by Carolyn Walsh ’17
The Trump administration is waging war against the media. Press Secretary Sean Spicer, Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway, and Trump himself have lambasted negative coverage, have threatened to bar “unfriendly” outlets from having access to the White House, and have talked down journalists attempting to correct misinformation the administration has put forth. Trump’s election to the White House has presented a stiff challenge to contemporary political journalism, but it should serve as a wake up call that something fundamental in the American media system needs to change. Trump’s bullying deceit and sensationalist behavior can no longer distract from and replace the real headlines of his autocratic attacks on our liberal democracy. Scores of nationwide protests in recent weeks have highlighted civilian resistance, but it is time for the news media—and professional journalists—to step up to the plate and take Trump head on.
The news media, as an independent institution, is an indispensable aspect of our democracy. Professional journalists carry the responsibility of keeping the public informed on the activities of the government and other powerful institutions. As the citizens’ watchdog, the press plays a vital role in promoting transparency and holding public figures accountable. Throughout the campaign season, the mainstream news media’s coverage of Trump conjured numerous failures. Seeing profits in Trump’s celebrity status and his unpredictable outbursts, news media outlets more or less excused Trump’s glaring flaws and incompetence. His campaign rally speeches were broadcasted live like rock concerts, and even as Trump disparaged women, Muslims, immigrants, veterans, the disabled, and even the media itself, major networks and publications continued to play it safe with Trump, giving him the excessive coverage he craved, and avoided tough questions on policy and conduct. The media’s passive complicity with his crude antics and manipulation helped Trump win the election. In 2017, we cannot afford passive complicity anymore.
The Trump administration, although still in its infancy, has peddled out lies and invoked damage on our country’s democratic institutions and standard principles. To list all of the disturbing things the new administration has done in the past few weeks would be exhaustive, but here are a few. Trump has still refused to sever his personal business ties, violating Article 1, Section 9, Clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution, and has yet to release his tax returns. He issued an (most likely unconstitutional) executive order banning immigration from seven majority Muslim nations, which caused deliberate confusion and chaos, and then challenged the legitimate authority of federal judges who blocked the ban. He appointed notorious white supremacist and certified fascist, Steve Bannon to a key seat on the National Security Council. He, again, praised the autocratic Vladimir Putin in bizarre fashion, and he has tweeted numerous crazy, inflammatory statements because, you know, what else should he be doing? Citizens, as organized and loud as we can be, cannot demand answers and change completely on our own. We need the news media to proclaim its role as a safeguard of democracy and put a powerful and unrelenting check on Trump.
Mainstream news reporters need to start immediately and repetitively calling out Trump and his team for their blatant lies as soon as they happen. Truth is not and cannot become a partisan issue. Every provocative tweet Trump sends out needs to be ignored. Instead, the news media should only focus its coverage on issues of policy and governance—and it should not become distracted by a clownish sideshow. Trump and his allies seem to believe they are above transparency and accountability—but this could not be more false. Even as the administration refuses to answer important questions and attempts to paint anyone who does not agree with them as the “enemy,” reporters must continue asking the important questions and demanding transparency.
Media resistance to Trump will require cooperation and solidarity between individual reporters and major outlets. It will require the acknowledgement that being the eyes and ears of democracy—informing citizens of the truth and upholding the fundamental principles of our society—is more important than chasing ratings or getting on a bully’s good side.