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More talking: news in the age of Trump

By Rich Heldenfels Published: April 1, 2017

In late February, I gave a talk to the local group Hudson Action Together about news media and Donald Trump. The landscape keeps shifting but I'm still happy with a lot of what my notes said, so I am offering my prepared remarks here. 

Thanks to all of you for this chance to talk. I very much appreciate what your group and others are doing. These are difficult and dangerous times for all of us. And one of the endangered areas is that encompassing news media. I’m going to be talking here about the media, and about the culture and politics more broadly, because of the way they are intertwined.

 Let me first offer a consumer advisory: I have been retired from the Beacon Journal since last September, so I can’t speak about any discussions going on there about how to cover the Trump administration. And when I was there, my specialty was popular culture, particularly TV and movies. But I have written about politics throughout my career, including at the Beacon Journal; I was on assignment at state election headquarters on election night in 2012, and in Cleveland during parts of the GOP convention last summer. I have read still more about politics and am engrossed in what’s been going on lately – I keep going to movies and seeing Trump allegories, and am now free to send cranky emails to Rob Portman. So my comments tonight are both as a former journalist and as a consumer of news.

 While politicians and journalists have a stormy history going back to the republic’s earliest days, I have not seen an anti-press climate this publicly bad since the Nixon years. Those had the playbook for a lot of what we are seeing now. Much the way Trump has decried dishonest media and fake news, so Nixon’s vice president – Spiro Agnew – spoke of the “nattering nabobs of negativism.” Nixon had a notorious enemies list including major journalists; Trump has attacked news outlets directly – when he’s not complaining about judges or a department-store chain – and his associate Omarosa Manigault allegedly told one reporter that the administration compiled dossiers on news folks it did not like. (The White House later denied it.) The now legendary press conference with the president last week recalled some of Nixon’s press furies. When Trump spoke of “forgotten men and women” in his inaugural speech, we know that those folks were also part of what Nixon called “the silent majority.” Nixon at one time called some young protesters “bums”; Trump has shared the sentiment while amping up the language. The phrase “alternative facts” had a Nixon-era predecessor in the declaration that previous Nixon statements had become “inoperative.” Occasional honest errors in the press, whether about Watergate or Trump, are offered up as proof that bias and falsehoods are pervasive. And the current Russian-interference controversy has generated hopeful comparisons to Watergate.

 When we look at specific events, shaking our heads is a mild reaction. We are seeing organizations having to fact-check issues big and small; the White House even misled reporters about how many holes of golf the president had played Sunday – only to be exposed by one of his golfing companions. Memos are leaked, then their contents denied or downplayed. And that’s not including the attempts to get the administration to talk about things that it doesn’t want to discuss, as with the president’s evasive initial answer to questions s about the rise of anti-Semitism, followed belatedly by a statement opposing it in general – but no specific denunciation of the anti-Semites who helped elect him. And, of course, there have been the many instances of people around the president explaining “what he meant to say” when he said something else.

As is so often the case in politics, language is slippery. Michael Flynn gets fired, not for lying but because he had “inadvertently briefed” “incomplete information,” when he thought he had always operated with “the utmost of integrity and honesty.” No “lock him up” chants there. Instead, the president kept praising a man he had just shoved out the door.

How do we even keep up with this? It reminds me at times of the old grammar-school task of diagramming sentences, with the placement of adverbs giving way to the placement of facts, alternative facts, “fake” facts – I didn’t understand sentence diagramming and many times I don’t understand the current conversations, either. When the alt-right advocate Milo Yiannopoulos was shown to have spoken favorably about pedophilia, there was actually a long conversation on social media in which Milo fans tried to find a way to make Milo’s statement acceptable. What if, some asked, a 13-year-old is really mature? Are you kidding me?

I think here, just a month into Trump’s reign, we’re all exhausted – which in its way is perfect for Trump and his associates, since the more directions they send us, the better chance they have of slipping something by. Look! Trump’s talking about leaks! Don’t ask about the Russians in the room. The hashtag #butheremails has become commonplace and ironic because of the way criticism of current actions invoke sniping about Clinton’s emails or Benghazi even when they have nothing to do with the issue at hand.
And where do news media fit into all this? Going back to Flynn and its aftermath, we could look at that as a situation where a free press did its job, exposing the furtive contacts between Flynn and the Russians, pressing White House representatives for explanation and comments and, after Flynn’s resignation, further pushing the likes of Kellyanne Conway about what happened – pressing so hard, in fact, that NBC’s Matt Lauer told her that her explanation made no sense.

And that came along with what might have appeared to be other signs of a newly invigorated press, such as Fox News’s Chris Wallace pushing back at Reince Priebus about the idea that news media are the enemies of the people. Or when Trump sidekick Stephen Miller’s absurd claims of voter fraud prompted ABC’s George Stephanopoulos to say that Miller had provided absolutely no evidence to support that assertion.
Which, of course, did not stop Miller. Nor did it redeem news organizations from at times craven, unquestioning coverage of specious accusations against Hillary Clinton during the presidential campaign; we’re not even free from that sort of thing these days, as was demonstrated in Bill Maher’s far too cozy interview with Milo, where it took a fiery Larry Wilmore to confront Milo’s outrageousness.

Nor will more aggressive fact-checking end the cries of “FAKE NEWS” – in all capital letters – whenever the news is bad for Trump. Or other conflicts and manipulations which suggest that our sources of news are so varied and divided that the nation’s people no longer agree on something as basic as what a fact is. I’m reminded of a line from one witness to culture wars: “The America I grew up with was a melting pot, but today it has turned into a bunch of little pots.”

That was said 20 years ago, before the pots became smaller and more numerous, and each pot had its own news source. Going back to Miller, if you had gone on social media after his Sunday-show remarks, you might have turned to Joe Scarborough’s Morning Joe show, where he called Miller’s comments horrendous and an embarrassment. But if you then scrolled through Twitter responses to Scarborough, you would have found:

“Miller did great. I’m so tired of fake outrage by the left.” And

“Actually the (main stream media)’s attacks are an embarrassment. Keep it up, the DEM's will get destroyed AGAIN in 2018/2020.”

And a photo of the “Morning Joe” hosts labelled “Fake News With Your Coffee.”

Keep in mind that Scarborough is a right-leaning Republican who has at times been thought to be too friendly to President Trump – and whose show is reportedly regular viewing for the president. But these days, criticism of Trump by news outlets invariably fires up the people who believe, like Miller, or Steve Bannon, or Trump himself much of the time, that most news outlets are the enemy. I say most because there are still Breitbart, Drudge, Infowars and Fox News, willing to curry favor and to brand other news outlets the enemy, too. Sean Hannity attacked Scarborough for attacking Miller. Fox News built its brand around being an alternative to other news services. . Mark Harris has written about Trump’s views of the press being based on his time in the entertainment business, where publicists would always try to spin coverage, including by granting or denying access to their stars. And Trump has certainly played that game, rewarding his media pets with access.

Not long ago Trump and Sean Spicer were also tending to take reporter questions only from friendly outlets. Yet after a joint press conference with Trump and Justin Trudeau included no formal questions about the then-newsworthy Flynn, Breitbart barked: “Media figures are furious that the journalists asked about real issues affecting people … rather than parroting the same anti-Trump narrative … that the media have been pushing all weekend.” Still, at that notorious press conference a week ago Trump did take questions from the MSM – although his purpose in doing so was to have a chance to berate “dishonest” and “fake” reporters and their organizations. While Trump has at times made noises about plans to shackle news media, for example by getting rid of the First Amendment, he may not have to do those things because his larger purpose is to render news media meaningless.

Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal explained the job of journalists this way: “We honor the responsibility to separate truth from falsehood, which is never more important than when powerful people insist that falsehoods are truths, or that there is no such thing as truth to begin with.”

Stephens added: “Facts, as most people understand the term, don’t matter (to Trump). They are indistinguishable from, and interchangeable with, opinion; and … statements of fact needn’t have any purchase against a man who is either sufficiently powerful to ignore them or sufficiently shameless to deny them — or, in his case, both.”

In knowing that, Trump is playing to the man I once heard say that he thought Sean Hannity was a good and fair source for news. And, on the other side, are people who get their news mainly from The Daily Show, with Jon Stewart and then Trevor Noah, where even facts are filtered through opinion, and it may be the opinion that people remember most.

In addition, Trump is taking advantage of a culture war which goes back decades, one in which news organizations have been painted as an out-of-touch elite which has abandoned fundamental American values, part of the “pointy-headed intellectuals” George Wallace would snarl about in the ’60s. It’s ironically amusing to me that a billionaire surrounded by people of similar wealth would see reporters, most of whom are not all that well paid, as the elite; but Trump knows that most folks’ perception of journalists is based on seeing them in glamorous settings or reading about the mega-checks the most famous ones get.

Trump’s cries about dishonest media out to get him are encouraging to people who have been schooled for decades on the idea that there is something wrong with conventional newsgathering – that Fox could proclaim “we report, you decide,” because others were secretly deciding for you; that the mainstream was in fact the “lame-stream.” Trump’s cries about dishonest media are encouraging to people schooled in the idea of the failure of conventional newsgathering – that Fox can claim “we report, you decide,” because others are secretly deciding for you; or that the mainstream media is in fact “lame-stream,” and biased to a fault.

A personal example: A couple of years ago, after a scandal in Akron, I wrote a column for the Beacon Journal about why men would think forcing their physical attention was OK, about all the cultural forces leading men in that terrible direction. I started the column with what I thought were diverse examples from history and the news: “Tailhook. Clarence Thomas. Former Brimfield Police Chief David Oliver. The Ohio State marching band. Bill Cosby. Former Akron Mayor Garry Moneypenny.” The response included notes that did not argue about my premise but complained that my list of offenders did not include Bill Clinton – that my paper’s “far left agenda” was the reason, and that I had obviously gone into hiding after writing it.

I was on vacation.

But I had the topic for another column when I got back: Are we all taking about the same thing?

Getting back to our alternative news sources, think of all those “things the media don’t tell you” that fill your email folder and Twitter and Facebook – things that feel as if they are believable, even if they don’t stand up to factual examination. Snopes.com is kept active by such reports.

Only they emerge because the “real fake facts,” we think, fit the beliefs in our little, non-melting pot more than the “real real facts.”

Now the good side of what Trump is doing is that it has not only reinvigorated the public, leading to new confrontations with politicians, but many elements of news media as well. And there have been signs that those two groups are coming together, that publications attacked by Trump have gained new subscribers, and therefore new resources they can apply to additional newsgathering. Unfortunately, so long as there is a public that is unwilling to accept news it does not like, and with the possibility that the furies currently unleashed will fade through sheer weariness over time, then the task for news gets tougher. Let me therefore suggest some ways you can battle fake news and keep the press not only free but assertive.

First, be skeptical. Look at where news, especially the kind piling up on social media, is coming from. Make ample use of Snopes.com and Politifact, two of the most serious fact-checkers out there, and in the case of Snopes, one that covers a lot of pop-culture territory.

Be skeptical not only of the right, of Breitbart and Infowars among others, but of all sides; Occupy Democrats and Addicting Info don’t fare well on Politifact, either. When you’re on an aggregating site, back-trace the news to its original source, to see if the site is spinning information – or is a bit of satire, such as Andy Borowitz’s New Yorker columns, which have at times been perceived as true. You could even back-trace further with sources you trust; if there’s a study being cited, see if you can find the study itself.
Even when you get to the source, make sure of what it is. A lot of labeling is deceptive. Last year a story made the rounds that Bruce Willis was moving to Cuyahoga Falls; it even got on the Facebook web page of the Summit County executive. The story, one of many claiming celebrities were moving to small towns, came from a site that called itself Daily News 11, like a TV station, but which in the fine print identified as “fantasy news.” The same thing occurred with another site, and a widely circulating story that a sequel to the movie The Notebook was going to be made in Akron. There was no such sequel, let alone a plan for local production.

But let’s say you’ve found the sources you trust, that are consistent in their presentation of facts and reasoned in their opinions. Support them. Watch, read online, subscribe. If you believe in the news on PBS or NPR, write a check to your local station – and tell them why you’re being supportive. That is looking to be especially important right now, with a president who apparently pays no attention to public broadcasting – and increasing talk about funding cuts.

Make your presence known to the newsgatherers. If you think a story is good, let the writer know – not just through a letter to the editor, say, but in an email or other communication directly to the writer. Post the stories you value. Tweet them. Get the information out there in all the ways available to you. Clicks matter. At the Beacon Journal we had a big electronic board showing which Ohio.com stories were being read at a given moment, and it was a board that was often checked. That doesn’t mean stories themselves were spun, but it did give a sense of which topics and issues were important to readers.

Of course, when you do post, be ready for pushback. There are trolls under every social-media bridge. What I do, at least, is decline to engage them. I deliver the news, or state my opinion, and usually move on, letting them rant. I’m standing with my original comments: as the Declaration of Independence says, let facts be submitted to a candid world. If you do decide to engage with someone else’s assertion, then, be sure your reply is fact-based. Too much is simply the trading of insults.

OK, I confess. Sometimes I delete negative comments if I find them especially outrageous. But that’s still preferable to getting into an extended argument with someone who is not interested in reason.

When people are reasonable, though, in the war over facts, we also have to be willing to acknowledge when we are wrong. That a source I found might have proven incorrect, or I didn’t read it closely enough. (I’ve been caught by those Facebook posts of a famous musician dying, where I didn’t notice that the musician died five years ago and the post has just popped up again.) Read sites with agendas opposite yours – National Review, say – to see how their ideas – and facts – hold up.

And, even with the news sources we trust, it’s OK to question individual works and writers, to point out politely an error or to gently disagree with an assertion.

Note the “politely” and “gently” in what I just said. Reporters get what I used to call “dear stupid” letters. Usually they were wrongheaded as well as rude. But I read them all. And the ones that made their points clearly and thoughtfully were the ones most likely to be taken seriously.

Then, make yourself available. Can you offer a voice and expertise on an issue? Let reporters know; when it’s crunch time on a story, they may turn to you.

But remember, too, that even if it seems that news organizations are booming in the Trump era, a lot of local media are still stretched very thin. Cost-cutting has taken its toll. The reporter you contact may well have been working on four or five stories at once, and then called away from those stories because he or she was the only staffer in the newsroom when an incident needed to be covered. And, when on that story, the reporter was not only gathering information but taking photos, tweeting and preparing a first version of the story for online.

This is, again, where Trump and his associates have an advantage: vast resources, a big microphone, and a determination to crush anything in their path, including news media. Every time Trump calls a news organization “failing,” he is telling his followers that they are no match for his own success, however unreal that success is, too. But the only way to get real is to call on our news organizations to focus on real facts, and to give them our support when they do.

Thank you.
 

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