Oh, how those politicos and partisans love to belittle us — we journalists and our news organizations — to distract public attention away from their own foibles, shortcomings and crimes. And that’s not just Donald Trump.
To illustrate, the 2016 campaign brought us New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s derisive, “When reporters act like jerks, you need to treat them that way. The guy’s a complete idiot, self-consumed underpaid reporter.” I never met the New York Daily News reporter Christie attacked and don’t know whether he’s an idiot or self-consumed, but he may well be underpaid.
Unhappy with questions that moderators peppered him with at a GOP debate, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz groused, “This debate illustrates why we cannot trust the media.”
And in a comment that was, perhaps, meant as a joke, sort of, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “If I want to knock a story of the front page, I just change my hairstyle.”
Shades of then-Vice President — and future prison inmate — Spiro Agnew’s “In the United States today, we have more than our share of the nattering nabobs of negativism.”
I don’t side with critics of reporting on the 2016 presidential race. For one thing, these critics usually ignore the aggregated coverage by all news organizations. The reality is that no single wire service, network or newspaper can cover everything that happens in a campaign, but overall collective coverage by national, regional and local outlets was comprehensive.
Another reason is that critics fail to distinguish among coverage by mainstream news organizations, partisan news outlets and fake news outlets, let alone between news articles and commentary.
And a third reason is their failure to reflect the growing importance to candidates of bypassing the press — even the partisan press — and going directly to voters through Twitter, Facebook and other social media. While Trump deserves a trophy for his advancement of the tweetification of elections, his Republican and Democratic rivals tweeted as well, although less flamboyantly and less effectively.
Was reporting on the presidential election perfect? No, and it never can be perfect. Journalists are human, make errors and covered not only the White House race but also contests for Senate and House seats, governorships, state legislatures and local offices. News organizations have limited personnel, financial resources and airtime or print space for political coverage. A burgeoning number of bloggers and rankers absorb the public’s time. And yes, candidates and other news sources lie to the press, dissemble and hide.
I’ve been reporting full time and part time on politics and government since the Ford administration. Despite the occasional outpourings of public admiration triggered by hit films such as “All the President’s Men” and “Spotlight” and the vital investigative reporting that formed their basis, we journalists have never been well loved during those four decades.
I don’t see that changing, nor should it. But we didn’t choose this profession from a desire to make new BFFs or to get wealthy.
So what should the press do during the Trump-Pence administration?
With or without public adoration, we owe an unchanged ethical professional obligation to serve as a watchdog over institutions of power.
That means heavy investigative and analytical coverage of the new administration’s people and policies. There’s no shortage of things to investigate — among them are the financial dealings of the new president, his Cabinet members and advisers, the human and economic cost of policy proposals; the future of U.S. relationships with friendly and hostile countries, the U.S. military, humanitarian and human rights roles abroad; and the doings of lobbyists, campaign donors and other wielders of political and economic influence in Washington.
With or without public adoration, we should labor to reestablish public trust in independent reporting.
That includes constantly demonstrating the integrity of mainstream and traditional news organizations. Some carry internationally respected brand names such as the Associated Press, CBS, NBC, Time magazine, PBS, The Wall Street Journal, NPR, The Washington Post, The New York Times and Bloomberg. Others have deep community traditions and reputations for honesty and trustworthiness, like many local daily and weekly newspapers and broadcast stations.
With or without public admiration, non-mainstream news outlets with a commitment to fairness, creativity and accuracy should help fill the reporting and analysis gaps left by major news organizations That’s an essential and irreplaceable role for alternative outlets such as City Pulse, nonprofit outlets such as Pro Publica and Bridge magazine, ethnic newspapers and broadcast programs, and college student media.
Finally, we in the press have been derided and spat upon before. We must remember that the public’s need for honest and balanced news of public affairs will never disappear, even if the number of journalists continues to shrink and even if we sometime feel that nobody is watching, listening or reading what we tell them without fear or favor.
(Pulitzer Prize-winner Eric Freedman teaches journalism and is director of Capital News Service at Michigan State University.)