Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Journalism in the Age of Trump

I came of age professionally at the dawn of the Watergate era. While studying for a master’s degree in newspaper journalism, my Syracuse University classmates and I met with Jeb Magruder, president Richard Nixon’s re-election committee head in early 1972, just months before the Watergate break-in, two years before Magruder would plead guilty to conspiracy to obstruct justice, to defraud the United States, and to illegally eavesdrop on the Democratic Party national headquarters in the Watergate Hotel.

During our first summer of matrimony, in 1973, Gilda spent most of her days watching the Senate Watergate hearings. Lowell Weicker Jr. of Connecticut gained national prominence during the hearings as a Republican critic of Nixon. I interviewed Weicker at his Greenwich home on the Friday of Labor Day weekend. We made national news when I quoted him asserting he would not try to capitalize on his new-found prominence by running for president in 1976, though he did try to mount a presidential bid in 1980.

In the years following Watergate and the bravura reporting of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, not to mention their celluloid alter-egos Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford, it seemed every young person graduating college wanted to be an investigative reporter, someone who toppled the high and mighty. It didn’t matter if their chosen targets presided in Washington or Podunk, Indiana. What mattered was the press had to show that it was supreme.

For the most part the nation benefitted from such zeal, though excesses did occur, such as the intrusive, destructive coverage of Gary Hart and his non affair with Donna Rice, which submarined his presidential hopes in 1988.

Relations between the press and presidents (and would-be presidents) are rarely absent of acrimony. Reporters are a skeptical, cynical lot, always looking for the real story behind any presidential action. They bristle at any attempt to corral their activity. Administrations, on the other hand, are the ultimate public relations practitioners. Media access is to be restricted and managed.

Which brings us to media coverage in the age of Trump. The Internet has vastly expanded the number of bodies able to disseminate news, real and fake. The biggest body of all belongs to Donald J. Trump and his peripatetic fingers.

The twit-in-chief has upended traditional news distribution routes. His team has hinted of changes to the daily briefings in the White House press room. Indeed, the very room itself may become extinct.

It is a strategy to bypass traditional media that Trump believes is biased against him. He may be right about the bias claim, but he is fooling himself if he seriously believes upsetting the press room applecart will stifle critical reporting and analysis of his administration. If anything, it will galvanize real reporters to probe deeper.

The contretemps over Buzzfeed’s publishing the contents of a questionably accurate dossier of behavior by Trump while in Russia several years ago is the latest example of the press pushing the limits of journalistic decorum.

Yet, it is the height of chutzpah for a president-elect who uses Twitter bullying tactics, the retweeting of falsehoods and innuendo and near total disregard for the truth to complain about his coverage and portrayal in the media.

I suspect Trump is not very well read, but he probably knows the saying, “Those who live by the sword, die by the sword.”

He might also be acquainted with another proverb journalists embrace: “The pen is mightier than the sword.”