UC Berkeley professor Deirdre English is the former editor-in-chief of Mother Jones and a visiting lecturer in UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. Berkeley News spoke with English about President Trump’s relationship with the media and some of the challenges facing journalism.
What are some of the differences in the way journalists covered candidate Trump and the way they are covering President Trump?
There’s a famous quote from Leslie Moonves, the current CEO of CBS, saying of Trump’s campaign, “it may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”
I think that on the one hand, the problem continues. Which is to say, Trump continues to throw out all of these different baits and there is a constant feeding frenzy. He contradicts himself, he contradicts his staff, and so sometimes there’s confusion about what the actual position of the White House is. At the same time, as many have pointed out, in the constant coverage of what was being said, or the lies and the contradictions, journalists are not following the bigger stories and not helping the American people understand what’s going on with Trump’s tax plan, for example.
Perhaps the best example of sacrificing the larger picture for the sake of dominating the news cycle is how wrong the media was in predicting the outcome of the election. How is it possible that so many news outlets were so wrong?
We had a crisis of journalism before Trump was elected. The advertising dollars have fled to the net and, even though there will be some revenue from advertising online, it’s never going to compensate for the times when print and TV got the lion’s share of advertising wealth.
As a result, journalism has been really crippled because many of the larger coastal papers really depended on those smaller, midsized local papers in the middle of the country for information. Without the smaller papers, they didn’t really know or understand many of the things that were going on in the lives of people who ultimately voted for Trump. Journalists haven’t been covering inequality and the hollowing out of the middle class and the way it’s affected people across the country.
I think it’s fair to say that journalism was failing both as a business, and failing in its function in a democracy, before Trump came along.
In April, the L.A. Times editorial board ran a six-part series titled ‘Our Dishonest President.’ Is President Trump’s dishonesty different than any other dishonesty that we’ve seen from previous elected officials?
I think yes, massively. Journalists can stay very busy just cataloging his lies, untruths and contradictions. He has taken command of reality in a very authoritarian way. I don’t think we’re in a fascist state and I don’t think he’s a dictator yet, but he has all the markings of a dictator. I think he’d like to be a dictator and he’s doing dictator-like things where he can.
Our institutions are still proving to be much too strong to be taken over and destroyed, but one of the things that a dictator does is they take control of reality and they tell you what the truth is and what to believe and he’s very much trying to do that. Democracy, though, depends on people building a consensual view of reality that’s based on facts and opinions in contest with each other. The inability of the press to provide a platform for the American people to arrive at agreed-on fact is problematic.
Has the Trump presidency fundamentally changed the way journalists cover the presidency?
Yes, and let me count the ways. It has really focused our attention on how drastically journalism is being changed. There’s a great quote from [NYU professor] Jay Rosen that says “asymmetry fries the media’s brain.” His point is that the press is still rooted in the paradigm of objectivity and that our role is to report what is said and done by the Republicans and Democrats. The media is simply reporting on the horse race. When the right is captured by the far right and they start making truth claims excessively and continuously that are no longer based in reality, the role of press has to dramatically change. They have to become the arbiter of the truth.
One drawback of this is that it feeds into the preexisting right-wing narrative that the liberal media is biased against them and that the media is serving the liberal agenda. The news becomes a partisan issue.
That certainly won’t help with the growing problem of political polarization though.
No, it won’t. The fundamental character of what is good journalism is shifting from news-gathering to truth-gathering. This makes it no less controversial, because there is no subtle truth on practically anything, but I applaud this development. I think it’s a reform and an intelligent reaction to an administration that has spread a lot of untruths. It may not be the last stop and it does lead to some foreseeable problems and perhaps some unforeseeable ones.
In the past, you could say that people are either informed or uninformed. Today, the problem is that people aren’t uninformed, they’re misinformed and they don’t know it.
The Trump presidency has forced the mainstream media to become arbiters of truth. To do this they had to ramp up their fact-checking greatly and I applaud that, even though it has not led to less polarization, it has in fact led to more of it. Yet I would defend it because all people of goodwill have to rely on are the facts. The facts are our only proper weapon.
Given what you’ve said about the struggling business model of journalism and the continuing entrenchment of ideas and political polarization, are these just growing pains? Do you think we will get more variety in our media diet or more variety in where our news is coming because the internet can be a more democratic venue?
I think so, but there are big problems too. News aggregators, for one, are people who are spreading the news but not sharing their revenues with journalists. Google and Facebook have become two major purveyors of news. People are getting their news from these sites that are simply taking the stories and sharing them. Everyone is getting free or cheap news and that’s a major reason for the downfall of journalism — they’re being financially starved because journalists aren’t being paid for their work. That’s a huge problem and, so far, we’re not really seeing any effort to make some of those large media platforms share their revenue or better compensate the journalists.
Of course, Google and Facebook are also where fake news gets most of its traction. What can be done about fake news?
Mark Zuckerberg says that Facebook is looking at the problem of fake news and trying to attack it. I also think that there’s money that’s going into figuring out fact-checking methods that people can use more readily, but it doesn’t get to the problem that people believe what they want to believe.
It used to be, when people were getting their news from the paper, that people were exposed to stories that you should read, even if you weren’t particularly interested in them. You would read them because they were the front-page story and these were the pieces that journalists and editors were telling you were the important stories. Maybe you’d read local sections or sports sections too, but you’d also read some portions of the significant news as well — at least the headlines. Now, people can just binge on news junk.
What effect does Steve Bannon’s quote about the media or journalists being the opposition party have on the relationship between the Trump White House and the journalists covering it?
It’s a great quote, saying things like “the media should shut up and listen” and “they still don’t understand why Trump is president.” It’s an absolutely authoritarian outburst. It’s not just Bannon. Trump, Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway have all emphasized the idea that the media is the opposition party and that the Trump team have alternative facts. The media is outraged over things like reporters being excluded from press conferences, but the great strength that we have is that the press cannot be censored. There is no legal precedent for censoring the press.
When Trump mentioned that reporters who perpetuate leaks should be imprisoned it caused a huge uproar. It won’t fly. This is not Mexico or China or Iran, where journalists are killed. It seems like Trump has picked on the wrong people, because the journalistic response has been, “Bring it on. You can’t stop us from doing our job.” It has strengthened the spine of the media and they understand that they have to stick up for each other.