Donald Trump’s election signals dark and challenging days ahead for the nation’s journalists, but there are signs his election may also spark a renaissance of sorts for hard-nosed, investigative reporting.
On the campaign trail, candidate Trump was notoriously hostile to the media, even while courting the cameras at every turn.
Reporters covering his rallies were herded into a pen while the candidate mocked them and some of his followers heaped scorn on them, including reviving a Nazi term to denigrate the media.
Reporters who wrote stories Trump didn’t like were denied media credentials by his campaign. Some journalists perceived as unfriendly received a barrage of hateful messages from Trump’s supporters on social media. The candidate himself singled out numerous journalists for criticism, even mocking a disabled New York Times reporter.
Trump also promised to “open up” libel laws so that journalists could be sued over negative stories. (Never mind that there is no federal libel law.)
To accomplish this goal, Trump would have to convince the Supreme Court to overturn a landmark 1964 Times v. Sullivan ruling that established the country’s definition of libel.
Or he could seek to amend the First Amendment. Good luck with that!
On second thought, Republicans only need to flip a few more state legislatures to have a shot. It’s doubtful such nightmare scenarios would emerge, as the importance of a truly free press to our Democracy isn’t a partisan issue.
Even the very nature of truth — what is and what is not a fact — was under assault during the campaign.
Just 15 percent of Trump’s statements were rated as mostly true or true by Politifact while 51 percent of Clinton’s statements fell in that category. (Snopes is a good source to check before you Tweet or forward something you’re unsure of.)
Many of Trump’s supporters say they don’t trust the media. Perhaps as a result, some gravitate toward hyper-partisan sites that peddle faux news on Facebook. The candidate himself passed along several fake news stories, shrugging it off when this was pointed out to him.
Both Facebook and Google announced Monday they are banning fake news sites from using their advertising services. Facebook in particular is facing criticism that a torrent of completely made up news stories (some written by teens in Macedonia) may have impacted the election.
The tendency to seek out news skewed toward one side is certainly not reserved for those on the right. An increasing number of people on both sides of the divided country’s political spectrum are retreating to curated social media streams filled with opinion masquerading as news and laced with falsehoods.
Trump says he wants to unite the country but early signs belie that statement.
The founder of a website that gleefully spews hateful and sometimes inaccurate stories, Steve Bannon, will be one of Trump’s closest White House advisors.
Until he stepped aside to help run Trump’s campaign, Bannon was the chairman of Breitbart News, which Bannon himself described as the “platform for the alt-right.”
This is the kinder, gentler name for a brand of fringe conservatism that promotes white nationalism, misogyny, racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia.
His hiring was condemned by Jewish and Muslim leaders as well as the Southern Poverty Law Center.
A Republican campaign consultant for Gov. John Kasich and Sen. John McCain said of Bannon: “The racist, fascist extreme right is represented footsteps from the Oval Office. Be very vigilant, America.”
Here are just a few of Breitbart’s headlines under Bannon’s leadership:
“Hoist It High and Proud: The Confederate Flag Proclaims a Glorious Heritage.” (Written two weeks after nine black churchgoers were shot to death in Charleston, S.C. by a man who posed with a Confederate flag in a photo.)
“Birth control makes women unattractive and crazy”
“Bill Kristol: Republican spoiler, renegade Jew”
“The Solution to Online ‘Harassment’ Is Simple: Women Should Log Off” and “There’s No Hiring Bias Against Women In Tech, They Just Suck At Interviews.”
Meanwhile, Bannon’s hiring was praised as “excellent” by white nationalist leaders, including former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.
Trump’s divisive and racist campaign rhetoric with Bannon at the helm has emboldened people across the nation to act since his election.
The Southern Poverty Law Center compiled information on 200 acts since Trump’s election of “hateful harassment and intimidation” of minorities, Muslims, women, homosexuals and others. Disturbingly, the most common location for these incidents of harassment was K-12 schools.
The Frontier reported on some of these incidents in Oklahoma in a story Monday.
Increased support for media
The political climate and increasing number of racist attacks have rightfully alarmed people across the country. Media outlets must continue to vigorously report on this trend, including questioning whether law enforcement agencies will act.
One bright spot has emerged: renewed support for news organizations.
Media outlets including ProPublica, The Atlantic, Mother Jones, The Guardian, The New York Times and The Washington Post have all reported increases in donations or subscriptions since Trump’s election.
Local journalists need public support now even more, as they lack the deep pockets of Jeff Bezos and the Sulzberger family. Locally, The Frontier and Oklahoma Watch specialize in the kind of in-depth reporting that’s needed right now.
The Oklahoman has some excellent journalists, including Jaclyn Cosgrove, who just produced a searing investigation on the state’s shoddy record on mental illness treatment. The Tulsa World’s journalists — including Andrea Eger, Curtis Killman and Ginnie Graham — consistently produce thought-provoking stories that make a difference in people’s lives.
Whether they work on a local or national scale, journalists are gearing up for a difficult climate, as set by the tone of the president-elect.
Less than a week after his election, Trump engaged in a silly Twitter spat with the Times, complaining about the newspaper’s allegedly inaccurate coverage “of the Trump phenomena.”
— NYTCo Communications (@NYTimesComm) November 13, 2016
It seems unpresidential for the president-elect to be engaging in a public dispute like this with a media outlet. Doesn’t he have a lot to do right now? Shouldn’t he develop thicker skin considering he’s going to be the president?
The Times and Post produced stellar investigative work during the campaign, not just about Trump. Stories in both publications also focused on Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, the content of her campaign’s leaked emails and on the Clinton foundation controversy.
Still, the perception remains in the minds of many who voted for Trump that mainstream media outlets are biased against them and against the president-elect. There’s actually some evidence that may be true, though it’s not as clear-cut as Trump’s supporters would have you believe.
A group of data geeks who call themselves The Data Face studied nearly 20,000 news stories from eight organizations written during the campaign (through July 2016) using a variety of mathematical tools to analyze the content.
What the study found wasn’t entirely surprising: Trump received far more coverage than Clinton, even during her peak month of coverage. Curiously, the outlets labeled in the study as left-leaning — including The New York Times and The Washington Post — wrote more stories about Trump than did the right-leaning outlets.
In fact, the early intense focus on Trump undoubtedly helped propel him to office.
The study even measured whether and to what degree each outlet favored one candidate over the other by analyzing factors including positive vs. negative language. Again, the results are not that surprising: Outlets leaning toward Trump included Fox News and The Wall Street Journal while the Times and Post leaned toward Clinton.
Perhaps these findings are an argument for the need to consume news from a variety of sources, rather than living in a news echo chamber.
I acknowledge falling into this pattern myself sometimes, as I subscribe to both the Post and Times and am an NPR junkie. All three feature conservative columnists and commentators but I also seek out thoughtful, informed conservative viewpoints from a variety of sources. I also subscribe to the Tulsa World, which isn’t exactly a bastion of liberalism these days.
Regardless of where news organizations fall in the political spectrum, this election has pushed many to reevaluate how they cover politics, interwoven with issues including the economy, the criminal justice system and immigration policy.
This is a healthy and important process.
Media outlets on the coasts shouldn’t expect to parachute reporters into a community, cover a few rallies where the most extreme views are on display and make a judgment about people in that whole community.
It’s unfortunate that some of the best and most nuanced reporting I’ve seen about why Trump voters were angry in the first place has been written after the election. One of the reasons people in “flyover” country supported Trump is they believe Washington insiders, a club of which Clinton is decidedly a member, don’t listen to them.
News organizations must figure out how to improve their coverage in future elections. But they also must fight to uncover the truth in a Trump administration likely to be the most opaque in modern times. (Maybe his pal Putin gave him some tips in their recent phone call?)
Investigative journalists should also remember the public needs them more than ever. Even if many people don’t realize it yet. And organizations that produce quality investigative journalism also need the public’s support more than ever.