Trump is making journalism great again

ZOË REINHARDT / AGGIE

How the president endangers and strengthens journalistic practice

Donald Trump’s animosity toward the press has been well-documented throughout the election campaign and his current presidency. From accusing the media of falsely reporting the size of his inauguration crowds to evicting reporters from the White House press room, President Trump has made one thing clear: he doesn’t want you listening to the news. Whether he succeeds or not could determine how people perceive the truth in the era of “alternative facts.”

“I have a running war with the media,” he said during a visit to the CIA headquarters, which took place on his first full day as president, and during which he remarked that “fake news media” journalists were “the most dishonest human beings on earth.”

It’s clear that Trump and his administration are at war with what they call the mainstream media, or the liberal media, which assumes that there’s a systemic bias within the press, and that these sources work in lockstep to discredit the president. That simply is not the case.

More recently he has declared these journalists “the enemy of the people” — a phrase with a fraught history behind it.

Over the course of the last century, it had been used by dictators to undermine foreign governments, political opposition and protesters. The phrase dates as far back as the reign of Emperor Nero, who had been called “an enemy of the people” by the Roman Senate. It reemerged during the French Revolution and was later employed by the German Nazi party to subjugate the Jews. It was most widely used by Stalin against any who opposed his Bolshevik government and eventual Soviet Union. Whether the historical use of the phrase is conscious or unknown to Trump, its invocation directly links him to a tradition of demogogy.

“When you look at somebody who makes a career out of demogogy, they need enemies, and it’s almost secondary who the enemy is,” said Sasha Abramsky, a UC Davis lecturer and journalist. “Trump’s encouraging a very venomous look at the media as traitors […] partly that’s just theatrics, but the danger is that you get violence at the backend of that. When you call a group of people the ‘enemy of the people,’ you’re essentially making them targets for anybody who’s angry and alienated.”

Abramsky explained that Americans have become increasingly distrustful of expert opinions, whether they come from politicians, policymakers, lawyers, scientists or journalists.

“When Trump comes in and says the media is promoting fake news, he’s trying to delegitimize people who are already viewed with suspicion by a large part of the public,” he said. Abramsky contends that Trump’s attack on the media has the intentional effect of inciting violence.

Indeed, the president uses the media like no other politician does and knows how to use it. He needs it. And he knows that every time he demonizes the media, he will receive more attention. Abramsky believes that Trump attempts to distract from other things including, but certainly not limited to, evidence that his entire campaign was in league with Russia. He said: “[Trump’s] a master of distraction, but I think the bigger issue, even in that, is that he’s a manipulator of the mob.”

The Aggie’s editor-in-chief, Scott Dresser, echoes this sentiment.

“I think any time an elected official or someone in power wants to silence journalists, it’s because that person is doing things that he doesn’t want the people to know,” Dresser said. “It could mean that he doesn’t want the general public to know that his administration is in a state of chaos or that there’s no real, centered leadership.”

Dresser believes that Trump’s attack on the media is done in part to appeal to his base — the people for whom he campaigned and to whom he derided the media as corrupt.

Needless to say, the president’s censure of journalists is just one of the things that defines his legacy as an abnormal president. Abramsky asserts that there hasn’t been a president with more to hide than Trump — even when you factor in President Nixon or any early 20th-century scandals, which included extramarital affairs and bribery schemes.

Just to give you a brief portrait: For president, we have a completely financially corrupted man who hasn’t released his tax returns to the public, with evidence suggesting that he hasn’t paid his taxes in over twenty years. We have a president with a network of financial conflicts of interest that span the globe. That he hasn’t disentangled himself from them means that his ownership of all these companies can procure him profits when he’s negotiating with other countries. At the very least, there are questions surrounding the legitimacy of the election results and the involvement of a foreign power in helping him win the presidency. And we have a president who is plagued with unresolved allegations of sexual abuse, rape accusations and speculation that he cohorted with the mafia when he was in New York real estate.

“You’ve got more allegations for wrongdoing than any other president in history has faced, which is a pretty good reason if you’re Trump to go after the press,” Abramsky said.

Journalism, to put it succinctly, is truth-telling that encompasses different perspectives. And when someone undermines that duty, something is lost. But more than that, journalism has been instrumental in informing, bridging understanding and rallying people together. It was a journalist, after all, who helped instigate the fall of Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954, as Richard Murrow dedicated a televised report to bringing him down. He urged his audience: “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof […] We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason …”

To a similar effect, Dresser said: “[Journalism is] important because it holds people in power accountable for their actions. It’s important to have journalists around to act as a watchdog to make sure that money is being spent as it should be and that people are not abusing their power.”

Even under Trump’s administration, he is hopeful for the future of the field, but stresses the need for “independent, legitimate journalism” in an age of modern media in which anybody can publish anything.

Abramsky has no qualms about the field being endangered, not as long as the media is “feisty.” He invokes himself when he said, “We don’t like being called ‘enemies of the people.’” He goes on to describe American culture as being fairly democratic and fairly committed to free speech. In this sense, he believes that the more the media is demonized, the more it actually does its job. He reckons that there has been a “dearth of good reporting” in the last 30 or 40 years. If anything he hopes that, in the face of this assault by Trump, the media bounces back.

While Trump’s attempt to censor journalists can effectively remove them from the White House press room from time to time, they will not be silenced. If anything, they will continue to speak out and usher in a stronger, more consolidated journalistic period.
Written by: Jazmin Garcia — msjgarcia@ucdavis.edu