Trump vs. the media: the war over facts

The president's collision with the media is changing the way newsrooms operate – and may rejuvenate journalism. 

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
US President Donald Trump speaks to reporters after signing a memorandum to security services directing them to defeat the Islamic State in the Oval Office at the White House on Jan. 28.

Not many months ago I was among the millions of moviegoers transfixed and inspired by the work of a small team of journalists at The Boston Globe – the Spotlight Team – who in 2002 told the shocking story of pedophile priests whose vile acts were routinely protected by the Roman Catholic Church’s hierarchy. The team’s effort not only won journalism’s highest award, the Pulitzer Prize Gold Medal, but also ignited a global attack on such pedophilia.

Theater audiences like mine cheered as the “Spotlight” film credits rolled. I had watched through teary eyes the film’s climactic scene – so familiar to newspaper movies – in which the monstrous presses churn out paper bundles for circulation trucks that fan out across the region delivering the edition containing the story. As a journalist for most of my adult life, my heart swelled with pride. I joined those around me in cheering this demonstration of journalists’ oft-stated mission to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Could there be, I wondered, a better time than now to be in that profession?

How quickly things change. Today the United States has a president who elicits applause when he calls reporters “among the most dishonest human beings on earth.” They are “scum,” he says, “the lowest form of life” and “enemies.” His top adviser, Steve Bannon, labels the news media as “the opposition party.”

Today the very meaning of truth and fact is called into question. President Trump has repeatedly claimed that, were it not for massive voter fraud, he – not Hillary Clinton – would have won the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes. He alleges that “thousands” of Massachusetts residents were bused into New Hampshire to vote against him. Both charges lack evidence.

His claims to have drawn record crowds to his inauguration collide with the reality of aerial photographs showing large empty areas of standing room. He won the election despite asserting among other falsehoods that climate change is a Chinese hoax, that campaign rival Ted Cruz’s father conspired with Lee Harvey Oswald in the Kennedy assassination, and the long-running trope that Barack Obama was born in Kenya.

When Mr. Trump is confronted with contradictory evidence, his response isn’t to admit error, or even to cease repeating the claims. He attacks the critics, none more vociferously than the news media. Presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway, in one confrontation with a TV interviewer, controversially referred to “alternative facts.” 

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As stunning as this may seem, historians and veteran reporters can point to numerous precedents. For example, in what remains the low point of press freedom in the US, President John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, which, among other things, criminalized criticism of government officials. Several newspaper editors – all aligned with Adams’s political rival, Thomas Jefferson – were jailed under those laws.

And Jefferson was more than ambivalent about the press himself. In 1807 he wrote: “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knowledge with the lies of the day.” Abraham Lincoln at the height of the Civil War arrested and imprisoned the editors of two New York newspapers who had published a fake story alleging that Lincoln was about to draft 400,000 men. The newspapers and the wire service that transmitted the story were shut down.

A century later, Richard Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, mocked the press as “nattering nabobs of negativism,” and Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell, described in an off-color phrase what would happen to Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham if the paper printed a story linking Nixon to the infamous Watergate scandal. (The Post published the story and a sanitized version of Mitchell’s quote.) Nixon even kept what he called his “enemies list” on which reporters were heavily represented.

In Trump’s attacks on the press he may have found a model in George Wallace, the Alabama segregationist governor and populist presidential candidate. A feisty campaigner who favored mass rallies with a tent-revival feel – something Trump enjoys as well – Wallace routinely and with relish used traveling reporters as his foils. I covered one Wallace rally in the spring of 1976 along with a New York Times reporter who had brought his 9-year-old son with him. True to script, Wallace launched into an anti-press tirade in which he called The New York Times “communist propaganda.” He then pointed to the roped-off press section and, in his thick Southern drawl, shouted “and that man right over there works for The New York Times.” Wallace grinned broadly as the lathered crowd responded with hissing, booing, and cursing in the direction of the reporter.

This veteran newsman had endured such taunts at rallies many times before and was unfazed. But his terrified child burst into tears. When that was brought to Wallace’s attention after the rally, he summoned the Times reporter and his son to his hotel room. When they entered the suite, Wallace quickly picked up the trembling boy, wrapped him in a bear hug, and said in a soothing tone: “Listen here, son, don’t you pay no never mind to the things I said about your daddy tonight; it’s just politics.”

But are Trump’s venomous attacks – propelled to countless true believers in his tweets and passed along on partisan websites – “just politics”? The consequences to some journalists have been real and personal. Reporters who have criticized Trump have had their home addresses and the names of their children distributed through extremist sites. The Washington Post retained security guards to protect one of its reporters who had been threatened anonymously for his coverage. Female journalists and reporters with Jewish-sounding names regularly endure scathing assaults on social media. Former Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly’s criticisms of Trump so riled some in her audience that she hired an armed guard to accompany her and her children as they vacationed at Disney World.

These threats and attacks come because the news reporters are doing their jobs. They report embarrassing facts about Trump’s behavior or his predilection for repeating statements that are – and you can choose your own word here – inaccurate, falsehoods, exaggerations, or lies.

Presidential candidate George Wallace is swarmed by reporters in Detroit in 1968. Wallace often used the press as a foil, as President Trump does today.

Again, as with presidential disdain for the press, there is ample precedent of presidents who engage in exaggeration, hyperbole, and lying. Contrary to the myth of George Washington and the cherry tree, presidents regularly assault truth, sometimes with major consequences. Lyndon Johnson manipulated a supposed attack by Vietnamese gunboats on a US warship in the Gulf of Tonkin to justify America’s massive engagement in Vietnam. Dwight Eisenhower insisted that a plane shot down over the Soviet Union at the height of the cold war wasn’t a US plane – until the Soviets produced the captured pilot who had survived the crash of his U-2. Bill Clinton infamously went on national television to say, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” contrary to all later evidence. In her first presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton claimed she dodged sniper fire after landing at an airfield in war-torn Bosnia in 1996, yet video showed her placidly being greeted by local officials and children. In 2002 George W. Bush justified the invasion of Iraq by claiming to have “proof” that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction – “proof” that didn’t exist.

And long before Trump, there was a US president whose statements were so outlandish, so forcefully repeated – and so demonstrably false – that the press nearly gave up reporting them. That was Ronald Reagan, whose authorized biographer, Edmund Morris, described him as a “fabricator” who had an “embarrassing propensity to just make things up.” Reagan told Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir that he was in Germany with American troops in 1945 as they liberated two Nazi concentration camps exposing the horror of the Holocaust. Yet Reagan had spent the entire war in Culver City, Calif., making Army training films where he viewed footage of soldiers liberating a camp. The film became Reagan’s reality.

And at a White House ceremony honoring war heroes, Reagan recounted the bravery of a World War II bomber pilot whose plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire. The pilot ordered the crew to bail out, but one crewman was too wounded to do so. Reagan told the audience that the pilot chose to remain on the plane to comfort the crewman as they spiraled to their deaths, thereby earning the pilot a Medal of Honor. Reporters quickly discovered that the story was pure fiction, a scene in the wartime Hollywood movie “A Wing and a Prayer.” 

White House reporters were flummoxed by the president’s disregard for facts like these – and even more flummoxed by the public’s disinterest in holding him to account. In a 1983 New York Times article, Steven R. Weisman noted that reporters wearied of reporting the president’s frequent “debatable assertions of fact” because the public seemed to shrug them off as “nits and nats” and “inside baseball.” When White House press secretary Larry Speakes was asked how it could be that Reagan would repeat stories that were provably false, Speakes replied, “If you tell the same story five times, it’s true.” 

This history could support the argument that Trump’s disregard for fact-based statements isn’t a big deal. It might suggest that the public will even tire of being reminded of the president’s bouts with the facts and reporters will grow weary of reporting them. But there are differences between then and now. The ever-genial Reagan never treated the press as his enemy. Even when his stories were challenged, Reagan didn’t accuse the press of creating fake news, perhaps well aware that a solid majority of the public that had long gotten its news from trusted sources such as Walter Cronkite held the press in high regard. 

No longer. After decades of assault from such conservative thought leaders as Rush Limbaugh (who popularized the
“lamestream media” label), Matt Drudge, Sarah Palin, and countless commentators on AM radio and Fox News, trust in the news media is at its lowest point since Gallup began measuring it in the 1970s. In a September 2015 Gallup poll, just 40 percent of voters said they have a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in the press. That’s in stark contrast to the media’s high point of 72 percent in 1976 in the aftermath of their highly regarded coverage of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. And it was down another eight percentage points, to 32 percent, in September 2016 – a drop coinciding with Trump’s anti-press attacks.

Nor are relations between the White House and the mainstream media likely to get more genial anytime soon. Mr. Bannon, in fact, recently vowed that they are “going to get worse – every day.” The president has said he won’t attend the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner. From the briefing podium, the administration appears to be implementing a media strategy that pushes back against the traditional news organizations that have covered the White House while favoring those that are unabashedly friendly to the president. White House press secretary Sean Spicer recently barred reporters from CNN, the Los Angeles Times, Politico, and The New York Times from participating in an informal daily briefing, while including reporters from such pro-Trump outlets as Breitbart and The Washington Times. Dean Baquet, executive editor of The New York Times said that “nothing like this has ever happened at the White House in our long history of covering multiple administrations of different parties.”

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So what does this mean? Like wounded animals, the news media seem to be easy prey for Trump’s persistent battering. An Emerson College survey in February found that 49 percent of registered voters said Trump was “more truthful” than the news media, while only 39 percent had the opposite view. If that situation is sustained, the news media’s ability to hold the president to account for misstatements or misbehavior will have limited, if any, impact. And reversing this situation will be difficult in large part because of the internet’s ability to provide echo chambers where individuals of all political stripes can find support for their beliefs. No longer is the news media able to fill its pre-internet role as the gatekeeper of reliable information, separating facts from “alternative facts,” a term that has quickly become shorthand for Orwellian falsehood, though Ms. Conway has said she simply meant an alternative perspective. Cognitive neuroscience tells us our beliefs are so tightly held that, even when presented with evidence to disprove them, the typical response is to reject the evidence rather than alter the belief.

At this point in the nation’s history, having a president with little regard for facts that challenge his beliefs isn’t a trivial matter. American democracy presupposes a well-informed citizenry – that is, it depends upon voters making decisions using factual information. Legendary columnist Walter Lippmann wrote in 1920, “There can be no liberty for a community which lacks the means by which to detect lies.” That is as true today as it was a century ago and serves well in defining the purpose of serious journalism in the Trump era.

So what is the embattled media to do? Washington Post executive editor Martin Baron boiled his paper’s current mission down to four words: “Just do our job.” In a recent speech, Mr. Baron said he remains guided by the principles established in 1933 by then-Post owner Eugene Meyer, which began: “The first mission of a newspaper is to tell the truth as nearly as the truth may be ascertained.” (Baron, coincidentally, is the former Boston Globe editor who directed its Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into pedophile priests.)

Mr. Baquet of The New York Times sent a memo to newsroom employees in January promising a $5 million budget increase to strengthen the newsroom’s reporting on the Trump administration. “Covering this story aggressively, fairly and unrelentingly will be the top priority for The New York Times newsroom this year...,” Baquet wrote. “It is not only our mission. It is vital to our business. Our dominance on this story of a changing America will ensure our position as the essential news organization for years to come.”

Similar calls to arms are echoing across the media landscape, nowhere more strongly than in the newsrooms feeling the brunt of the president’s attacks. If the aim of the president, his top aides, and his supporters in assailing the mainstream media is to intimidate and quiet the criticism, it is missing the target. Trump’s “failing” New York Times is adding new subscribers by the minute, as is The Washington Post, and many other stalwarts of the “lamestream media.” The same is happening across all platforms. Suddenly, it seems, old-school journalism matters.

Indeed, in what may be one of history’s great ironies, the Trump presidency could turn out to be both the economic and psychological salvation of traditional journalism. As the financial health of the news media improves, so will the morale of its reporters and editors who have diminishing cause to worry about the next round of newsroom layoffs. Literary critic Lee Siegel, in the Columbia Journalism Review, wrote: “In presenting the media with a big, unique story that is, all at once, profitable, urgent, and serious, [Trump] is allowing journalists to be journalists without worrying about all of the concerns harbored by the bean counters. What is meaningful journalism is now profitable, and what is profitable is now meaningful journalism.”

Bob Woodward (r.) and Carl Bernstein, whose re- porting of the Watergate case won a Pulitzer Prize, sit in the newsroom of The Washington Post in 1973.

Whether this call to arms will become the new normal is anybody’s guess. But so far the public’s hunger for the latest stories emanating from the Trump White House seems limitless. In the weeks after the inauguration, the highest-rated weekday afternoon television show was the daily White House briefing by Mr. Spicer. He became a viral video star after being mocked in “Saturday Night Live” skits featuring comedian Melissa McCarthy wearing a wig and an ill-fitting suit. 

Viewers aren’t tuning into the briefings for policy reports, though. They – like crowds at NASCAR races – are awaiting the next collision between Spicer and the pack of ravenous reporters eager to trip him up.

But danger lurks for these emboldened journalists and their organizations. A frenzied rush to print or broadcast some salacious tidbit will lead inevitably to mistakes, which not only disserve the public, but also expose all journalists to the “fake news” attacks so readily waged by the president. Such mistakes will lead Trump’s allies to dive more deeply into their alternative-fact-filled echo chambers, further convinced that mainstream journalism is the lying enemy, just as the president alleges. A Time magazine correspondent, for instance, incorrectly reported that the Martin Luther King Jr. bust had been removed from the Oval Office when, in fact, it hadn’t – something the writer quickly corrected.

Not since Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein pieced together the Watergate coverup one story at a time has it been more important that information be checked and rechecked, and that objectivity and fairness – words not often heard in today’s polarized environment – be used in judging the newsworthiness of information. Conservative writer and former talk-show host Charles J. Sykes put it well in an op-ed in the Times: “If we want to restore respect for facts and break through the intellectual ghettoes on both the right and left, the mainstream media will have to be aggressive without being hysterical and adversarial without being unduly oppositional.”

There are few signs at the moment that a détente will come in the poisonous relationship between this administration and the mainstream news media. Both sides seem willing to dig in on opposite sides of the battle line, perhaps as their forebears did when Adams, Jefferson, Nixon, and others occupied the White House. This isn’t an encouraging prospect.

But to me conflict between the press and the president is less worrisome than the prospect of being led by an administration for which facts and truths are fungible or irrelevant. The optimist in me believes, like Lincoln, that while the people can be fooled some of the time, they will not be fooled all of the time. I believe that most people know that real knowledge is rooted in facts, and that getting these facts makes them smarter. I therefore believe that the people will search for, find, and support those sources that consistently strive to deliver facts.

Those sources are called journalists.

ρ Tom Fiedler, a former White House correspondent and editor of the Miami Herald, is dean and professor of the practice of journalism at Boston University’s College of Communication.


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