The Media Today

A tale of two inaugurations

January 20, 2021

Four years and a day ago, I boarded a bus with what felt like half of my journalism school class and traveled to Washington, DC, for the inauguration of Donald Trump and the Women’s March the day after. I’d arranged to cover the events for Pacifica radio and ended up writing a short dispatch for my hometown paper back in the UK—my first “real” bylines. I woke up early for the inauguration, anticipating a long wait to get onto the Mall, but the line was relatively short and there was plenty of space inside to rove around and interview Trump supporters. (So much for the biggest inaugural crowd ever.) I spoke to the Naked Cowboy, and to young families and kids on school trips; I steered clear of a group chanting “Lock Her Up,” but never felt threatened myself. “I think it’s kind of ridiculous not to go to the inauguration,” a student wearing a Hillary Clinton lapel pin told me, when I asked him why he was there. “It’s a testament to American democracy to have one president leave peacefully and another come in.” The sentiment—and the number of friendly, first-time political participants I spoke with, at the inauguration as well as the Women’s March—stuck with me. Despite my initial “sense of foreboding,” I wrote in my dispatch, the proceedings “may, just, have buttressed the foundations of a shaking democracy.”

Today, Joe Biden will be sworn in as president, and there will be no crowd on the Mall—the consequence of a deadly viral pandemic that his predecessor refused to try to tame, and an attempted coup that his predecessor encouraged. Reporters will not be strolling around town unencumbered, recording vox pops. Due to the violence—both general and targeted at members of the press, specifically—during the insurrection and the threat of the same today, various newsrooms have provided their reporters with gas masks, helmets, and body armor; they’ll report in teams for added safety, and some will travel with assigned security guards. Yesterday, Capitol Police told reporters that they would not be allowed to enter the secure area surrounding the Capitol while wearing their protective gear; in response, news organizations wrote to the Secret Service urging a rethink, or at least further clarity. As the New York Times reports, several outlets have assigned journalists with combat experience to cover the inauguration. (The Nation is sending Andrew McCormick, a military veteran and recent CJR fellow.) Press groups have issued advisories warning reporters of potential threats, including aggressive policing, arson, and the potential for a vehicle attack on an assembled crowd.

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The contrast between the threats of today and the calm of inaugurations past has been held up, by some, as a neat metaphor for the damage the Trump era has wrought, both on the press and the country as a whole. Such yardsticks can indeed be useful points of comparison. Still, while they may mark the messy rush of history, they don’t always structure it—and Trump’s presidency clearly cannot be seen as a straight line from harmony to discord. This week, I listened back to my reporting from Trump’s inauguration, and it hit me with a contradictory mix of emotions and questions. I felt proud that I’d produced coherent audio with no professional experience, but also cringed at framing that channeled various tropes I’ve since come to hate: the invocation of “America’s divisions” as an actor in their own right; the whiff of bothsidesism; the general optimistic tone, which now comes across as complacent. To what extent was the latter attributable to my youthful naïveté, or my white privilege, or my Britishness? To what extent was it inherited from the canons of conventional political journalism that I aspired back then to emulate?

Most difficult of all to answer: to what extent was I actually wrong? There’s no question I had blindspots back then, and still do, but I don’t remember feeling complacent about the dangers Trump posed at the time. (Then again, I find that it’s hard to recall exactly how I felt without the weight of everything that has happened since crowding my memories.) The excitement I heard from children attending the Women’s March was exhilarating; the Trump supporters I asked for interviews were generally friendly and happy to talk to me; the peaceful transition was a relief. It’s tempting to now view all this as a lie: in 2017, Trump and his most militant supporters were assuming institutional power without the need for violence; wasn’t it inevitable that they would deploy it when their grip on power was threatened? Perhaps. But history does not proceed on the principle of inevitability, and the last four years have been marked by a series of inflection points at which Trump and his many enablers could have chosen differently and steered America off its present path. Inevitability can obscure accountability.

At the same time, we know that the fundamental nature of Trump the man hasn’t changed. There’s a broader lesson for the press in this. To the extent reporters have erred in covering this presidency, it hasn’t exactly been in any failure to predict the specific tumult of its climax; prognostication is not our job. Rather, the failure came in insufficient honesty about all the threats to democracy that were already apparent; in the relentless optimism, among many influential journalists, that meaningless fluctuations in Trump’s public behavior constituted a “pivot,” a “change of tone,” or newly “presidential” conduct; in the insistence that old-school journalistic practices—crafted by older white men and policed primarily by political good faith—would be enough to hold a reliably faithless president and his co-partisans to account. As my CJR colleague Pete Vernon and I wrote in a recent, detailed critique of Trump coverage, the basic rhythms of our industry have “conspired, time and again, to downplay demagoguery, let Trump and his defenders off the hook, and drain resources and attention from crucial longer-term storylines.” The challenge, as I wrote last week, is to let the shock of this moment shake loose our old bad habits.

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Thinking back to Trump’s inauguration, it struck me, too, how strange it is that this period would prove to be the launchpad for my journalism career; for all that my perspective has changed and broadened these past four years, I do not know what it is like to write professionally about a president who isn’t Trump. Clearly, I’m not alone in that. As time goes on, will those of us who cut our teeth in this era stay linked by a common journalistic sensibility? If so, will we prove a force for change in an industry that needs it? Or will its legacy—its trauma, even—be messier than that? (It’s not healthy to have to cover any event from behind a bulletproof vest.) As with all the questions swirling in my head this week, the answer may be all the above.

Below, more on the inauguration:

Other notable stories:

  • For CJR, Caitlin L. Chandler has the story of a German HIV doctor who was accused of a decades-long pattern of abuse, then appealed to the country’s courts to have reporting on the allegations scrubbed from the internet. “In criminal trials, German law presumes innocence unless a guilty verdict is handed down by a judge,” Chandler writes. “This is similar to the US legal system; however, in Germany, the presumption of innocence is also applied to press coverage. While the media is allowed to report on criminal trials… the law protects suspects from media coverage deemed to stigmatize them unfairly before a verdict is reached. For example, the media is rarely allowed to publish photos of someone in custody, unlike the ‘perp walks’ commonly publicized in the US.”
  • On Monday, Bill Sammon, senior vice president and DC managing editor at Fox News, told colleagues of his impending retirement; then, yesterday, the network laid off nearly twenty staffers, including Chris Stirewalt, its political editor. Sammon and Stirewalt were both involved with Fox’s decision desk, which enraged Trump and his supporters when it called Arizona for Biden on election night; the call proved correct, but according to the Post’s Sarah Ellison, Rupert Murdoch, who owns Fox, disliked the way it was handled.  The Daily Beast’s Diana Falzone and Lachlan Cartwright report, meanwhile, that the layoffs reflect an “ideological purge” aimed at pivoting Fox’s website “from straight-news reporting to right-wing opinion content.” (A Fox spokesperson said that the network is realigning “its business and reporting structure to meet the demands of this new era.”)
  • In recent months, Facebook has claimed that it stopped steering its users to join political groups—but Leon Yin and Alfred Ng, of The Markup, found that not to be the case. According to data from The Markup’s Citizen Browser project, which pays to access the feeds of a representative panel of users in order to better understand Facebook’s algorithms, the platform continued to recommend such groups, especially to Trump fans.
  • Fischer, of Axios, reports that Forbes is launching a newsletter platform; it will initially host writers with big existing followings, who will split revenue with Forbes in exchange for editorial and salary benefits. The platform will have “more editorial oversight over the selection of newsletters and authors” than Substack, “where content moderation policies are intentionally less strict because writers are paid directly and only by readers.”
  • For CJR, Vernon spoke with Jake Sherman, a former author of Politico’s Playbook newsletter who recently helped launch a new outlet, Punchbowl News, focused on congressional reporting. “I’m not looking for this to be a place where you’re going to get a hate read about how somebody is a horrible person or an evil genius,” Sherman said. “We are writing about power, the exercise of power, and people abusing power.”
  • The New York Mets fired Jared Porter, the team’s general manager, after ESPN obtained unsolicited, explicit messages that he sent to a female reporter in 2016, when he worked for the Chicago Cubs. ESPN first planned to run the story in 2017, but held off after the female reporter expressed fears for her career prospects; she has since left the industry and agreed to share her story anonymously. Mina Kimes and Jeff Passan have more.
  • On Monday, FBI agents arrested Kaveh Afrasiabi—a political scientist who taught at schools including Boston University and worked as a pundit focused on Iran—and charged him with serving as an unregistered foreign agent of the Iranian government, including via his media appearances. Afrasiabi was born in Iran, but became a permanent US resident in the nineteen-eighties. Benjamin Kail has more for MassLive.
  • In her newsletter, Culture Study, Anne Helen Peterson takes issue with a recent Times article that, in her view, amplified alarmist tropes about video games and children’s rising screen time. Peterson spoke with Rachel Kowert, a psychologist who said the article channeled a form of moral panic. Gaming, Kowert said, “can have wide ranging, positive impact on mental well-being,” but when it comes to media coverage, “fear sells.”
  • And for CJR’s podcast, The Kicker, Kyle Pope, our editor and publisher, asked Lesley M. M. Blume, the author of a recent book on the famed New Yorker correspondent John Hersey, what lessons reporters covering the pandemic might draw from Hersey’s work in Hiroshima after it was atom-bombed by the US in 1945. Hersey, Blume said, has “given today’s reporters certain devices to help illustrate the humanity behind the catastrophe.”

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Update: The reference to Axios‘s story on the Freedom of Information Act has been updated to clarify that the records in question concern FOIA lawsuits.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.