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The disdain that candidate Donald Trump demonstrated for those who covered his campaign was troubling. The same behavior exhibited by president-elect Trump was ominous. His continued attacks as president pose a threat to basic democratic principles. The media must now fix what it helped create.
Trump pushed to the front of the primary line with minimal vetting and free air time worth billions. Instead of a strong response to the assault on the press, false equivalency emerged as a journalistic norm. Fiction and fact blurred, and when the lines crossed, those journalists who finally cried foul were dismissed as part of the “corrupt media.”
...the media cannot let itself be used as the medium to convey falsehoods, nor can it normalize a world in which everyone is entitled to their own facts.
Trump’s willingness to demonize those who seek to hold him accountable is dangerous. Whether during his victory rallies, in his tweets, or even during his own inaugural festivities, he remains on the offensive against those whose job it is to discern fact from fiction. As historian Ken Burns warns, this is dangerously evocative of other frightening periods in history.
America needs a vigilant media to ensure that the rule of law is understood and respected as the cornerstone of our democracy. Yet the media -- and the public -- seem woefully ill-prepared for a presidency dominated by Twitter pronouncements and negative barrages against the media, rather than thoughtful engagement.
A non-traditional candidate who did not play by the rules can be expected to behave similarly once in office. That means the media needs a new rulebook. Journalists must take immediate steps to ensure public trust in their work.
First, the media cannot let itself be used as the medium to convey falsehoods, nor can it normalize a world in which everyone is entitled to their own facts. Factually incorrect statements must be challenged, no matter how strong the push-back.
Overcoming the administration’s resistance to any perceived negative reporting will need to involve an unprecedented level of cooperation in an intensely competitive profession. For example, the refusal to answer questions of a CNN reporter at a press conference will be followed by the shunning of others who offend. The media must either find a way to stand together or fall one by one.
Second, the media must learn to ask clear and concise questions that leave no room for evasion, and then demand direct answers. Doing so will require journalists to be disciplined enough to leave behind the all-too-common meandering questions that allow interviewees to pick and choose what parts of the question to answer or avoid.
Third, it is critical to discern between false equivalency and actual fairness. Not every complaint warrants compliant analysis, and not every outrageous statement demands full coverage. Otherwise, the media will be run ragged, ignoring real news.
Fourth, the media must fight back against the constant barrage of complaints about alleged unfair coverage. Moreover, it is not for the administration to decide what “the people” do and do not care about knowing, as has already been suggested numerous times in response to press inquiries. It is not for government to decide what matters.
Fifth, cable networks in particular must better define their roles. Are they simply hosts to panels who spend their time speculating about outcomes, or are they journalists who research and cover facts? Contrary to what transpired during the campaign, the next four years need much more of the latter.
Not every complaint warrants compliant analysis, and not every outrageous statement demands full coverage. Otherwise, the media will be run ragged, ignoring real news.
Finally, the public has a responsibility to support the media and reject any governmental effort to castigate an entire profession. When audiences ignore an administration official’s hyped rhetoric about the press, the effect is to contribute to the erosion of our basic liberties. We must support journalists who stake their reputation on well-researched, investigative reporting. We must similarly call out those in the media who conduct interviews that allow questions to go unanswered, and who fail to ask follow up questions when the first effort is ignored.
Open and accessible governmental decision-making is a fundamental cornerstone of a free press. The future of our democracy depends on whether coverage of the nation’s 45th president is worthy of what the framers of the Constitution envisioned in creating the First Amendment.