Even before Donald Trump won the presidency, I was met with an almost categorical response when I would tell people I was going into journalism: “How are you going to make that work?” That would usually be followed by an offhand remark either about how newspapers are dying, the media can no longer be trusted, or the internet has ruined the quality of news.
Then, in the aftermath of Trump’s victory, a newly ubiquitous term was born: “fake news.”
The Alt-Right has even reclaimed this term, with the President belittling Jim Acosta of CNN at his first press conference in months by calling the network “fake news.” New buzz terms like the “post-truth era” have permeated culture, bringing many to question if there is still a basis from which to lay any claim to a fact. Some of my friends have even begun running straw polls on social media asking for credible news sources, as if they were previously nowhere to be found.
Yet despite the erosion of trust in the news media and the war the President of the United States has waged upon it, the American free press is potentially in the best position ever to reinvent itself and to find the revitalized business model it so desperately needs.
Trump’s Chief Strategist and former Breitbart publisher Steve Bannon recently said that the press is “the enemy,” and should “keep its mouth shut.” This, of course, is coming from a man who was once at the fringe of the American news media and polis, subsisting off of conspiracy theories and white nationalism until the rise of Trump effectively normalized the publication, to the point where several Breitbart writers and editors have now joined the White House staff. If the adversarial relationship between Trump and the press was on an implicit level, rummaging beneath the surface before, Bannon’s comments have given flight to the orca whale of anti-journalism sentiments and tooted the blowhole to boot.
Another shocking and unprecedented moment in a year of shocking and unprecedented moments was the debut of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, a Conn College alumnus. After a career of waging a one-man Twitter war against Dippin’ Dots ice cream, Trump’s official flack stood before the White House podium, flanked by graphics of the National Mall on the day of the Inauguration in 2009 and 2017, following through on his boss’ commands to repeat utter falsehoods about crowd size before refusing to take questions from reporters. In what has become a watered-down term, many pundits saw this as a watershed moment for the Trump Administration and press freedom just a few days in.
Then came the defense of Spicer from an irked White House Counselor and former campaign spokeswoman Kellyane Conway, who erroneously coined another emerging ubiquitous term, “alternative facts.”
This brought on yet another deluge of hot takes and pleas for a return to truth and belief in facts from pundits who saw no other options. Many strategists and even Trump himself have noted that with the former naming-rights mogul’s use of Twitter, he is able to effectively bypass the press by creating the driving story of each day’s news cycle, delivering his narrative right to the people without a middleman. Some underscore the effectiveness of this in the public’s deep distrust of the media, with only a low-teens percentage of Americans having any remotely strong degree of trust in the news media across several polls and studies.
Yet those inside the beltway, including people like me, who live there vicariously through following the news closely and self-selecting who to follow on Twitter, forget an important general truth: most Americans don’t keep up with the news, with the largest percentage of the public getting their information from TV and Facebook intermittently. What seems like a life-or-death moment for the free press for those in the news media is a 15 second soundbite on the local evening news, or a quickly scrolled by headline online.
So how does the press regain relevance in this brave new world? Part of it is happening organically with publications ranging from The Washington Post and the New York Times to Vanity Fair seeing a spike in subscriptions, the latter of which was clearly the grace of Trump tweets. But the rest will be up to reporters to remain as vigilant as they have been throughout the campaign and the opening days of the new administration, and to eventually, somehow, kick it into another gear to win back the public’s trust and fully serve the public function of journalism. In some ways, this adversarial relationship between Trump and the press is healthy and necessary, with falsehoods needing an opposition. However, the accountability of journalists will never be at a healthy level until Americans start to trust where their news comes from, or at least follow the news in the first place. For that to happen, more publications will have to do something they’re not comfortable with and fight back when necessary, calling falsehoods falsehoods and lies none other than lies. If we can do that, the profession of journalism might just come out of the Trump Administration better than it came in.