others which are structured so that there is a limit on the differential in income between the lowest and highest paid worker – like Costco.
    The press could help us think about the different ways we can structure our lives. Without these examples it is easy to succumb to the ideology that the only way to survive, never mind be successful, is to compete in every way possible to beat out the competition. The externailities – the worse being the health of our planet- are immaterial to that sense of impending doom if we don’t go to the right schools, live in the right neighborhoods and get those high paying, corporate jobs.

  10. It was quite a disappointment during the infamous thurs. press conference when the reporter engaging the President on a particular point of what is actually a matter of fact, not a thing of particular emphasis for this administration or its supporters, by closing with “your the President” when asked by Mr. Trump if he agreed with’his conclusions’. This to my way of thinking is precisely why the contemporary media has reported the 4th Estate of our country into the battle for integrity they may possibly lose.
    In holding this or any other administrations ‘feet to the fire’ by requing and, if need be,demanding factual information and adherence to intelligent discourse. He missed that opportunity. It also seems this particular administration will need much guidance since the bounds of subjective words such as ‘ truth ‘ will exceed all reasonable bounds.
    Thank you for your time.

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