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.