- Reuters/Joshua Roberts
Top media figures may not openly acknowledge it, but they’re at war with President Donald Trump, whose rhetorical assault on many major media outlets has been undeterred by his ascension to the nation’s highest office.
During a Thursday event at New York University titled “Not The New Normal: How The Media Should Cover The Trump Presidency,” top media figures from Slate, The Huffington Post, The New Yorker, and Univision ruminated – and at times fretted – over how their outlets planned to proceed in face of a White House that uses its own “alternative facts” and remains actively hostile to the news media.
“This is an emergency,” New Yorker editor David Remnick said, repeatedly urging media outlets to “buck up.”
“Everything is fragile. Magazines are fragile. Television stations are fragile. NYU may not last until the 400th century, who knows? And it’s demanded of us to vouchsafe that which is valuable, and invaluable, and constitutional.”
If Trump’s frequent, occasionally personal critiques of opponents during the campaign disturbed some reporters, the first days of his presidency were an equally ominous sign that the press would face years of opposition from a president who seems eager to battle for every factual inch.
Reports have indicated that Trump’s administration almost immediately set about putting gag orders on several government departments upon taking power, barring them from releasing information to the public and to the press. (White House press secretary Sean Spicer has denied this.)
At the CIA on Saturday, Trump dismissed his feud with the intelligence community as an outcome of his “running war with the media,” whom the president dubbed the “most dishonest people on earth.” Later the same day, Spicer delivered a terse statement chastising media reports that correctly described the relatively low inaugural turnout, instead inflating the size of Trump’s inaugural crowd.
Confronted by its own falsehoods, the Trump team did not relent.
“If we’re going to keep referring to our press secretary in those types of terms, we’re going to have to rethink our relationship here,” Kellyanne Conway said on “Meet The Press” when pressed about Spicer’s comments.
Thursday’s panelists acknowledged the immense and unprecedented challenges Trump’s aggressive embrace of untruths has posed to media organizations.
“He really is at war with the institutional role of the media, which is accountability,” said Jacob Weisberg, the publisher of Slate. “And that’s the role the media has to insist on.”
“I think Donald Trump doesn’t want to be held accountable,” Weisberg added, “and I think he’s preemptively trying to keep the press from performing that role.”
Huffington Post editor-in-chief Lydia Polgreen noted that increased stratification of media consumers meant many hard-hitting pieces may not reach beyond the left-leaning audiences that some major outlets primarily attract.
She questioned whether a single revelation could have persuaded some voters not to vote for Trump, saying “there’s been a huge erosion of trust” as media outlets had allowed themselves to “become discredited” by partisans and politicians seeking to engage in a battle of disinformation.
“I think we in the media have a history of nonviolent resistance,” Polgreen said. “We stick to our nonviolent weapon of choice, which is dispassionate reporting of fact. I just think we all need to think about the effectiveness of that weapon in this context. I’m not suggesting we dispense with those things, but we can’t fool ourselves. I think that if we just behave the same, that eventually truth will come out, I’m not confident of that.”
For others, however, the pseudo-wartime footing wasn’t anything new.
Univision sparred numerous times with Trump throughout the 2016 campaign. Trump did not sit for an interview on the network, booted anchor Jorge Ramos from a press conference, and sued Univision after it dropped one of his beauty pageants following his inflammatory presidential announcement speech.
Borja Echevarría, the network’s editor-in-chief, said Univision understood that it was dealing with a hostile force when Ramos was ejected from the August news conference.
“My feeling is that we come from the future,” Echevarría said. “Many of the conversations that are happening now, and the debates that are happening now, we had then, and we took positions a year and a half ago.”
The media heads agreed that the press needed to embrace solidarity, singling out the way few reporters in the room vocally supported CNN’s Jim Acosta when he was ostracized by Trump at a press conference earlier this month. Weisberg suggested that journalists boycott the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner and agree to dispatch low-level staffers, rather than experienced reporters, to White House press briefings if Spicer continued to stand by untrue statements.
But even that solidarity extended only so far.
Remnick criticized the strange relationship between the new White House and some media analysts, appearing to subtly knock the hosts of “Morning Joe,” whose host Joe Scarborough has offered both public and private advice to Trump, a longtime friend of Scarborough and a consistent viewer of the MSNBC show.
“I think the press is on the one hand filled with bravado, in a certain way, with a sense of mission, and good,” Remnick said. “But also filled with, in certain corners, these sort of clichés: ‘He must be given a chance, he is, after all, our president.’ When you turn on certain shows in the morning, and there’s this eerie communication between the Oval Office and the television studio. This needs to be sussed out, explained, exploded, examined.”
And the solutions to Trump’s new media environment weren’t necessarily clear either.
Polgreen was skeptical of the idea that new tools like fact-checking bots could save journalism, while Remnick dismissed humorous John Oliver-style takedowns as the credible journalistic solution to Trump.
“I watched John Oliver ‘completely destroy’ an issue, and his researchers were terrific, and it was married to this incredible wit – Trump won anyway,” Remnick said. “I think we have to really face this complicated thing.”
He added: “There are all kinds of journalisms to be taken into account, and they all have to be at their tippy-top best. Not just John Oliver.”
Wednesday’s meeting was just the latest in the soul searching and self-reflection in which many media outlets engaged since the November 8 election.
At a similar panel in New York earlier in January that was dedicated to technology and media in the 2016 election, top journalists from legacy media organizations like the Associated Press and new media organizations like the data-journalism website FiveThirtyEight picked over the carcass of the election, pondering why data analysts misjudged Trump’s electoral strength and how readers themselves often didn’t necessarily possess the media literacy to sift through fake and poorly reported news.
Despite the apocalyptic language, media heads like Weisberg and Remnick cautioned reporters and readers on Thursday not let succumb to total despair.
“Let’s just remember, he’s four days in,” Remnick said. “We are sitting here on the stage … We are not in a jail cell or a courtroom. Tomorrow morning, I’m going to go to my office and I’m going to type and talk to writers.”
“The freedom is there. I just want to be able to look back and be proud that I used it to its maximum, because it’s an incredible privilege. We have to do it.”
Disclosure: This author worked for several months as a researcher at Slate and as an editorial fellow at The Huffington Post.