Tanzina: You're listening to The Takeaway, I'm Tanzina Vega. Since the start of his presidential campaign in 2015, Donald Trump has sought to discredit and foster mistrust in the media, weaponizing phrases like-
Trump: Fake news.
Tanzina: -and positioning the media in his words as-
Trump: The enemy of the people.
Tanzina: -and that rhetoric has had an effect on how many Americans feel about the media they consume. It should be no surprise that research shows those divisions fall along party lines. According to a September Gallup poll, 73% of Democrats said they trusted the media compared to just 36% of independence and 10% of Republicans. As Donald Trump nears the end of his time in office, media outlets will need to reassess how they cover the white house going forward and how to rebuild trust with the public. I'm now with NPR media correspondent, David Folkenflik. David, great to have you with us.
David: Pleasure to join you.
Tanzina: And Alex Neeson, the staff writer for the Columbia Journalism Review. Alex, thanks for being with us.
Alex: Thanks for having me Tanzina.
Tanzina: Let's start with you, Alex. How would you assess the media's coverage of Donald Trump at least since the election and his claim that the election has been stolen? How well have outlets pushed back on those claims?
Alex: I think what I've seen in the last couple of weeks, especially, is a press that feels emboldened to really aggressively push back on these completely false claims that an election has been stolen or that there's been widespread voter fraud in some of these key states across the country. We've seen reporters call up election officials and talk to folks who are on the ground, poll workers, who have been actually doing the literal counting of the votes and there's been absolutely no evidence.
I think there's been an aggression that I haven't always seen in covering Trump over the last four years. I think it's the magic of the end of an administration where folks are feeling more confident, the election has been officially called and so now people can focus their efforts on saying, "Here are the things that the Trump Administration is saying and here's why we know that they're not true."
Tanzina: David, I want to dig into that point because I agree with Alex. I've noticed a lot more of the press being a lot more aggressive, but being aggressive now and being emboldened now is a little late, I would suggest. The president is at least in the rest of the country's mind, on his way out, but they weren't as aggressive during his presidency. Would you agree?
David: I think it depends at what moment you're looking and at what institutions you're looking. As you well know, the media is not-- The media can act in a herd, but the media is not a single organism. I think there are moments where the media was very aggressive, I think you saw that from the New York Times, I think you saw that from the Washington Post, particularly in terms of investigative reporting, I think you saw that from CNN doing more investigative reporting and in its tone, giving a lot of latitude to hosts and anchors to offer voice, as well as, having, if you think of Jim Acosta as a more pugilistic or bombastic tone from the White House.
When you say enough, I think there were moments where the media didn't-- It allowed itself to be overwhelmed by the administration, by its antagonism, by the cutting off of flows of authoritative information from an incredible array of government agencies and outlets, and also, by just the sheer amount of misinformation and untrue claims and at times, lies put out by the administration. I think that the press was overwhelmed. There are moments I point to where I think the press did great and there are a lot of moments where I think the press wasn't up to the task.
Part of what, you have to think about in this moment is, even if all that you feel is the case, which may be, what do you want the press to do right now? Because this is the essence of democracy. It's the peaceful handing over of power and authority in government. This is the moment, this is the total crux and if the press can't do it now, then the press is not in the business of holding the powerful accountable.
I think that you are seeing some missteps in tone, perhaps some moments at which, perhaps, the president's claims could be evaluated more aggressively, but by and large, I think they are saying even from Mother Jones to the Associated Press, to Fox News, you're having journalists step forward and saying, these claims are not true and we can't find any evidence to support them and the president-elect at the moment is Joe Biden.
That hasn't been officially sanctioned. Calling him that is not something that the electoral college has yet convened to endorse, but it is clear that that is the case and the country is right to function with that understanding.
Tanzina: Alex, given that analysis which I think is also very accurate, I also think there are times when the press didn't have it together and during this administration, particularly when it came to calling the things that the president would say that weren't true, calling them lies directly or using the word racist or racism to describe certain things, do you think that that's improved, Alex?
Alex: Sometimes I think it's a little hard to say, I think on the use of the word lie, that's something that we started having conversations about very early in the Trump administration and there was a lot of discussion about whether it's our role to call something a lie and whether a lie requires intent and can we prove intent? Is it our job to do that even? I can't really recall off the top of my head, any significant examples of us having come to consensus around the word lie or having it being used in major headlines on significant stories.
On the word racist, that's a conversation that we've been having in the press since before Trump I think, particularly internally Black journalists and other journalists of color, I think have been really pressuring their own outlets to be more accurate in our language. To say, if a thing is racist, we can call it racist, this is not a matter of opinion, this is a factual determination that we can make.
On the question of have we done it better, four years later? I don't really think so, on the topic of calling things racist, I think certainly there are some examples. David mentioned where there's been really aggressive investigative reporting on Donald Trump himself and his associates. I think certainly there are some examples that you could find in different outlets, where perhaps the word has been used, but I still think that we are overall as an industry heavily reliant on these euphemisms, racially tinged, racially charged, not just in describing things that have been done and said by the Trump administration, but also in our reporting on police brutality, in protests that spring up as a result of police brutality. I still think that there's this hesitancy for us to be very clear in our language and to call a racist thing, racist.
Tanzina: David, remind us again-- We talk a lot about President Trump, but presidential administrations, in general, have a very interesting relationship with reporters, remind us what the Obama Administration's relationship was like with the media.
David: President Obama promised to run the most transparent administration in American history. I think from the folks whom I talked to midway through his term, again, at the end, they'd say they'd give him mixed marks. I think a big blot on his record was the use of essentially a version of the Espionage Act, which is a hundred years old, to try to go after sources of reporters and at times use reporters to do that and at times even target reporters in that investigation.
Eric Holder, as attorney general, was aggressive about that and partly that describe the age we live in, where, because so much of communications aren't done in the bottom floor of a suburban parking lot like Deep Throat was said to have done in Watergate or somebody dropping a report underneath the bottom of a park bench as one might've done, but instead done through a signal or through texting or through emails or the like, there's now the ability to find these things out, their digital footprints.
Suddenly, even prosecutors who may work underneath an attorney general who's interested in rooting out sources, who in the past were saying, "Gosh, boss, it's hard for us to figure it out," they don't have that anymore. The folks I've talked to in law enforcement and in the media say it's a lot easier for this to be tracked down and you're seeing a lot more action. Bush did a little bit of that, Obama really did. Obama would be upset by coverage in the media. There were times where God knows Obama had cause.
If you think about the indulgence of the birther lie, which really helped elevate Trump to national prominence as a question of a political figure, the press indulged that for far too long. Now, CNN and the Associated Press finally sent people to, I believe Indonesia, to see the truth about these claims about madrassas, that is where Obama was schooled as a boy when he was living abroad with his mother and his stepfather.
The birther lie was ultimately tracked down and reported on as well in Hawaii but, that was indulged in a given time, much in the way that certain elements of the conservative press give time for the debate over climate change when it was very clear there were not two sides to this story. I think Obama, this morning, there's little excerpts out of first part of Obama's memoirs. He said he sent Joe Biden to negotiate with Congress, in part because he thought McConnell would do that and that really conservative Republicans would talk to Biden more than to Obama himself. Why? Well, it wasn't this Kenyan, it wasn't this Muslim Obama.
He basically used the claims about him to characterize himself to talk about how he was thinking about politics. Well, that was reflected a lot, particularly in the conservative press in places like Fox News in ways that were not only upsetting to Obama but also would knock him off course, would make him talk about things that weren't part of his priorities or part of really helpful national politics.
If you look at the amount of attention on Benghazi, similarly, it's not that that tragedy and that terrible incident doesn't deserve coverage scrutiny, and investigation. It's that the amount of it for what happened and what appears to have been yielded even by his strongest political foes, didn't match up with the heat that you saw in a lot of the press.
Tanzina: Yet, President Trump has a very different approach there when he sees news that he does not like he tweets about it, he directly goes to his audience. Alex, how do you think that has defined this Trump presidency and its relationship with the public or at least how the public sees the media when the president has come out and tweets about things that he doesn't like, or it calls us the enemy of the people?
Alex: I think one of the notable differences is that when a piece of reporting comes out and the president doesn't like it and he goes on Twitter to talk to his followers about it and to express his distaste for it, he's not presenting evidence for it, to back up any of his claims that the reporting is false. He just doesn't like it and so he goes on the internet and he says that. There's this cult of celebrity around him that encourages his followers to not look for evidence.
They don't need the evidence. All that matters is that their president doesn't like it and says it's fake and so it's fake. I think that has presented a problem for reporters who are so used to relying on fact and presenting fact and then having that be the end of the conversation. We present the evidence, the evidence speaks for itself, and then we're ready to move on. Donald Trump says, "Oh, no, no, no, this is fake because I say it's fake." There's a whole awful lot of people who accept that.
I think that we spent the last four years like in a washing machine, just tumbling around trying to get our footing in all of that. I think it has led to us sometimes spending inordinate amounts of time trying to refute his claims that we've already refuted. It becomes this cycle where the president says it's fake and we say, "No, it's not, here's the evidence," and we're just around and around and around and it never ends.
Tanzina: David, One of the most interesting things about this current moment is that trust in the media, as we've seen, particularly among party lines, is very, very, very low. What's the long-term implication of that?
David: I think in some ways you're seeing Trump turn the press even more explicitly into one of these things in which their partisan divides. Look, there's been a 50 plus year attempt, particularly by the Republicans to discredit or undermine the standing of the media. It's been embraced with varying degrees of fervor. George H. W. Bush pretended, there were people around George W. Bush who did that, but really there's been nothing like what we've seen in Trump's since Richard Nixon.
I think Trump, even worse, is trying to undermine the ability of the press to stand up and offer authoritative versions of the facts that people then can argue about and people can then decide what they want to do about. We're supposed to be informing people so that they can act as engaged citizens, not simply to push out information to consumers. I think he's sought to undermine the press just as he sought to undermine weirdly NOAA and the National Weather Services and the National Institutes of Health and the CDC, as independent sources of information.
I think in many ways the idea as we've heard today, the idea that people can offer, things that are critical of him and that that is in and of itself false, is what he's trying to imprint in people's mind and different people are going to respond differently to that.
Tanzina: David Folkenflik is NPR's media corresponded, and Alex Neeson is a staff writer at the Columbia Journalism Review. Thanks to you both.
David: You bet.
Alex: Thanks so much.
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