Many journalists say they are concerned about what president-elect Donald Trump’s overall impact might be on journalism — and by extension, the American public — given his adversarial relationship with the media throughout his campaign and now as Inauguration Day nears.
The traditional role of watchdog reporters are meant to play on government decision-making is being challenged in complex ways, and media professionals are calling on news organizations to work harder than ever in what many see as a decidedly hostile environment.
“I have never had an experience like I did walking into (Trump’s) rally in Cincinnati,” said McKay Coppins, senior political writer at Buzzfeed. “There were 30,000 people there all booing us and shouting threats at us as we walked in. It was just a surreal experience.”
Thomas Burr, president of the National Press Club, said the impact of this issue extends beyond affecting journalists themselves.
“This is not about reporters just wanting access,” Burr said. “This is about access for the American people and the world. We’re the people that are going to bring you the news that you need to hear, even if you don’t want to hear it.”
Jenna Johnson, a Washington Post political writer who covered the 2016 presidential campaign, told The Daily Universe that at almost every Trump rally, Trump would spend a significant amount of time discrediting the media. During a rally in Fort Worth, Texas, the president-elect told the crowd he intends to change libel laws in the United States, so he can have an easier time suing news organizations.
Johnson’s response to Trump’s claims about journalistic dishonesty was that there are already libel laws in place.
“If someone feels like they’ve been unfairly treated, they can sue,” Johnson said. “But just because you don’t like what the media is reporting doesn’t mean that it’s libel.”
Trump’s disdain for reporters led him to blacklist Washington Post from covering his events for three months. Blacklisting reporters became common for Trump during his presidential campaign — Coppins too was excluded from events for a time — but this behavior is unprecedented by a major-party candidate for president.
Johnson said during the time she was blacklisted, she could no longer register for a credential to go through the press door or bring her laptop in. In order to cover Trump’s events, she had to get a general admission ticket, stand in line for hours and watch the rally from the crowd while filing updates from her cell phone.
“There was no rhyme or reason to what got you blacklisted, which is what scares a lot of reporters about this upcoming administration, because it is often how authoritarian regimes act,” Coppins said.
The blacklisting that occurred during Trump’s campaign highlights some of the most pressing questions for reporters regarding a Trump presidency. Many wonder if he will have reverence for the First Amendment traditions that have been the underpinning of how the press deals with the White House.
In his short time as president-elect, many journalists say he has made it clear his distaste for the news media on the campaign trail will continue into his presidency.
“The important thing to keep in mind is that when it comes to the media, there are no laws mandating that a president work with the media,” Johnson said. “But there is a tradition of presidents allowing the media to document a presidency and to ask questions along the way.”
In an effort to keep Trump from excluding the media, the National Press Club wrote a letter, imploring him to, “stand by the traditions of a protected press pool and to set an example for the other countries in freedom of the press.”
Burr said he has seen improvements since the letter.
“They are now doing almost daily calls with top officials for reporters to ask questions.” Burr said. “They have somewhat helped the press pool in having a space to stake out where the president-elect is.”
While progress has been made in some regards, Burr said there is still concern about access to the president-elect’s plane when he travels. It has been tradition that reporters travel with the president in the same motorcade in case anything occurs. This allows them to chronicle what is happening for the American people.
On the campaign trail, Trump did not allow reporters to travel in his plane, and on a trip following the election from New York to Mar-a-Lago, he didn’t allow any reporters on the plane.
“At the end of the day, I think they’ll realize that the White House needs reporters as much as reporters need news from the White House,” Burr said. “It is essentially a symbiotic relationship for them to be able to get their message out, and for journalists to be able to ask questions of the leader of the free world.”
Beyond Trump’s lack of accessibility, reporters say one of the challenges they are facing is getting the truth out when the president-elect reports incorrect facts.
“It used to be that a fact-checker would catch a politician on something and it would prompt the politician to change their behavior, but it would prompt Trump in almost every case to just double down on it,” Johnson said. “It pushed journalists to come up with a variety of ways of explaining why what he was saying was not backed up by fact.”
Trump supporters often seemed unfazed when confronted with evidence that contradicted his claims, something many believe to be a result of Trump’s efforts to delegitimize established media outlets.
Near the end of his campaign, Trump accused the media of being a part of a conspiracy that was set against him.
“It wasn’t just that we are biased,” Coppins said. “Conservatives always complain that the media is biased, and I think that sometimes they have a point. But Donald Trump was saying that we are part of a global shadowy conspiracy undertaking a sinister mission to destroy him and his campaign. It was lunacy, but people believed it. His supporters believed it.”
Trump’s relationship with the media as a whole is tense, but his language toward female journalists has drawn an immense amount of attention.
“There are a series of examples of Trump going after male reporters in addition to female reporters, but I think if you look at the words that he uses when he goes after female reporters, they are very different than the words he uses when he goes after male reporters,” Johnson said. “In Katy Turr’s case, Trump told her to “be quiet.” With Megyn Kelly, in a tweet, he used the word “bimbo.
“It’s one thing to go after female reporters just the same way that you go after male reporters, but he’s using different words, and he’s going after them in different ways,” Johnson said.
The Trump presidency also affects women in other arenas.
After a tumultuous election that ended with a surprising finish, the media is currently under extreme scrutiny, but Burr said skepticism of the media is nothing new.
“It’s easy to make the media a scapegoat. It’s the big boogie-man in campaign speeches that people will rally around because they don’t like what’s reported in the media,” Burr said. “What we have to do is stand up for freedom of the press and freedom of speech to make sure we are doing our job. . . and working hard to make sure everything we do is accurate, is of important news value, and informs the public about what’s going on.”
Johnson said moving forward, reporters need to continue to improve and strive to find the best way to cover a Trump presidency.
“All eyes are on the media right now and the media is being blamed for all sorts of things from all angles,” Johnson said. “I think with any industry, there are a lot of things that we could do better. There are things that we should learn from this election. There are things that we should learn going into a Trump presidency. Any industry that’s good is going to evolve and try to do better.”
Coppins feels the best way journalists can approach the current malaise in journalism is to remain steadfast in their coverage of Trump, and to remove themselves from their media bubbles.
“I think the worst reaction we could have would be to soften our coverage and suddenly be really deferential to Trump,” Coppins said. “I think that is going to be a temptation that a lot of reporters will have.”
Coppins said now more than ever, reporters need to keep holding Trump’s power to account.
“At the same time, I think we could win back a lot of credibility if we find ways to get out of our media bubbles and interact more with mainstream Americans,” Coppins said. “I think the more we do that, the more headway we will make in getting those people to believe us. It’s going to be a long-term project. I don’t think there is any easy fix.”
A map showing the headquarters of various news organizations around the U.S. (Haley Hilton)
Perhaps the response to the challenges presented by a Trump presidency will encourage refining within America’s watchdog industry.
“It’s not enough to keep writing stories; we have to push back,” Burr said. “I think that’s what we did as a National Press Club, and we are going to have to be stronger than ever in fighting for the rights of journalists.”