The failed press.
Enemies of the American people.
It’s hard to describe the pain a lifelong journalist feels when the president of the United States utters such words to describe my life’s work.
After 25 years in the media, I now teach journalism and tell my students about the important role of the media in our country. I go into detail about the partisan press and its role in shaping the ideas that would become the founding principles of our nation.
And all that gets washed away in an instant when the leader of our country tells them not to trust the media.
So I’ll tell Donald Trump what I tell my students: There’s no such thing as “The Media.”
At least, not in the way it’s been portrayed in the past few years by politicians and some news outlets.
The way Trump talks, you almost imagine a James Bond type of scenario, where a cadre of sinister people sit and discuss what all the newspapers of the land will say the next day.
But the media is a profession, not a single entity. Whether we’re talking newspapers, TV and radio stations, or websites, all are independent entities run by people of different political views, different views on society, and each trying to reflect the community they serve.
In my time as a reporter and editor for various newspapers and websites, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a pretty wide range of politicians. From governors of Texas, Mississippi and Florida, to a bevy of senators, a vice president, and a president and first lady.
Some were Republicans, some Democrats. Some I voted for, others I didn’t. But I never told them if they had gotten my vote, and they were always too professional to ask.
Politicians have always had an uneasy relationship with reporters. They needed our attention to stay in the public eye, but it seems like this may be changing when it comes to this Congress. They seem to want to hide in the shadows.
There has always been favoritism. Washington insiders are like anyone else, they have people they’re more comfortable talking with than others. They all have a reporter or producer somewhere they can call on when the need arises – pushing an agenda, attacking an enemy, whatever the case.
Likewise, reporters are still people, and they tend to like one politician over another. I remember as a copy editor talking to reporters who had to cover a congressman in Florida who was very well liked, but was caught up in a sex scandal that cost him his career. The reporters were sympathetic, but didn’t help cover it up. They did their job.
I never had a political sign in my front yard as a journalist. Never put a political bumper sticker on my car. Not because I was forbidden, but because as long as I interacted with others as a journalist, I didn’t want my personal views to be part of the narrative.
Are there some who didn’t share my strict interpretation of journalism ethics? Of course. And the fact that we had different views enforces my argument that there is no centralized force controlling the media.
Working as the wire editor at one time, I was in charge of scanning our various news wires and determining which stories were the ones we would run in the paper. I was never told to pick one that made a certain person or party look bad. I was only told to find the most interesting, well-written stories.
Why? Because this is a business.
Fox News works on a national level because the well is deep enough that those who share its conservative views can support the business model. But on a local level, it would fail miserably because you cannot alienate half of your city’s population.
And while the New York Times and Washington Post are known nationally and share their stories with newspapers across the country, both are still local newspapers. They must sell their daily editions on the street to survive.
So when I’m working at the Palm Beach Post, located in a county that is overwhelmingly a Democratic Party stronghold, of course we gave the Democratic primary more attention than the GOP primary. It was the one our readers cared about the most. It wasn’t a political call, but a business decision.
It is exceptionally rare that a candidate or an issue is so universally supported or rejected that nearly every major news outlet in the country chooses the same side on their editorial page. In my lifetime, it’s happened only once.
The 2016 election.
So what’s more likely, that a secret cabal of media owners issued orders to every news outlet to oppose a Trump presidency? Or that working journalists – most of whom are college-educated professionals who understand the political system better than most – universally looked at an unqualified reality TV star who used hate and ignorance to rise to power, and said, “Umm, no.”?
The White House often calls traditional media outlets “fake news” while giving oddball websites like Breitbart undeserved respectability by granting them access to the White House press corps.
It is likely part of the White House’s plan to blend established media with these types of websites, because it advances the agenda of delegitimizing the news.
We are no longer a nation that sits down collectively at night to watch a sage, trusted face tell us what’s happening in the world. We don’t buy our local paper. We look instead to the vastness of the internet and hope that we can trust what we find.
And since it all looks the same to most people, why not go with the stories that enforce views they already have?
Barbara Jordan once told me that when she went to visit the White House for the first time and talk to Lyndon Johnson, she found herself overwhelmed by the sheer weight of the office. Although she disagreed in every way with Johnson, she told me, she always respected the office of the president.
I still respect the office, if not the man. And I suspect Trump is feeling the weight that Jordan described. Having a press corps that constantly questions his every move has to be discouraging for him, and it’s natural that he would want to find a way to remove that problem.
But the importance of a free press is too great for the president to try to discredit the entire industry.
He would know that if he had ever taken a high school journalism course.