Seen through their own eyes, journalists in these times believe they are doing what they have always done, which is to uncover and report the truth.
Seeing themselves through the eyes of their increasingly powerful and influential detractors in the White House, though, they are on edge: They must tread carefully so as not to make a mistake; they must triple, quadruple, quintuple check their facts against the facts; check their conclusions against their opinions; check their opinions at the door; suppress themselves on social media; avoid demonstrations and other public forums; show solidarity with other journalists; be quick to condemn the mistakes or errors of judgment of other journalists; be more intrepid than ever lest they allow this new regime to erode social and political norms; be more careful than ever lest they be exposed and disgraced by a “sting” operation; concede their profession’s shortcomings; defend their profession; be certain not to allow their defensiveness and injured pride to interfere with their jobs.
Given this new mental atmosphere, all of the frightened tremors shooting through journalism now are not, to my mind, the result of an authentic fear that Trump will suspend the Constitution, declare martial law and, among other authoritarian acts, repress free speech and abolish the press. The fear of such events is really the displacement of a much deeper anxiety.
Trump has exposed vast numbers of Americans to their most primal fear.
Journalism, at its essence, and at its best, is not merely a profession or a career. Rather, it is the way people who practice it fulfill their destiny in their work. It is a vocation, a calling, every bit as much as being a doctor or a lawyer can be mere careers for some, and callings for others.
So when Trump calls journalists “liars”; when he says that he has “a running war with the media” and that they are “among the most dishonest human beings on earth”; when he calls one news organization “a failing pile of garbage” and compares press coverage to “something Nazi Germany would have done, and did do”; when he claims the media is publishing “fake news” and, most recently, accuses the media of suppressing reports of terrorist attacks around the world—when he spews such insults and accusations at the press, he is not only attacking a pillar of democracy, or undercutting an entire profession, or perhaps placing a bull’s-eye on lives and reputations. He is targeting people’s identities. He is imperiling the way they have worked out a manner in which to live.
Trump’s greatest strength, if you can call it that, is his ability to make others feel vulnerable. Trump has exposed vast numbers of Americans to their most primal fear. He has reduced people to their social identities, and made them feel that their social identity is becoming a weapon that will be used to undermine their existence. There aren’t many people who feel protected under his watch.
I don’t believe that we are headed for an authoritarian state at this juncture in American history, but the sudden popularity of the term “existential threat” reflects a new reality: Every day we grow a little closer to one of the conditions of authoritarian rule, which is to reduce life to a struggle.
Every vulnerable social group is now falling victim to this double consciousness, in which people’s familiar, stable conceptions of themselves are now under siege by the way the new social order being implemented by Trump and the Republican leadership perceives them.
The distinctive quality of journalists’ existential anxiety is that they are undergoing two simultaneous experiences: They are being forced to register their own vulnerability the way they have been used to recording other people’s, while at the same time this sense of their own vulnerability is threatening to interfere with the way they do their jobs.
This is not necessarily an entirely negative situation. Instead of trying to navigate the division between seeing themselves through their own eyes, and seeing themselves through the eyes of their foes, journalists might well draw strength by converting this division into a new one: the distinction between seeing themselves as journalists, and conceiving of themselves as members of the singular, monolithic media.
His visceral grasp of the way the media as a business is harrowing journalism as a vocation is what makes his attacks so chillingly intimate.
It’s a distinction that has bedeviled journalists for decades, anyway. Trump is either being irrational or calculating when he, over and over, attacks the media’s integrity, but true journalists have long lamented the takeover of their vocation by big media. And in the digital age, the conglomeration of the media is only becoming worse, and more accelerated.
Trump’s ugly assaults on the press are having such a surprisingly unnerving effect on journalists because, deep down, for many years now, journalists themselves have felt ill used by the corporatization of journalism. As a business, the media is not dishonest, but it can be dedicated to the bottom line, often at the expense of some of journalism’s finest attributes—arts criticism, for example; seasoned investigative journalists; patiently done long-form pieces; a high attentiveness to precision of language, etc. Certain media organizations are clearly not “failing piles of garbage,” but they are faltering, and their apprehension only seems to hasten their decline.
Method acting famously instructs actors to draw from their own experience to imagine what the characters they are trying to inhabit are thinking and feeling. Thin-skinned, starved-for-attention, Twitter-hungry, image-obsessed, financially precarious Trump knows exactly how to draw from his own experience to get inside media heads—as a result, he is starting to make the media as paranoid as he is. Trump has seized on certain realities about the media today and twisted and inflated them into insults and attacks. His visceral grasp—he is only visceral—of the way the media as a business is harrowing journalism as a vocation is what makes his attacks so chillingly intimate for journalists.
Entertaining his followers by humiliating the media is, after all, one way that Trump has fulfilled the fantasy he projected during his campaign of making ordinary Americans rich. He has conferred on his supporters a special empowerment, a quality once exclusively possessed by a certain type of wealthy person, who out of boredom and the malice that thrives in boredom enjoys humiliating people and making them squirm. Could it be that Trump knew very well that Frederick Douglass was long dead, but that he wanted to insult African-Americans in an outrageous way that they, and people who shared their shock and astonishment, were powerless to respond to? Some people might think that he is not smart enough to be so malicious. He is certainly malicious enough. In any case, to make media people squirm before insults that they also cannot respond to with equal force, to inflict humiliation on media people who once seemed to revel in their own exclusive power is for Trump’s supporters, as the MasterCard commercials used to say, priceless.
One door closes, another opens. If Trump thinks that by playing both on journalists’ fears of the media’s warping influence on journalism, and on ordinary people’s resentment of the media, he is going to undermine the media, then he has made a bad miscalculation. What he has done is to finally liberate journalism from the media’s stranglehold and return it to its rightful place as the friend and ally of the common person. In presenting the media with a big, unique story that is, all at once, profitable, urgent, and serious, he is allowing journalists to be journalists without worrying about all of the concerns harbored by the bean counters. What is meaningful journalism is now profitable, and what is profitable is now meaningful journalism. Hail the new synergy of the Trump era!
Perhaps the answer is simply for members of the press to stop feeling sorry for themselves as media figures and to start rediscovering themselves as journalists drawn to a calling.
The question remains, though, of just what the new meaningful/profitable journalism should be. There is much talk now about how far journalists should go in being straightforward about their opposition to Trump and his regime. It’s a conundrum all right. The only justification for making journalism openly committed to a particular position would be the tipping over of a set of circumstances into an all-encompassing and permanent condition that would turn being partisan about a situation into being truthful about a crisis. That tipping point is hard to gauge. If you act prematurely, then you run the risk of discrediting yourself and the profession of journalism. If you wait too long, then you run the risk of losing journalism to a whirlwind altogether.
The bind is something like that old dilemma faced by reporters in the field. If a Buddhist monk sets himself on fire, do you try to put the fire out, or do you stand and furiously write an account of it, or snap a picture of it? The dilemmas are analogous except that, in the case of the age of Trump, the fire has not begun yet—or has it?
Perhaps the answer is simply for members of the press, as legitimately hurt as they are, to stop feeling sorry for themselves as media figures and to start rediscovering themselves as journalists drawn to a calling. Then they can stop thinking about how tough it is to be a journalist now and remember how tough it has always been to be a journalist—something that many of them forgot in the salad days of media prosperity. That is to say, they can defy the new Trumpian atmosphere by refusing to reduce their vocation to a struggle to survive, and by pursuing it as just one more way to be human and humane—inevitable mistakes, errors, and missteps be damned.