Journalists Must Remain Adversarial

Editorial Board

“You’re not supposed to be sycophants,” Barack Obama told journalists in his final press conference as president. “You’re supposed to be skeptics; you’re supposed to ask me tough questions.” President Obama’s message could not be more timely for those covering President Trump’s administration, as now more than ever, journalists must remain vigilant in reporting on the facts — and no, not the alternative ones.

With the day-to-day antics of the Trump administration — from perpetuating myths about the inauguration turnout to Kellyanne Conway’s ludicrous sound bites — it is pivotal that journalists commit themselves not only to producing holistic news stories, but to highlighting the stories that really matter. One of the most subjective decisions that news organizations make is how to prioritize news stories. We ask ourselves: What goes on the front page? What do we lead with when the cameras start rolling? What might the average citizen not have realized on their own that a journalist could shed light on? How can we deliver that information in an accessible and digestible way?

It is easy to report on the daily shenanigans that go down in Trump’s administration, but journalists cannot fall for the bait-and-switch tactics that helped Trump get to the White House in the first place.

Getting distracted by shiny objects has been one of journalism’s biggest failures of late. While many news organizations were focusing on Trump’s inauguration turnout lie, he was busy preparing an executive order to ban refugees from seven majority-Muslim countries and moving forward with anti-abortion legislation. Major news outlets allowed Trump to dominate airtime throughout the primaries despite his complete lack of substantive policy proposals. As a result, the media fed Trump’s narcissism and ploy for unending attention. There’s little doubt that the media’s nonstop coverage of his every puerile outburst helped Trump win the Republican nomination and the White House.

Perhaps most crucial to journalists’ mission in maintaining an adversarial relationship with the government is banding together. When one news organization folds under the pressure of appealing to Trump, it creates access for itself but hurts other outlets. By conceding to Trump, it becomes increasingly difficult for other news organizations that want to avoid quid pro quo situations with Trump but feel backed into a corner. In this month’s issue of The Atlantic, David Frum’s cover story, “How to Build an Autocracy,” paints a bleak and all-too-plausible hypothetical future for the press.

“The media have grown noticeably more friendly to Trump as well,” Frum writes of his hypothetical world. “The proposed merger of AT&T and Time Warner was delayed for more than a year, during which Time Warner’s CNN unit worked ever harder to meet Trump’s definition of fairness. Under the agreement that settled the Department of Justice’s antitrust complaint against Amazon, the company’s founder, Jeff Bezos, has divested himself of The Washington Post. The paper’s new owner — an investor group based in Slovakia — has closed the printed edition and refocused the paper on municipal politics and lifestyle coverage.”

That future must not be our future. The need for informed and adversarial journalism has never been greater than now, when the occupants of the White House often seem opposed to the concept of objective truth itself.

Unfortunately, that need coincides with a drastic drop in advertising revenue for newspapers over the last couple of years, as print advertising is rapidly disappearing and social media behemoths like Facebook soak up much of the money spent on digital advertising. It is incumbent on those who care about our democracy to pay for the journalism that they consume. If you can, that means subscribing to news organizations or at the very least disabling ad-blockers on their websites. Without readers’ monetary support, financially desperate news organizations will not have the resources or the inclination to produce the kind of coverage that we need. Instead, they’ll focus on what gets the biggest bang for their buck: clickbait, Trump-related and otherwise.