Donald Trump and the awakening of journalism

War has been openly declared between the new Trump administration and the US media. This clash was foreseeable. Although candidate Donald Trump enjoyed disproportionate coverage on the big TV networks hooked on audience ratings and infotainment (a combination of information and entertainment), he pursued a systematic policy of disparaging the mainstream media throughout his campaign.

"Dishonest. Scum": such fierce words describing the press punctuated his tweets and his campaign speeches. A number of journalists were singled out. Representatives of major media outlets were banned from covering his rallies.

This policy of contempt was maintained during the transition. The President-elect’s first press conference, on 11 January, even turned into a defeat for journalists, who sat back and did nothing in response to the insults he directed at Jim Acosta, from CNN.

The first days of his presidency have not been any more convivial. There is no doubt: the new administration will show no mercy to the media, one of the powers it does not control. Donald Trump is banking, in this battle, both on the hostility of his voters towards media outlets classed as ’liberal’ (leftist in American political jargon) and his own capacity to communicate with the general public directly.

With more than 22 million followers on Twitter, Donald Trump has a media channel of his very own. He can also count on the press magnate Rupert Murdoch, who owns the biggest round-the-clock news channel with the highest ratings, Fox News, the sensationalist New York Post and the more highbrow Wall Street Journal. He is also relayed by a myriad of sites linked to the populist right and the far right, such as the renowned Alt-Right.

It is no coincidence that he has made Stephen Bannon, former executive chairman of Breitbart News, "the Pravda of the alt-right", one of his strategic advisors at the White House.

What can be done?

The Trump phenomenon has sent shockwaves through the profession, as well as a section of public opinion, which has understood the danger. The day following the election on 8 November, newspapers such as the New York Times, but also magazines such as Vanity Fair, saw their subscription figures go through the roof, whilst donations flowed massively towards alternative publications such as ProPublica or the left-wing weekly The Nation, as well as the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), called on to apply criteria usually intended for authoritarian countries to the Trump administration.

But the risk of ’normalisation’ is high, as many media outlets fear clashing with an administration that, for four years, will be one of the most important news sources. And also because the commercial media is reluctant to run counter to a large share of the public.

Most of the mainstream media is, in fact, on the defensive. The Trump phenomenon has exposed their no more than episodic and anecdotal coverage of the ’Other America’, the ’rust belt’ or the rural regions so far removed from the trendy, outward-looking metropolises, so far removed from Silicon Valley or Boston Tech.

Yet ensuring a faithful representation of all aspects of society was one of the recommendations of the Hutchins report on a "free and responsible press", the 70th anniversary of which is being celebrated this year, and which serves as a reference for public service journalism.

A portion of the US press has undoubtedly learned the lessons of this unusual campaign that has turned a billionaire into the self-proclaimed spokesperson of the forgotten America.

The Washington Post has even created two new posts, the "grievance beat" and the "urban-rural beat", to cover the politics of resentment and the growing divide between urban and rural regions.

The challenge, however, goes beyond such reporting initiatives. It is, more particularly, about the ability to revive genuinely progressive journalism, capable of reaching the "forgotten people of the TV news" who are drawn by Donald Trump’s national populism.

The history of the US press is endowed with superb examples of popular journalism mindful of its social responsibility, such as that of Studs Terkel, author of the cult books Working and The Great Divide, Donald Barlett and James Steele, awarded in 1996 for their best seller America: Who stole the dream? or Barbara Ehrenreich, with The Fear of Falling, published in 1989.

Showing interest in people, people who are neither celebrities nor leaders, is becoming topical again.

The response also depends on the willingness and the capacity of the US media to play its role as a counterforce, as established by the First Amendment of the Constitution.

In the face of fake news and the Trump administration’s conflicts of interest, the need for journalism of verification and investigative journalism is greater than ever.

It almost inevitably implies adversarial journalism. It is the "Murrow moment" writes David Mindich in the Columbia Journalism Review, a time to take inspiration from Ed Murrow, the famous CBS News presenter, who "took sides", in 1954 and denounced Joe McCarthy and his witch hunt.

The profession’s unity around the fundamental principles of press freedom and independence is going to be essential, as Donald Trump has, throughout his career, shown himself to be vindictive against those who criticise him. His first statements as president have confirmed this reputation. Many journalists expect he will use all the powers of the state to undermine their mission as "watchdogs" of the institutions.

The challenges are immense as the election campaign has highlighted the deformation of the US media industry, the extreme commercialisation of audio-visual information, and the disproportionate space give to programmes that flatter ignorance and aggressiveness. It has also demonstrated that populist forces, much more than progressives, have taken hold of Internet and the social networks to create a deafening "noise machine", as David Brock termed it in 2004, capable of imposing their ideas and values on a significant portion of the population.

"The present crisis of Western democracy is a crisis in journalism," warned the doyen of American columnists, Walter Lippmann, in his book Liberty and the News. These words, written in 1920, are more relevant than ever. A true democracy cannot survive if the flows of information are polluted, misused or fettered by governments that are supposed to found their legitimacy, as established in the United States Declaration of Independence of 1774, on the "consent of the governed".

It can only survive if citizens comprehend that freedom of the press is not the privilege of a corporation, that it is, rather, as stated by Michael Oreskes of the National Public Radio "for the sake of a public that has a right to inform themselves about the work of their government".

It cannot survive unless the media is able to fulfil its duty to inform and hold to account. And yet, as noted at the end of November by Ken Doctor from the press workers’ union, the Newspaper Guild, "even as the public acknowledges the need for more trustworthy reporting (in the Trump era), newsrooms are being decimated" by drastic restructuring plans.

The time has come to restore all the fundamentals of the profession.


This story has been translated from French.