What will happen to the media?
That was the topic of my remarks last summer at two services at the First Unitarian Society of Madison. My answer was not especially upbeat, as I pointed to economic pressures on journalism as well as the almost unprecedented undermining of journalists by President Trump and his right-wing allies.
As I concluded, I ticked off suggestions. Among them:
• Don’t believe those who contend there are not highly trustworthy people doing professional journalism. Just as doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers and teachers have professional standards, so do journalists.
• Don’t be lulled into complacency by the fact that the New York Times and Washington Post seem to be doing well. Real journalism at every level needs support, financial and otherwise.
• Read and listen to sources of news and information with which you disagree. For me this includes the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page. (Sean Hannity? That’s too much to ask.)
• Reduce time listening to the endless loop of talking heads shouting at one another on television about the reporting done by others. Use that time to read alternative sources of original information.
• Support local journalism when and how you can. The Cap Times, for example, will soon be launching a membership plan with many benefits, including the satisfaction of supporting real journalists.
This media-under-assault theme only seems to have gained momentum this fall. “Is the media making American politics worse?” asked a recent Vox headline. “Trump’s attacks on the media are working,” was the headline of an analysis by the media columnist of the New York Times.
What to do?
Trump and his Republican allies — supported by what truly is the “fake news” media — have demonized the traditional practice of objective journalism that questions government authority.
Jay Rosen, a New York University journalism professor, summarized the conundrum for Vox: “There’s a core of Trump supporters who at this point disbelieve the ... Washington Posts and New York Times of the world on principle because they’ve been instructed to do that. There’s been a culture in the conservative moment for a long time that encouraged that. It’s a very efficient system now.
“The loudest voice in the culture, the president, is constantly giving that message,” he said. “An army of online activists and trolls at the bottom … shouts down news stories they don’t like, attacks individual journalists, ridicules the institution. And then between those two, you have the mediators — Rush Limbaugh, Drudge, Fox News, Daily Caller — that efficiently connect the top and the bottom.
“The result of that is that for about 30 percent of the electorate, Trump is the major source of news about Trump. Which means that for that portion of the American public, an authoritarian news system is already up and running.”
Rosen continued: “Another way to put it would be before journalists log on in the morning, about a third of their public is already gone. And when (journalists) do their job, when they hold power to account, when they uncover new facts, when they behave as a fourth estate, that dynamic is actually reinforced because Trump attacks them and the news that they’re digging up about him enrages his supporters.
“It confirms their belief that this institution is against them,” Rosen said. “Right now, nobody has any idea what to do about that.”
After his 2016 victory, Trump told Lesley Stahl of CBS that he would continue to attack the press in order to “discredit you all and demean you so that when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you.”
Trump’s success at that was vividly shown by the muted reaction to the New York Times’ blockbuster reporting this fall on his business empire. The investigation revealed that Trump has always blatantly lied by claiming he built his financial empire almost entirely on his own, using only a $1-million loan from his father on which he had to pay interest.
The Times reported how Trump actually received the equivalent of at least $413 million from his father’s real estate empire, and much of that money came from dubious tax schemes, including instances of outright fraud.
If the story itself were not enough to convince you, the Showtime network is airing a documentary depicting the painstaking and careful research and publishing process titled: “The Family Business: Trump and Taxes.” It shows sober, careful professionals at work.
Any thinking Republican would find it impossible to defend Trump’s “fake news” response to the investigation after watching it.
The media, though, seemed to move on quickly from a finding that Trump’s core biographical narrative — as an iconic superstar businessman — was simply one gigantic lie.
On the other hand, the media exhaustively examined and re-examined Trump’s back-and-forth with U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren about her claims of Native American heritage, by comparison a biographical quibble.
Show me the liberal bias in that.
This week, a video was released showing the suspect in the pipe-bomb mailings to Democratic leaders shouting menacingly at journalists at a Trump rally, at one point joining others in chanting “tell the truth.”
Trump’s Twitter response to that and other violence, predictably, was to blame the press: “There is great anger in our Country caused in part by inaccurate, and even fraudulent, reporting of the news. The Fake News Media, the true Enemy of the People, must stop the open & obvious hostility & report the news accurately and fairly. That will do much to put out the flame.”
Through the decades, Republicans have groused about what they perceive as a press that leans left, most emphatically when the GOP holds power and is held to account. During Watergate, Spiro Agnew, the former vice president who pleaded guilty to a felony, called the press the “nattering nabobs of negativism,” which was alliterative but quaint by today’s standards.
In those days, the credibility problem the media faced was the equivalent of a head cold.
Today’s credibility problem is like a cancer.
Unless enough thinking Republicans decide this existential threat to the crucial American institution of the press outweighs tax cuts and a stacked judiciary, it will simply metastasize.
Simple as that.