Editorial: The media’s retort to Trump is not what you expected

At a New England-wide newspaper conference in Boston this past weekend, one 90-minute forum featured a panel of five national journalists debating how the press should respond to Trump’s attacks on the fifth estate.
It was not what most Americans would think liberal New England media elites would be saying, even after Trump has spent the past week trying to discredit the media’s work. No, the press was anything but vindictive, nor cowed, but rather questioning and second-guessing the fairness of their coverage. As ever, we are our harshest critics.
Among the 200 reporters, editors, graphic artists and sales-reps in attendance, we were all told to “listen more” to Trump supporters’ perspectives and be sure we reflect those attitudes into our pages. Trump supporters have valid perspectives, we were reminded, understand what they are and write about them.
And, for heaven’s sake, we were told, don’t fall for Trump’s personal attacks on the press. It’s a distraction from his performance as president. What Trump hopes to do by attacking the press is to make it an ideological fight: the liberal press vs. a president who is gutsy enough to “tell it like it is.” That’s how Trump would hope to frame the battle, and he’s been spoiling for a fight since Day One.
No, don’t take the bait; resist joining Trump in the gutter. Rather, stick to the facts and point out the lies he tells and the motives he employs. Above all, report the actions he is taking, cite the potential harm it will cause our readers and communities, and how it will effect the nation. Let the facts speak; just do our jobs as objective reporters.
It was a good message to hear. But the fight is harder than it sounds, and we’ll get to why next, but first let’s do a quick recap of Trump’s most recent affronts: After his first press conference last week (a rambling, incoherent affair that heaped lavish praise on his own performance over his first 4 weeks, which many experts say has been among the most chaotic in modern history), the next day he calls the media the “enemy of the people,” and then by Saturday he bans the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN and several other national media outlets from a routine news briefing — the first time in modern history a president has acted with such spite and capriciousness (not at least since Nixon and the Watergate scandal.)
Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer had been widely quoted just a few weeks earlier saying that banning news organizations from press events would not happen because it was the path chosen by “dictators.”
And just last week, Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said of Trump’s statement about the press being the enemy of the public, “that’s how dictators get started.” McCain was making the point, in an interview with CBS’s Meet the Presshost Chuck Todd, that a free press was central to a functional democracy, even if news organizations challenged those being held accountable, and even if the press’s coverage irked elected officials. “I hate the press… But the fact is, we need you… If you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and, many times, adversarial press.”
But it’s hard to avoid picking that fight with Trump because there is no other effective counter: With the GOP controlling both Houses in Congress, most statehouses, and soon the Supreme Court, the press is the last leg standing to defend against someone who exudes dictatorial traits. And if informing the public, means pointing out the bald-faced lies the president is telling, then we should not hesitate to do so. If we need to do investigative pieces to expose the Russian connection, do it. If there are intelligence agencies and others inside the administration who fear the president is placing the nation in jeopardy, then we should risk the consequences of using “leaks” and anonymous sources — just as happened during Watergate — and speak truth to power.
That’s not “fake” news, as Trump says of news critical of his performance, but it is part of the news Trump wants hidden, just as Nixon wanted the Watergate story hidden, and who attacked the press with a similar vigor. Hopefully, over the next year, the public will be able to discern the truth, and in time its trust in the media will grow.

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