Reporters Need To Cover Trump’s Washington Like “A War Zone”
There are multiple reasons for concerned Americans to feel deep angst about the treatment of the press by Donald Trump and his circle of advisors. Too many people have no understanding of the role of a working press or the way those men and women are more important to our democracy than any member of the military. With that in mind comes the words from Jack Shafer.
If Trump’s idea of a news conference is to spank the press, if his lieutenants believe the press needs shutting down, if his chief of staff wants to speculate about moving the White House press scrum off the premises, perhaps reporters ought to take the hint and prepare to cover his administration on their own terms. Instead of relying exclusively on the traditional skills of political reporting, the carriers of press cards ought to start thinking of covering Trump’s Washington like a war zone, where conflict follows conflict, where the fog prevents the collection of reliable information directly from the combatants, where the assignment is a matter of life or death.
Consider the Nixon administration, which presented an anti-press posture akin to Trump’s, sending Vice President Spiro Agnew to give speeches designed to delegitimize journalists. Nixon also fought with the press by seeking to block the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. This proved a disaster. In his book, Poisoning the Press, Mark Feldstein quotes Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg on the course-change navigated by the top newspapers in the wake of Nixon’s reaction. “A newspaper industry that for thirty years and more had been living happily … on government handouts was suddenly in widespread revolt,” Ellsberg commented. “One paper after another was clamoring for its chance, not just to get a piece of a story but to step across the line into radical civil disobedience.”
Like Nixon, Trump may have won a sizeable audience with his anti-press frothings. But he remains unpopular with at least half of the nation, and they constitute an eager audience for critical reporting. Somebody could remind Gingrich that it’s much harder to shut down readers and viewers than it is a segment of the media. The harder Trump rides the press—and he gives no sign of dismounting—the higher he elevates reporters in the estimation of many voters. Witness how many publications are selling subscriptions by promising to “hold Trump accountable.”
In a widely read and insightful year-end piece that I urge you to read, press scholar Jay Rosen surveyed the scene and predicted that “winter is coming” for the American press under Trump. Many of the shots Rosen takes hit the target. But as a forecaster he’s no groundhog.
It’s not winter that’s coming with the inauguration of Trump. It’s journalistic spring.