How to cover a hostile president

This article is one of three being co-published by The Nation and CJR as part of a special issue of The Nation on “Media in the Trump Era,” available online in full on March 2.

This is a time of testing for American journalism—will it rise to the occasion? Today’s media environment faces dangers as threatening as our physical environment faces from climate change. Journalism’s operating model has been under siege for more than a decade; now it confronts an existential risk as an authoritarian populist attacks democratic norms once taken for granted.

But this moment of peril is also a moment of opportunity. Much depends on how a media system already under stress from the epochal changes in technology, economics, and audience behavior responds to this new challenge. And much is at stake: not only a renewal of the journalistic vocation, public trust in the media, and its commercial potential, but also the accountability architecture of American democracy itself. Securing these things will mean returning to some old principles: fairness, accuracy, rigor, and, above all, a position outside of power, exerting pressure on it, rather than inside, transmitting its message. And even that on its own may not be enough. To truly confront this moment and emerge strengthened, the press will require new and sometimes uncomfortable strategies.

 

To truly confront this moment and emerge strengthened, the press will require new and sometimes uncomfortable strategies.

 

Sign up for CJR's daily email

I know how bewildering it can be as a journalist to feel the secure foundations of a liberal-democratic culture shift and slip beneath you. As a parliamentary reporter in South Africa, and later as the editor of Johannesburg’s Mail & Guardian, a newspaper built on blockbuster investigations of corruption and the abuse of power, I watched it happen in slow motion to a country that was too complacent about the strength of its young institutions. In the 2000s, as the leaders of the African National Congress lost patience with the very constitutional constraints on power they had once battled apartheid to secure, they took to closing off reporters’ access, launching proxy lawsuits, stigmatizing the press as biased, building a case for regulatory oversight, and abetting the purchase of hostile news outlets by business cronies. Today, under Jacob Zuma’s majoritarian rule, a free press survives, albeit in diminished form, thanks to a vigorous and persistent fight.

The United States, where I work now, is not South Africa: Its democratic traditions are older, its legal protections for speech more absolute, its media more diverse and, despite the carnage in print journalism, vastly better resourced. And yet the features of an authoritarian populism, centered on the personality of a demagogic leader, are emerging with stunning rapidity here.

The day after he was inaugurated, Donald Trump made it clear that his “running war with the media” would continue into his presidency. “They are among the most dishonest human beings on earth,” he said of journalists in a speech at the CIA’s headquarters. He then sent his press secretary, Sean Spicer, out to berate the press for accurately reporting on the inauguration’s attendance and to fabulate numbers about crowd size. The next morning, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, introduced a spluttering Chuck Todd to “alternative facts” when he questioned her about Spicer’s lies on NBC’s Meet the Press. Four days later, with the sulfur of Trump’s first executive orders still hanging in the air, White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon gleefully told the press to “shut up” and then daubed it with the scarlet letter that authoritarians routinely bestow upon independent journalism: “the opposition party.” And so it went, compressing into days an assault that in other countries—Russia, Turkey, Venezuela, South Africa—has taken years. But the tropes of illiberal democracy aren’t enough for Trump. When stories in The Washington Post and The New York Times helped to bring down his national security adviser, Gen. Michael Flynn, he escalated to outright dictator-speak, attacking “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN)” on Twitter and describing it as “the enemy of the American People!”

Grandiose hostility to the press, performed as a kind of theater, is no longer a tool of voter mobilization for Trump; now he seeks to use it to undermine the basic information infrastructure of democracy. His ultimate target is accountability in the largest sense. No one who has covered other authoritarian leaders could have been surprised when President Trump ridiculed US District Court Judge James Robart for overturning his travel ban against the citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries: “The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!”

 

In the face of this blitzkrieg, there have been some fine acts of individual journalism. The Times and the Post have kept the spotlight on allegations of Russian campaign meddling, and there have been telling accounts of the access that $200,000 can buy at Mar-a-Lago. No doubt that’s why the president and some of his supporters felt that he needed to “win” his bizarre face-off with journalists in the East Room on February 16, and insist that he succeeded. Be that as it may, when NBC correspondent Peter Alexander corrected Trump’s false assertion about his margin of victory in the Electoral College and asked: “Why should the American people trust you?” he planted a flag that others may rally to in time.

Overall, though, the press has found it difficult to mount an effective response to Trump. Why? Combating climate change—the global-warming kind—is hard, because fossil fuels are part of the global economy’s deep structure. American journalism, similarly, finds itself trapped in dysfunctional practices that it regards as foundational.

Two habits of mind stand out: an insistence that the press must pretend to Olympian neutrality, and a conviction that access to the powerful is good per se. These two beliefs coincide with the persistence of a journalistic professional class that was educated in elite institutions, is convinced of its place within the machinery of power, and has forgotten its blue-collar roots (which are literally invisible in most newsrooms now that printing presses have moved to distant suburban plants and computers have replaced hot lead).

 

Combating climate change—the global-warming kind—is hard, because fossil fuels are part of the global economy’s deep structure. American journalism, similarly, finds itself trapped in dysfunctional practices that it regards as foundational.

 

Trump and Bannon understand this perfectly and have hacked the deep grammar of establishment journalism to turn the press against itself. If the press believes its job is to convey messages from the nation’s leaders rather than to hold them to account, then news organizations need only send their most polished stenographers to the White House briefing room and carry the proceedings live, lies and all. If the job of journalists is to be “balanced,” they will invite Conway onto their programs as a representative of the president, even if she adds no new information or, worse, invents a Bowling Green massacre to justify his travel ban. They may snort at her in derision, as Todd did when she coined the term “alternative facts,” but that only enables the propagandist to label journalists as an arrogant coastal elite.

Worse still, if journalists insist on appearing neutral, they will avoid asking hard-edged questions or calling a lie a lie. Instead, they’ll default to mealy-mouthed formulations like “What do you say to those of your critics who argue that…?” They will spurn the word “lie” when covering Trump because, as Wall Street Journal Editor in Chief Gerard Baker maintains, we cannot see inside the president’s mind and divine his “state of knowledge and moral intent.”

It isn’t the word “lie” that really matters in this debate; the deeper problem is the familiar theory of trust that Baker insists on. “If we routinely make these kinds of judgments,” he has said, “readers would start to see our inevitably selective use of a moral censure as partisanship. We must not only be objective. We must be seen to be objective to continue to earn our readers’ trust.” This is an extraordinary claim. Drawing journalistically reasonable inferences from unimpeachable evidence actually enhances the press’s authority rather than undercuts it. For a journalist or a news organization to abdicate that responsibility is to give up before they’ve begun.

Moreover, for the press to articulate a politics of independence, accountability, fairness, and accuracy, and then to choose its words on that basis, is not partisan. Nor does the press risk its credibility with such reporting any more than it currently does with phony “he said/she said” formulations. On the contrary, this will be the basis for a more enduring trust—perhaps the only kind that can survive a president who attacks as partisan any outlet that contradicts his fables.

 

The first imperative in war is to recognize that you’re fighting for your life and act accordingly. The war for freedom of the press in the Trump era must be fought on many fronts. It must be fought in the White House briefing room, where reporters need to shun stenography, ask more pointed questions, and stand up for colleagues when the administration attempts to punish a given reporter or outlet. It must be fought in the courts, where lawsuits and the threat of legal action will aim to sap journalists’ will and reduce their bosses’ appetite for risk. It must be fought in the publishers’ suites, where crony deals or concern over pressure from regulators on associated companies or deals can encourage the softening of coverage.

According to the The Wall Street Journal, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner has already complained to CNN’s parent company, Time Warner, about the network’s coverage. Time Warner is planning a merger with AT&T, which must clear a series of federal hurdles. Even if this pressure has no effect on CNN, it sends a message to the entire industry.

Nowhere are the sacrifices that Washington journalism makes at the altar of access more egregious than with the annual White House correspondents’ dinner. Astonishingly—or perhaps not—this year’s dinner is still scheduled to go ahead on April 29, despite rising unease and the withdrawal of the “failing” New York Times and the “way down” Vanity Fair. Jeff Mason, the president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, recently told the Times that his organization “looks forward to hosting our annual dinner this year as we do every year to celebrate the First Amendment, reward some of the finest reporting of the past year and recognize promising young student journalists.”

The First Amendment and student journalism need all the love they can get, but the true function of the correspondents’ dinner is quite different: to bind the establishment press and the White House in a slightly awkward hug and then sprinkle both with celebrity stardust. There is mutual ribbing, but any sting is always drawn by the certain knowledge that “we”—journalists and government officials—are all in this together.

Until we aren’t. On February 24, Spicer excluded the Times, CNN, the Los Angeles Times, BuzzFeed, and the BBC, among others, from an off-camera briefing, saying the White House would continue to “push back” on the “narrative” they were reporting. The following day, amid gathering outrage and rumbles about a boycott, Trump pulled out of the dinner, tweeting: “Please wish everyone well and have a great evening.”

 

Drawing journalistically reasonable inferences from unimpeachable evidence actually enhances the press’s authority rather than undercuts it. For a journalist or a news organization to abdicate that responsibility is to give up before they’ve begun.

 

If the Correspondents’ Association had any sense of what the politics of the moment demand, it would have cancelled the dinner or changed its format weeks earlier. Alternatively, the big networks, papers, and newswires could have pulled out, making the whole sad charade untenable. Instead, Trump robbed the press of an opportunity to demonstrate its political savvy, setting himself up to dismiss statements in defense of press freedom at the dinner as sour grapes. Indeed, reporters for Time and the Associated Press, who declined to attend Spicer’s “friendlies-only” briefing when rival outlets were excluded, showed a much clearer sense of the solidarity that is required.

That adversarial posture doesn’t come easily to Washington journalists, but at a moment when The New York Times feels constrained to take out advertisements for the truth during the Oscars, it is now coming upon them willy-nilly.

To be clear, journalistic access can be very useful, but only if journalists and their bosses make sure that “access” does not mean the tacit or explicit trading of your independence for information. As the public’s surrogate, the press has a right of access to the places where the machinery of government is working—places where documents funnel through the system, where officials can be confronted directly, or where they can find reporters when they have something important to leak. You do not bargain about this kind of press access, and you accept no diminishment of it, because it belongs to you, not the government of the day.

When I arrived as a reporter in the press gallery of South Africa’s Parliament in the early 2000s, I was stunned and thrilled by the openness of the place. Each morning, a giant sheaf of official documents would arrive at my door, which was just 30 feet from the main chamber of the National Assembly. We reporters could wander in and out of committee meetings and buttonhole top officials and CEOs giving testimony; lawyers and activists, cabinet ministers and functionaries would drop by to chat.

This was the very definition of an access journalist’s perch, and it would have been easy to succumb to the comfortable rhythms of stenographic reporting. But the veteran reporters on the beat made sure that a different culture prevailed. They taught the rest of us to scan the official documents for hints of conflict, to read deeply through dull reams of print, to fulfill our responsibilities as the public’s watchdog. It was a place we would later have to fight for, with only partial success, once the government tired of our prodding.

It is this cultural outlook that Washington journalism must revive, buoyed by a conviction that the public—notwithstanding right-wing jeers about a biased liberal press—wants someone to keep a skeptical eye on government. Such a cultural shift, in turn, implies a range of tactical reforms. Bobby Ghosh, a former international editor at Time, suggests that news organizations reassign their foreign correspondents to the White House beat, because they are used to asking hard questions of hostile leaders. Mehdi Hasan, whose Al Jazeera program is a master class in tough interviewing, has offered Twitter tutorials in real time as Spicer’s briefings unfold: “Stop asking open-ended questions [like] ‘what do you say to those…’”; and “Ask pointed questions: ‘Is it right for a 5-year-old boy to be detained at the airport?’”

 

The first imperative in war is to recognize that you’re fighting for your life and act accordingly.

 

At a minimum, it seems clear that carrying the White House press secretary’s briefing live is of no news value. Doing so simply amplifies the administration’s demonstration of its power over facts and its humiliation of the press. (On the other hand, carrying a briefing by President Trump is clearly newsworthy, as the February 16 encounter starkly illustrated.) Margaret Sullivan, The Washington Post’s media columnist, urges greater skepticism and selectivity in reporting on White House briefings. “Official words do matter,” she observes, “but they shouldn’t be what news organizations pay most attention to, as they try to present the truth about a new administration.” Press critic Jay Rosen has suggested letting sharp interns cover the briefing; this would free up experienced correspondents to go out and do the reporting that would yield real news.

Beyond tactical adjustments, American journalism needs to develop a larger strategy and institutional structure for defending freedom of the press. At the moment, nothing of the kind exists—and worse, despite frenzied debate about the future of journalism and how to cover this president, no one is even beginning to discuss what such an institutional strategy might look like.

To deal with the onslaught it now faces, the press needs to get organized to accomplish things more difficult than an annual dinner. Organizing implies taking a stance, if only in defense of the precedents and practices that secure the press’s role in a constitutional democracy. This will call forth more accusations of partisanship, which is why it will be important to show that this stand is not a partisan one, but rather an affirmation of bedrock values. The press should champion a politics of independence, accountability, ethical standards, and legal rights; this is the basis on which it can fight to defend its role in a democratic society and to fulfill its duty to the people and founding ideals of the United States. The editors of America’s grandest news institutions are now beginning to speak out clearly on Trump’s tactics. We will know that something deep has shifted when they begin to act together in defense of the information infrastructure of democracy.

The press will also need friends to help in its defense. A coalition of news organizations should articulate common principles and assemble the staff and funds to pay for litigation and outreach to fellow pillars of civil society: good-government groups and press-freedom NGOs; business organizations that recognize the value of independent journalism; religious and ethical leaders; and, not least, the legion of unofficial press critics. There must also be a more robust discussion of the effects of corporate consolidation on independent journalism and the ability to serve diverse publics. To regain trust, news organizations must not only produce first-rate work; they must show that they understand why so many people lost faith in them and take concrete steps to make amends.

Neither a reinvigorated journalism nor a movement for press freedom will be enough on its own, but together they’re a baseline for survival. Climate-change denial may be back in vogue, but the facts of this case are on the nightly news. The waters are rising for democracy in America, and the world is watching. All hands to the pump.

 

Top photo: President Donald Trump walks from Marine One to the White House on February 24, 2017, in Washington, DC. (Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Nic Dawes is the former editor in chief of South Africa’s Mail & Guardian and was until recently Chief Content Officer at India’s Hindustan Times. He now heads media at Human Rights Watch in New York.