The only thing more frustrating than being a Democrat these days is being a journalist. The Gallup Poll shows that public trust in the news media is at an historic low, although we still have higher ratings than Congress.
I think there are several reasons for our unpopularity in a year that included the most bizarre presidential election in American history.
First of all, like people in every profession, journalists have faults. We make mistakes. There are many things we could do better.
Still, the public tells Gallup that journalists are considered more honest and ethical than, among others, bankers, lawyers and business executives. And way more than members of Congress.
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One problem is that many people now lump journalists in with the entertainers, provocateurs and propagandists who make up this amorphous thing we call “the media.” Some cable networks, radio stations and websites ignore journalism in favor of target-marketing to niche groups, reporting only what those people want to hear.
Many people now get their news through social media, where anyone can post anything, much of it inaccurate and some intentionally false. And many of those people are easily fooled, because they make little effort at critical thinking or analysis.
Journalists are frequently accused of bias, usually by people upset when reporting and commentary challenges their own biases. Politicians of both parties whine that journalists are too tough on them and too easy on their opponents.
The election of Donald Trump, who waged an all-out assault on news organizations for factually reporting what he said and did, is seen by many of his supporters as a repudiation of journalists. No newspaper of stature endorsed Trump, yet he won anyway. But does this reflect badly on journalists, or on voters?
Trump’s election does not change the fact that he campaigned as a bully and a compulsive liar, that he has shown little grasp of issues and even less understanding of the Constitution he will soon swear to uphold and defend.
His election does not change the fact that Trump has cheated people in business, has been accused by several women of sexual assault and has refused to release financial information that would allow people to see what conflicts of interest his business empire might pose for his presidency.
The problem wasn’t that journalists didn’t report these facts or raise questions about Trump’s fitness for office. The problem was that this reporting and commentary was ignored. If this year’s campaign had a theme, it was this: Facts didn’t matter. Truth was irrelevant.
The question now is whether things will change once Trump is governing instead of just campaigning.
Chances are that Trump will fight even harder against news organizations once he takes office. He has called journalists every name in the book, threatened to “open up” libel laws and retaliate against news organizations that displease him. This is both un-American and dangerous.
The worst thing journalists can do now is normalize Trump’s behavior or be intimidated by his threats and criticism. The best thing we can do is fight back with good journalism.
Journalists must stop being afraid of bias accusations. We must correct the ones with merit, dismiss others for what they are and move on. Some segment of the population will be upset no matter what journalists do.
The best response is to produce reporting and commentary that focuses on these two questions: What is factual? What is verifiably true?
Journalists’ most important job is to hold the government and other powerful institutions accountable to the public. I suspect there will be plenty of opportunities to do that over the next few years.
Journalists must continue to demand that Trump release his tax returns and reveal details of his ties to Russia and its dictator, Vladimir Putin, whose regime meddled in this election to a degree that should alarm every American.
Journalists must closely watch and question the actions of Trump and his appointees and aggressively report and comment on the consequences of those actions. We must fact-check his claims, demand proof of his assertions, call out his lies and hold him accountable for his promises. We also must beware of Trump’s diversionary tactics, such as those he used to distract public attention from his $25 million payment to settle fraud charges involving Trump University.
A former president from Kentucky once said: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”
That is true. But journalists must be diligent in reporting facts and trying to ascertain the truth. And the public must be willing to listen.