Donald Trump and the liberation of news

Media in the Age of Trump

Original behavior is impossible to resist, even as you recoil from it. Donald Trump possesses, as Dickens’s biographer once said about his subject’s gritty yet riveting tales, the “attraction of repulsion.”

Regardless of what happens on Election Day, dark clouds are gathering in politics. But above the storm, blue skies are visible in the media world. Trump’s effect could well be, if journalists wholeheartedly seize the opportunity, a liberation.

Who could have guessed that Trump would come to embody a ray of hope and a new dawn for journalism? Yet here he is, offering everyone working in the media a new objectivity, a chance to throw off the shackles that made Trump possible.

Objectivity is always in flux. Just as the word “cancer” no longer means what it did in a scientific context 50 years ago, the word “poverty” no longer means what it did in a political context a half century ago.

What constitutes an objective view in the way the world is observed and reported on by journalists changes from one generation to the next. The term “inequality” once held different meanings for different people on the political spectrum. Now, as people everywhere suffer from economic disparity and disorder, “inequality” is being transformed from a circumstance subject to various interpretations into a demonstrably unambiguous reality; that is to say, into a fact.


The forces that created Trump’s constituency have now created a new political consensus that is so visible, so explicit, so naked and urgent that the parameters of what constitutes objectivity in journalism can now suddenly shift.

Sign up for CJR's daily email


The forces that created Trump’s constituency have now created a new political consensus that is so visible, so explicit, so naked and urgent that the parameters of what constitutes objectivity in journalism can now suddenly shift.

A socially disabling concentration of wealth is no longer the predictable obsession of obscure left-wing magazines. The dislocation and alienation of the white working class is no longer the predictable obsession of obscure right-wing magazines. Inequality and injustice have gone mainstream. The Wall Street Journal is as eager as The New York Times to publish exposés of corporate malfeasance.

What this means is that the old ways of doing journalism no longer have to apply. Journalists no longer have to rely on official sources any more than a reported piece has to strain to achieve on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand balance. You don’t have to end a reported piece with a quote from one of the principal actors. You can end with the same subjective kicker that concludes an op-ed. In choice of stories, of the telling and the editing of a story, journalists can be more explicit than ever about social ills without appearing ideologically biased.

Editors do not have to consign stories about the values of the new class of American oligarchs to the Styles section. They can run as consequential news stories. And instead of covering politics as entertainment, journalists can investigate the economic sources of various types of entertainment.

How about a series called “Failure in America,” which examines the media mindset, influenced by social class and economic circumstances, that determines what constitutes failure and what defines success? How about a series titled “Competition in America”? Or a multi-parter about gun violence called “American Genocide” that would, among other things, investigate the economic roots of the gun lobby’s fanatical resistance to any curbs on the purchase of guns? Now that the socioeconomic cat is out of the bag, the sky’s the limit.


Last spring, The New York Times more or less proclaimed its commitment to this neo-journalism with, as far as I know, an unprecedented act. The paper ran an editorial advocating more aggressive gun control on the front page, as though it were another news story, bound by the same commitment to neutrality and objectivity–both contained, of course, within the newspaper’s traditional liberal arc.

But this decision to put an editorial on the front page went beyond the paper’s inborn liberal bent. It was the invention of a new journalistic convention, or even genre. The article was less an argument than the presentation of a formerly debatable issue that was no longer open to debate. History had changed and mass shootings had become as common as a heart attack. The editorial was, remarkably, a report in the form of an opinion that became a fact.

Observing the news environment evolve into a new objectivity, into this neo-journalism, is uncanny. It is as though Darwin were watching species evolve on the Galapagos Islands before his very eyes, in time-lapse fashion.

It helps, at least in this context, that the economics of mass media have become so soured. There was a time when the GEs or the Procter & Gambles or the Fords of the world made it clear that they preferred to advertise in an environment that was civilized and moderate and evenhanded. That was the best medium for their messages. But they’re largely gone now, at least in terms of being big print players, and their successors, who throw in their pennies for digital advertising, are far more hospitable to a rowdier place. A long-held, unstated roadblock to the new objectivity of sharp opinion and journalistic advocacy–i.e., an acknowledgment in the media of what ordinary people experience or recognize every day–is now gone.


So as Trump mocked, insulted, abused, lied, and made preposterous claims, the moderators sat stunned, locked into long-established rituals of their ceremonial role as moderators serving in that long, distinguished American tradition, the presidential debate.


You could see this new style at the second presidential debate. Throughout the primary season, the moderators of the various Republican debates sat nearly paralyzed, unable to rein Trump in by reminding him of the boundaries of the debate format or, indeed, of the boundaries of civilized discourse.

For all his feral quality, Trump seemed to be epochs ahead of the moderators. Seeming to be afflicted with an attention-deficit disorder himself, he has absorbed through his pores the contemporary audience’s acceptance of asocial behavior so long as it is original behavior, and thus free of the rituals of mind-numbing public ceremonies. It is as illuminating as it is bizarre that Trump’s primitive personality is perfectly suited to the sophisticated technology of cutting-edge social media.

So as Trump mocked, insulted, abused, lied, and made preposterous claims, the moderators sat stunned, locked into long-established rituals of their ceremonial role as moderators serving in that long, distinguished American tradition, the presidential debate.

That wasn’t the case, however, on Sunday night. Like finches in the Galapagos Islands developing a different beak in order to adapt to different types of food, the two moderators, Martha Raddatz and Anderson Cooper, adapted to the new world that Trump created and has been created by.

Cooper nearly commanded Trump to stop insulting Clinton as she spoke. Raddatz argued with Trump at one point over yet another of his outrageous claims. Trump was disoriented and disarmed. The parameters of objectivity had changed. Having burst the boundaries of what was publicly tolerable, Trump opened a new door for what was journalistically acceptable in response. Imagine the enthusiasm sparked by the moment among young journalists, or even younger people dreaming of careers in journalism? It turns out that this is a profession for impassioned, ass-kicking people, after all.

It may even be that just as one traditional function of journalism is to hold politicians accountable for what they say and do, in the future, the inability of politicians to say or do the right thing might make journalists accountable for their neglect.


Having burst the boundaries of what was publicly tolerable, Trump opened a new door for what was journalistically acceptable in response.


Again and again at the debate, Trump boomed at Clinton the accusation that although she had been in public life for 30 years, she had changed nothing. It took Clinton until almost the end of the debate to inform Trump, with a surprisingly incidental air, that a United States senator or a secretary of state does not have the power to change things all by herself. Maybe in the near future–maybe in the next debate–a moderator will, along with calling out a candidate on a lie, step in and remind a candidate of a legislative fact.

Media outlets throughout the country recently reported that traffic fatalities nationwide have soared in the first six months of this year. Some reports included the fact that the increase in traffic deaths is the largest jump in decades. Every report in the establishment media that I read left it at that. Traffic deaths are up all across the country. Period.

I thought I would look into the trend a little more and quickly found a superb article on Citylab.com, by Richard Florida, analyzing the new statistics. It turns out that traffic deaths have increased at a dangerous rate in only two areas of the country, the Deep South and the Great Plains. In both parts of the country, incomes and gross national product are very low. It doesn’t take a sociological genius to suggest that desperate material circumstances lead to reckless behavior, which in turn leads to death, bereavement, and pain, all creating such a sense of vulnerability and unease that any strong political voice that channels the sadness and anger and promises radical change might acquire an irrefutable moral power.

Though I have yet to read pundits pursuing that argument, it might eventually be made in the course of the established media process. First comes the report, then the analysis, then the flurry of opinion.

A neo-journalistic approach would be different. Report, analysis, and opinion would occur simultaneously. Interwoven into and through the facts would be the connection of them to the larger social and political reality. Diffused through this structural revision of the conventional news story would be opinion and even moral judgment.


Of course the press has been moving in this direction for some time. Indeed, pick any of the brightest moments of modern journalism–Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, My Lai–and they are themselves examples of this post-Trump world we may soon be entering. A consensus had formed, across ideological lines, that Nixon was pursuing wasteful, criminal war in Southeast Asia. The journalists who exposed the false premises of the war, and Nixon’s detachment from reality, could be open about where they stood on both fronts because public opinion had evolved their private judgments into an objective reality.

Video, which has proven to be such a critical reporting tool this cycle, only moves the new objectivity along quicker. The video of a Syrian child injured by war, or of a black motorist’s civil rights being violated by police, are two examples of events that might otherwise have been open to dispute–Who is doing what in Syria? Are you on the side of law and order or crime?–now crystallizing into inarguable facts.

The new objectivity has its pitfalls. A video with a newsworthy conscience, as it were, is an antidote to a visual culture that has made the delivery of the news synonymous with the stimulation of pleasure. Yet video also risks becoming just another diversion among all the other visual diversions that crowd our days and nights. It walks a thin line between conscientious witnessing, voyeurism, and entertainment.

And sometimes, the mere transmission of a video is proof of the powerlessness of video. In North Carolina, Keith Scott’s wife told the police numerous times that she was recording them, as she begged them not to shoot her husband. This was after many similar videos had resulted in the dismissal and sometimes the prosecution of police officers who shot unarmed people. The police shot and killed her husband anyway.

It was stark, heartbreaking proof of the difference between witnessing and reporting. 


Ever since the Iraq war and the rise of the blogosphere and then social media, there have been calls for the establishment media to drop all pretense of objectivity and make its reporting unabashedly partisan–to replace reporting with witnessing and advocacy.

These have had their negative consequences. Journalists may be veteran skeptics of narratives imposed on events, but they are also storytellers, and thus creatures of narrative. Obama’s election in 2008 was treated by the media as the happy ending of the movie called “Bush: The Nightmare.” The great groundswell of opposition to Bush that helped sweep Obama into office, a force fueled by citizen journalists on the internet who pushed the mainstream media to finally show some courage and defiance, seemed to establish the triumph of witnessing and advocacy over the chimera of balanced journalism.


A video with a newsworthy conscience, as it were, is an antidote to a visual culture that has made the delivery of the news synonymous with the stimulation of pleasure.


The effect was to lull both digital journalists and the establishment media into a complacent illusion that social and political conflict were over. But in fact they had just begun. If the media in all its incarnations had held Obama’s feet to the fire during his first year in office, when he had both houses of Congress at his side, the country may well have gotten the universal health care it deserved. The Tea Party revolt against Obama, now morphing into Trump, could at least have been intellectually prepared for.

The advocates of citizen journalism were half right. We are in a new age that requires a new media response, but the new objectivity will rely on the same old aggregation–to use a term from digital culture–of editorial judgments and checks and balances. The authority conferred by layers of consideration, judgment, and scrutiny will still be there. The prestige of an institution, so necessary for taking on social and political power, will be retained. Should Hillary Clinton win the presidency, journalists this time around will know how to continue their engagement and keep pushing the facts of a divided American and inequality in her face. “Trumpism: The Movie” will have barely started.

The new objectivity will continue to seize the moment. The rising incidence of original behavior among the people who make the news will create a counterforce. It will be met by a new style of original behavior among the people who decide what the news is, and how to report it. Trump’s sometimes mesmerizing performance of truth-telling has created a market for truth-telling. Let journalists unbound by ideology or commercial agenda–or the increasing frequency of a combination of the two—provide the new consumers of truth with the real thing.

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

Lee Siegel is the author of five books and the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Reviews and Criticism. His forthcoming book, The Draw: A Memoir, will be published in April.