A new normal in journalism for the age of Trump

The New York Times building in New York. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

President-elect Donald Trump’s latest attempt to humiliate a media still licking post-election wounds came with a Twitter salvo beginning at 5:16 a.m. on Tuesday. “I cancelled today’s meeting with the failing [New York Times] when the terms and conditions of the meeting were changed at the last moment,” he wrote, incorrectly, in reference to a sitdown with Times journalists scheduled to be part on the record, part off. “Not nice.”

Such broadsides have been commonplace in the early days of Trump’s transition to the White House. The President-elect has continued to engage news organizations in more direct combat than his recent predecessors, signaling a war of attrition that might continue for the next four years or longer. The question now: How to keep that combat out of the day-to-day news coverage? 

On Tuesday, the Times stood its ground. Trump’s hometown newspaper pressured him into what became a meandering yet newsmaking conversation on politics, policy, and his icy relationship with the media. It came just a day after TV bigwigs acquiesced, embarrassingly, to Trump’s demands and received an off-the-record shellacking.

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Again and again, we are reminded that this is not normal. The president-elect has paraded potential cabinet picks in front of TV cameras over the past two weeks while neither holding a news conference nor following the longstanding norm of the protective press pool. He continues to tweet 140-character invective aimed at a monolithic “crooked media.” While an honest debate is already difficult in a polarized and fragmented media environment, Trump has made it even harder by spewing false and misleading information from his bully pulpit, dragging the news media back into the hyperpartisan muck of the 2016 campaign. 

It’s in Trump’s interest to paint the press as an oppositional political force through these skirmishes. And there’s been wide variation so far on how to respond, particularly given Trump’s shirking of other American political norms. He has appointed the former head of Breitbart News, often a platform for white nationalism, to a top post, while his sprawling business interests and close-knit family members-turned-advisers pose unprecedented conflicts of interest. 

“Part of what is so challenging, ethically, is that this is a candidate who is not behaving by standing norms,” says Kathleen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “So journalists are trying to figure out what norms apply.” 

Whereas national newspapers and TV outlets attempt to delineate between their supposedly neutral coverage and media activism, momentum is building among many digital upstarts and magazines behind the idea that Trump’s presidency should be framed as a broader threat to American political norms.

During the campaign, The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, Vox and other growing players explicitly referred to Trump as “racist,” among other descriptors, while the outpouring of anti-Trump editorials from newspapers largely followed the argument that Trump was a unique threat to American democracy as we know it.

But some outlets have taken this notion a step further in explicit appeals to their audiences following Trump’s unexpected victory. Fusion Editor in Chief Dodai Stewart labeled her publication as “the voice of the resistance” in an editor’s note nodding to a diverse, millennial audience. In a message to Slate podcast listeners, Jacob Weisberg solicited new memberships with a pre-program message promising to “keep telling the truth about [Trump] and resisting the pressure to normalize his behavior.”

“We will count ourselves members of the loyal opposition—loyal to the United States of America and opposed to the policies proposed by the president-elect during his campaign,” Daily Beast boss John Avlon added in a note published soon after Trump secured victory on November 8. “The policies candidate Trump has proposed represent an existential challenge to our civic fabric, liberal values, and world order.”

The normalization of the anti-normalization view even surfaced Tuesday night at the annual black-tie gala for the Committee to Protect Journalists, where CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour used her keynote address to issue a cri de coeur to the assembled establishment to fight an “existential crisis” for journalism posed by Trump.

There is certainly a market for this view, as evident by the reported post-election bump in new subscribers to the likes of The New Yorker and The Atlantic. More avowedly liberal publications likewise continue to pressure mainstream newspapers and networks to adopt what they see as a pro-democracy stance.

That shouldn’t necessarily be fraught territory for mainstream media institutions, but it  is amorphous. Many big players have tread lightly in public statements following Trump’s unexpected victory. In a note to readers this week, Los Angeles Times Editor Davan Maharaj promised a commitment “to covering the administration with rigor, accuracy and fairness.” It followed a similar message from New York Times brass that announced an effort “to rededicate ourselves to the fundamental mission of Times journalism.” For what it’s worth, both publications fairly called Trump a “liar” at one point.

Two factors make this tightrope even more precarious. Trump campaigned on anti-democratic ideas such as a proposed ban on foreign Muslims entering the country. And a fractured and polarized media environment has opened legacy news organizations to more criticism than ever before, even if the sources of that criticism don’t themselves adhere to professional journalistic norms.

This is why navigating Trump’s manufactured media controversies is so tricky. Last weekend, he directed a Twitter tantrum toward the cast of the hit Broadway musical Hamilton. The volley was an open attack on free expression, a political norm news organizations should feel comfortable openly defending. But resulting outrage in some ways clouded reporting on the Trump University fraud suit settlement—another norm shattered. It also pitted journalists against Trump in the broader culture war that he, Breitbart, and Fox News have an interest in perpetuating and exacerbating.

Fear of such accusations of political and cultural bias during the campaign no doubt contributed to the outsized coverage of Clinton’s email scandal relative to Trump’s outlier policy positions, long history of racist and sexist statements, and potential for massive personal conflicts once in office. CNN, for example, stocked its panels full of pro-Trump analysts in order to exude objectivity. This could be the major fault line going forward.

“If we care more about the perception and the reaction than we care about the reality, then journalism is in peril,” says Culver, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Then partisans who say we are in—I hate to even use the term—the ‘post-truth era,’ win.”

She is right, even if it’s harder to push back at a time in which public trust in media is historically low, when Trump whips up crowds chanting “CNN sucks!”, and while digital mobs harass journalists in the president-elect’s name. TV networks, to single out one segment, have largely shown an inability or unwillingness to respond to this challenge in any institutional way. 

This is why The New York Times’ wartime footing scored a tactical victory for journalism on Tuesday. This is not normal; it’s also the new normal. The former should shine through in outlets’ final product, while the latter requires vigilance and resolve in the face of Trump.  

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David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.