Book Review

Rethinking the Press in an Era of Distrust

By Quinta Jurecic
Thursday, January 13, 2022, 8:01 AM

A review of Matt Carlson, Seth C. Lewis, and Sue Robinson, “News After Trump: Journalism’s Crisis of Relevance in a Changed Media Culture” (Oxford University Press, 2021).

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Journalists, like everyone else, enjoy talking about themselves, and the years since 2016 have been studded with regular installments of press-watchers wondering how American journalists can or should respond to the challenge posed by Donald Trump. The former president called reporters “the enemy of the people” and egged on crowds of his supporters against them. He ejected members of the press he didn’t like from the West Wing. He refused to condemn violence against reporters and arguably encouraged it. Meanwhile, journalists and media organizations struggled to cover Trump accurately without either giving unnecessary airtime to hatred and falsehoods or downplaying the magnitude of his abuses. The profession’s crisis was all the more pointed because of the national media’s role in elevating Trump to power in the first place: the mainstream press’s habit of treating Trump the candidate as an entertaining source of clicks, and of exaggerating Hillary Clinton’s flaws, almost certainly played some role in making his presidency possible. 

This period of crisis continues today. News consumption has fallen dramatically since the dizzying heights of the Trump administration. Journalists at mainstream national news organizations are arguing over how to fairly cover the Biden presidency without losing sight of its relative normalcy following Trump’s many scandals. And away from Washington, D.C., and New York City, smaller media outlets are shrinking and dying away, leaving behind “news deserts” with no reliable source of information on local happenings. If good journalism is essential to a healthy democracy, then the status of American journalism is yet another warning sign about the vitality of self-governance in the United States.

In “News After Trump,” Matt Carlson, Sue Robinson and Seth C. Lewis reflect on these warning signs and ask how journalism can rescue itself from irrelevance. The authors, professors of journalism, seek to place Trump’s attacks on the press in cultural context: Trump’s abuse of journalists was effective, they argue, not just because of his talents as a demagogue but also because of journalism’s failure to adapt to a changing media environment in which just-the-facts reporting fails to give readers and listeners what they want or need. The book serves as an inquiry both into the Trump presidency as a means of understanding journalism and into journalism’s struggles as a means of understanding Trump’s rhetoric and power.

Perhaps because their work is public-facing and focused on providing transparency, journalists often imagine that their profession is well understood by laypeople. The truth is anything but. Trump was able to demonize the press so effectively in part because of a widespread lack of public comprehension about, for example, the difference between an opinion columnist and a news reporter—allowing Trump to tar newsrooms as biased because of writing published in the opinion section—or journalistic conventions around the use of anonymous sources, which Trump regularly claimed were made up. In response, some outlets have made efforts toward transparency, publishing explainers on the ins and outs of the paper’s work and providing readers with more detail about how investigative reporters uncovered the material they’re writing about.

Yet the culture and norms of journalism can still be frustratingly opaque to those who don’t practice it. For journalists who worked through the Trump years, much of the analysis in “News After Trump” will be familiar. But for people outside the profession looking to learn more about how the Trump years shaped the mainstream American press, the book may serve as a useful guide—both as a history and as an explanation of the major arguments that continue to divide journalists today.

Carlson, Robinson and Lewis describe what they term the “grand narrative” of American journalism: the vision, expressed most succinctly through the story of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s reporting on Watergate, that “the press is a powerful profession entrusted with holding power to account.” Here, the journalist serves as a crusading hero. This narrative is still prominent—consider the 2017 film “The Post,” a feel-good Tom Hanks movie about the reporting of the Pentagon Papers—but, as “News After Trump” describes, it is increasingly under strain. The death of print advertising and the rise of digital ads engineered by tech giants like Facebook and Google have left news organizations in search of a sustainable business model and struggling to stay afloat. While some major outlets have figured out a winning formula—the Washington Post, for example, is now nestled safely under the patronage of Jeff Bezos—many smaller publications are taking on water. The press faces increasing distrust from the public, which Carlson, Robinson and Lewis trace to a “turning away from news” by both rural white communities and people of color, particularly Black Americans, frustrated by “what they view as harmful or absent news representations.”

Trump leveraged that growing distrust as part of a populist critique of supposedly untrustworthy elites. The force of this argument came in part from what “News After Trump” describes as the uneasy relationship between journalists and those in power: The press is “among the powerful, but not involved in the administration of power,” a balance that can be awkward for members of the Fourth Estate to maintain. Trump, the authors argue, was able to take advantage of this by positioning the press as powerful in and of itself—an overwhelming, adversarial force focused on damaging his presidency and, therefore, a useful enemy to blame whenever something went wrong. In doing so, he made journalism itself the subject of political debate. 

This last move was particularly damaging because of journalism’s commitment to “objectivity and political detachment,” as Carlson, Robinson and Lewis describe. In this model, journalists “compartmentalize their own viewpoints and biases as best as possible in a rigorous accounting of facts.” This moral standard has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, derided by critics as “the view from nowhere,” but it’s still the predominant school of thinking about how journalists should behave—and so Trump’s insistence on attacking the press created a professional dilemma. How do reporters stay out of the story when the president has made them the story? Or, to put it another way, how can journalists remain neutral on the question of whether or not they are the “enemy of the people”? How many times do you have to print that the president told a falsehood before acknowledging that it would be more honest to just call it a lie?

This puzzle shifted into high gear the debates already happening within newsrooms over whether journalists should strive to maintain a studious objectivity or whether they should embrace, as former Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery put it, “moral clarity.” In one of the higher-profile clashes over the issue, Lowery’s disagreements with Post editor-in-chief Martin Baron eventually led to Lowery’s departure from the paper in 2020 after Baron warned the reporter that his Twitter commentary on race and politics went against the Post's social media policy. Black journalists, as well as younger writers, were at the forefront of the push against the older model of objective reporting, and this is reflected in the disputes at the Post: Lowery is Black, while Baron is white; Lowery was just beginning his career, while Baron retired in 2021. 

“News After Trump” sides with the new guard over the old, arguing for a “moral voice in journalism” that directs its focus toward “protecting democracy at all costs.” Objectivity, the authors write, has become “an ethos of detachment, one that staves off vital questions” about how journalism has failed and how it can do better. Carlson, Robinson and Lewis instead want to rethink the norms of journalism, pushing journalists to acknowledge how their particular position “alters what news knowledge looks like”—that is, rather than pretending that the writer’s vantage point is “nowhere”—and encouraging journalists to make moral judgments, so that they can “portray things as they really are to the best of their knowledge and experience.” This, they argue, frees the press to respond appropriately to an actor like Trump, naming lies and threats to democracy as such rather than hanging back at a cautious remove. 

The “moral voice in journalism” also frees journalists to make the case for their own value to their communities, placing members of the press “back into the public that they represent through their work.” Among the chief insights of “News After Trump” is that journalism has become “decentered”—one resource among many in a crowded media ecosystem, no longer at the center of the civic story at either the national or local level. Crucial to this transition is the immediate, frictionless communication enabled by social media on a massive scale. Twitter allowed Trump to speak directly to his millions of followers without relying on the press. Facebook made possible the rapid dissemination of Darnella Frazier’s recording of George Floyd’s murder—for which, notably, Frazier received a special citation from the Pulitzer Prize board.

“News After Trump” touches briefly on the role of social media in this decentering and suggests how journalists might engage more with the public online as a way of recentering the press by “embed[ding] themselves into our shared social fabric.” But there is more to be drawn out here. The authors write that “[t]he decline in news corresponds with the continued rise of social media platforms that seem little interested in considering their social responsibility as public fora”—a telling oversimplification that elides how the problems facing shared online spaces and the problems facing journalism might have more in common than the average Facebook user or journalist might expect. 

There is no love lost between journalists and technology platforms. But public frustration toward both the press and social media reflects a broader desire for more guidance from the institutions that mediate information, alongside a frustration with those currently providing that guidance. One way of characterizing the “decentering” of the press described in “News After Trump” is as a diminishing of journalism’s gatekeeping role: information could quickly travel directly to readers from the source, without a newspaper deciding whether to print it or not. That is powerful but, as Americans learned in 2016 and throughout the Trump presidency, it’s also dangerous. 

Consider, for example, the matter of Russian interference in 2016. The majority of press coverage and public ire focused on efforts by the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency to post divisive memes and comments under fake American personas on social media. That incident became a focal point for outrage that major platforms like Facebook and Twitter weren’t doing enough to prevent the abuse of their services, spurring the companies to take an increasingly active role in moderating content—a process that would, in January 2021, result in Trump’s suspension from both platforms following the Capitol riot. 

Yet Thomas Rid argues persuasively that the hacking and leaking of Democratic Party emails orchestrated by the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service, was far more influential in shaping the results of the 2016 election. The reason was the press. Mainstream news organizations treated the email leaks to a bonanza of coverage, focusing overwhelmingly on new revelations about the Clinton campaign and giving Trump an easier time. If the problem in the Internet Research Agency case was a lack of guidance and curation provided by the platforms, the problem in this instance was poor decision-making by the journalists who were implicitly tasked by the public with providing guidance on what to pay attention to. 

Reflecting on the state of content moderation today on the Lawfare Podcast, Nicole Wong, the former deputy general counsel of Google, described the current mood as “a desire for more decisions at the same time that we’re questioning who gets to make decisions.” That’s true for the press as well. The desire for journalists to be more direct in calling out lies and defending democracy, and more careful in curating campaign coverage, goes hand in hand with a call for journalism as an industry to move away from structures of traditional authority—including along lines of race, gender and class. 

So if more decisions need to be made about what information the public receives and how, who will make them? This question has particular weight because the flow of information is crucial to a healthy democracy. Too little information, and people can’t govern themselves; too much, and substantive conversation among citizens is drowned out in the chaos.

Populists like Trump have an easy answer to this question: I decide. Those committed to liberal democracy will have a harder time, because the nature of liberal democracy is that no one group or person gets to have the final say. One solution, suggested by “News After Trump,” is for journalists to work to cultivate trust among the communities they cover, developing a better understanding of what those people need in terms of news and building their trust in journalists’ judgments. Among scholars of social media, there has lately been interest in the idea of small, decentralized platforms as a possible way forward. These approaches share a certain desire for local connection—a turn to individual relationships and smaller communities, reminiscent of the origins of American democracy in the idealized New England town meeting. If part of Trump’s appeal is his claim to authenticity, speaking his mind unfiltered and “telling it like it is,” perhaps this localism is a way of reclaiming that authentic connection in service of democratic governance instead of against it.

Of course, the appeal of the town hall depends on the quality of the people there—as anyone who’s attended a local school board meeting can tell you. Describing their vision of journalists as “moral agents,” Carlson, Robinson and Lewis emphasize that they are not advocating for the press to “dictate and judge differing political viewpoints” but, rather, to “call out violations of widely held moral standards such as telling brazen lies, using power to harm people, and engaging in racist discourse and actions.” Today, though, those moral standards have themselves become a matter of political viewpoint. There’s a limited amount that better news can do to strengthen democracy if half the country has no interest in listening to it.

Editor's Note: This piece has been updated to more precisely describe disagreements at the Washington Post over objectivity in journalism.

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