This is a speech I gave at the request of Temple Emanu-El, Waterford, Jan. 15, 2017, five days before the inauguration of Donald Trump.
My friend Paul Greenberg, Pulitzer prize winner and EPE of the Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock, says that nothing good ever came out of committee except for the King James version of the Bible and the 1st Amendment, and neither of them count because both were miracles.
The First Amendment is indeed miraculous in its precision of writing and its incredible paucity of words. In 45 words it guarantees to the people FIVE rights, two of which are freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and I will applaud anyone who can tell me the other three without consulting Google (assembly, right to petition government, and freedom of worship.
That said, even with a beautiful amendment like the first which has stood for more than 200 years as the bulwork of the American media, I believe that the Trump administration will prove to be among most challenging eras for journalism in my lifetime.
His election was a shock to many, but I submit it was part of a worldwide trend and one that has been growing in America for years. Let me lay the groundwork for this discussion.
The rise of populism and distrust of institutions, many of which were previously held in far greater respect, is a worldwide phenomenon, not just something that is just happening here. It brings with it a thirst for change. It brought Great Britain Brexit and brought us Donald Trump. Admittedly, that is the kind of change that is a little like deciding you don’t want to take out the garbage so it would be a good idea to crash a bulldozer through the walls of the kitchen instead, as my friend, NYT columnist Gail Collins pointed out.
The Gallup survey has chronicled trust over the last 40 years. During that time the only institution that has gone up in any significant way in American trust is the US military. Every other institution - Congress, the presidency, even churches - have gone down. OK, big business has gone up a little.
The press has never won a popularity contest. The percentage of the public expressing “very high” confidence in the press peaked around 1976 at about 30 percent, according to Gallup. Gallup made a distinction between TV reporters and the rest of the media with TV reporters coming in at under 20 percent. In 2014 just about 10 percent of the public said it had “very high” confidence in the press.
Where we get our news, of course, has changed. Forty years ago, 70 percent of people reported reading a daily newspaper. Now, not so much. Just 20 percent of people get their news from newspapers. Most - 57 percent - get their news from television, 28 percent from news apps, 18 percent from social media, 25 percent from radio. These statistics are from Pew's survey on the state of the media, released June of 2016.
Meanwhile, the Internet has caused the advertising newspapers depended upon to melt away. The result? Newsroom jobs have tumbled by nearly 50 percent in 10 years – from nearly 60,000 to 32,000 at the end of 2015.
Another thing weakened the institution of American journalism – the administration of Barack Hussein Obama.
Obama used a WWI relic, the Espionage Act, to prosecute nine government whistleblowers who leaked information to reporters. He used this odious power – to arrest people who talk to reporters - more than all previous presidents put together. His justice department, through the FBI, threatened to imprison reporters if they didn’t reveal their confidential sources. The Obama administration also won an important, and damaging Fourth Circuit court ruling in 2014 to challenge the right of journalists not to testify about their confidential sources. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case, which involved a New York Times supporter who was subpoenaed. This court ruling makes it easier to imprison reporters unless they reveal sources.
Obama also restricted the presence of photographers in the White House and substituted his own, hand-picked photographer’s shots to distribute as “news.” Those shots were not news, of course, and he’s too smart not to know it. It was PR from the get go, control of the media.
So at the beginning of the 2016 campaign, journalism was in a weakened state. At the same time, Donald Trump understood as no other candidate did that ours has become an economy that monetizes attention – not facts, not policy pronouncements and not politics as usual. Trump knew what to say to get attention, because attention was the most important thing to him about running.
Trump preferred twitter to press conferences, off the cuff remarks to written speeches, and lies to truth. Politifact said that more of his statements were untrue than not. He is also among the most combative, thin-skinned men to ever run for and become elected president and unless the media grovels before him Trump has a disturbing tendency to threaten reporters from the podium. He’s threatened to weaken the libel laws so it is easier for public figures to sue journalists for stories they don’t like. I have no doubt he will follow through.
Trump won because of a frustration with the status quo, a lack of trust in the established institutions, because he ran against Democratic candidate who had very high negatives and was simply not trusted by many voters, and an economic downturn that left people in the Rust belt and the Midwest Behind, and you have the foundation for a political earthquake.
Trump abused journalists in the campaign, attacked the media constantly and he has continued a pattern of distorting the truth and outright lies in his tweets and speeches. Fake news? Trump invented it by his years-long campaign of lies that questioned where Obama was born.
So how does the news media handle the new political reality?
We do our jobs, that’s how.
But we do it smarter.
-- HOW do we treat Trump's tweets? He’s the president so we have to cover them. But we must stop reacting like crows flying after shiny objects. The press drops substantive stories to chase superficial tweets. Trump is a master manipulator an understands this. He is a past master at trying to deflect attention from stories he wants to bury. Case in point was the media rushing to cover his tweeted comments about Meryl Streep’s speech at the Golden Globes last week when the story of the day had been Russian interference in our elections.
-- We need bluntness in stories and ever-more precise headlines. For example, when Trump tweeted to the House GOP that they should not choose as a first official act closing the Ethics office, most media outlets reported this as a sign of Trump’s desire to keep the Ethics office open. Nothing could be further from the truth. He said only that closing the office should not be the first act of Congress. Period. But you wouldn’t know that from the sloppy headlines, and the stories were not explicit enough.
-- I have no doubt that the White House press corps will be chased out of the White House. Already, Trump is signaling that he will move them out – a predictable disgrace.
-- In the face of all this, the media needs to be fearless, now more than ever. Trump has more conflicts of interest than all the presidents put together. This is a man with 500 businesses worldwide, who continues his self-promotion in his tweets, who hasn’t released his taxes and probably never will, whose health history is a mystery, who refuses to put his hundreds of businesses in a blind trust, and whose election may have been helped by Russia’s intervention.
The media has to keep exposing these problems and let the chips fall.
-- And, more than anything, the American public must support a fearless and free press. Every person in this room must spend some money and support the media through subscriptions and news apps, and give them as gifts to your kids and their kids. Good journalism doesn’t come free. Already, journalism has been dispirited and decimated by layoffs, and it’s a danger to democracy. As my old professor, Richard Strout used to say, there are some people that you can’t take your eyes off for a minute. We need as many eyes as possible, as many feet on the street, as many tough, questioning reporters as possible if we are to get through these next few years intact as a country.