The Media’s Big Trump Conundrum

By Shawn Rhea Nov 29, 2016

Yesterday (November 28) the Associated Press issued guidelines for how journalists should treat "alt-right," a relatively new term that various White supremacists have been using in an effort to rebrand their old ideologies.

Left-leaning outlets as diverse as Jezebel, Slate and AlterNet have taken up the question. ThinkProgress went as far as to ban its use after the creator of the term, Richard Spencer, used a Nazi salute at the annual conference of his White supremacist National Policy Institute. 

…[Y]ou might wonder what, if anything, distinguishes the alt-right from more hidebound racist movements such as the American Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan. The answer is very little, except for a bit of savvy branding and a fondness for ironic Twitter memes. [Richard] Spencer and his ilk are essentially standard-issue [W]hite supremacists who discovered a clever way to make themselves appear more innocuous — even a little hip.

These decisions come at a moment when news organizations are soul searching about how to accurately cover the Trump Administration, its policies and its supporters. Many are torn between reporting through the traditional, uncritical lens that supposedly leads to balanced work and shining an unsparing light on Trump’s regressive rhetoric and policies. Embracing a more critical style of reporting will be a significant pivot for news outfits that gave Trump and his supporters a lot of unedited air time and ink with little historical or present-day context during the election.

Terminology is just one issue challenging such newsrooms. Trump has made it clear that he will use tactics such as limiting press access to the White House and suing reporters for libel to control the narrative. During the campaign, he famously banned outlets such as The Washington Post, Politico and The Huffington Post from covering his events. Recently, he held a closed-door convening with executives and reporters from top outlets for the purpose of castigating them.

Lonnie Isabel, a Columbia University School of Journalism senior lecturer, notes that while Trump’s attempt to suppress unflattering news coverage is unusually aggressive, it’s not without precedence. “I was in college when Nixon threatened the press,” he says, referring to former President Richard Nixon’s campaigns against individual reporters and news outlets. “[Trump’s] is the most blatant use of [these suppression tactics] that we’ve seen since then.”

A major difference is that Nixon didn’t have social media to push false propaganda. And there were no cable news outlets, which are largely dependent on soundbytes to drive viewership and profits.

But it isn’t simply profit making that is shaping coverage of Trump. Many news outfits have legitimate fears that libel lawsuits—which Trump has a history of using in retaliation for unflattering coverage—could bankrupt and silence them.

“It’s a real threat, and it could potentially cost news organizations tons of money trying to defend First Amendment rights,” says Vina Kay, executive director of Voices for Racial Justice.

Kay says news organizations need be prepared to direct money toward fending off such lawsuits over the next four years if they’re going to do the job of defending democracy. “It’s unfortunate, but we’re talking about the long-term future of our country. That’s the work. That’s the situation we’re in.”

Marion A. Walker, vice president of print media for the National Association of Black Journalists and a reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, says Trump barring White House access could be good in the long run as it would force news agencies to dig deep and cultivate reliable sources outside of the Trump administration.

“In some ways it could help us to win back the public and people who’ve lost trust in us,” Walker says of Americans’ dwindling confidence in the media. “You hold the administration’s feet to the fire. You write about the lack of access. You write about the lack of transparency in its simplest form.”

Isabel considers White House access overrated. “Access to the top people is one thing. What’s important is access to the people who are always there—the ones who are implementing the policies—because there will be people there who are outraged by these things and they will share the info and documents with you.”

Isabel says it’s time for news outlets to stop simply reporting on the outrageous vitriol spouted by Trump, his administration and supporters and start documenting their actions. “I would challenge all of those corporate owners of media—the Jeff Zuckers of the world who are looking at the bottom line for the shareholders—to ask why we’re willing to forego our mission,” he says. “They should hire talented investigative reporters to follow the money trail. See who the guests are at Trump’s dinners. Trail Ivanka and Donald Jr. during their overseas trips and see who’s currying favor. Think of the money.”

Eric Deggan, TV critic for NPR and author of the book "Race Baiter, How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation," offers up similar thoughts on how news agencies must approach their reporting. “Given the heated rhetoric during the campaign about Muslims, undocumented immigrants, people of color, women’s issues and gay issues, news outlets also have to keep a close eye on how issues affecting these people unfold,” he says. “One of journalism’s core principles is to be the voice of the voiceless in society, so it is important for journalists to remain committed to that ethic, regardless of criticism.”

Shawn Rhea is a Harlem, New York-based writer whose work is focused on social justice and healthcare issues.