“How do you cover a beast like Donald Trump?” That question, posed by NYU journalism professor and press critic Jay Rosen, was at the heart of a talk last night between New Yorker editor David Remnick and the top editors of Huffington Post, Slate, and Univision.
“Not the New Normal,” put on in part by my employer NYU Journalism, which produces Bedford + Bowery, packed the house at Skirball Center, even as a massive protest of Trump’s immigration policies occurred across the street in Washington Square Park.
Here’s what attendees– many of them journalism students– took away from the discussion, moderated by CNN’s Brian Stelter.
This is going to be an uphill battle.
With Trump turning the press into, in Rosen’s words, “an object of hate,” journalists are facing a unique dilemma. Even if reporters break a Watergate-style bombshell, Rosen said, “those truths will emerge into an atmosphere that is organized to defeat them and ignore them and belittle them and resist them.” Lydia Polgreen, editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post, agreed: “There’s been a huge erosion of trust.”
Especially with disinformation coming fast and furious.
Rosen noted that Trump flack Kellyanne Conway had a skillful “ability to subtract from public understanding” during her TV appearances, and that “the terms that we have to name this thing I’m talking about are pathetic: ‘post-fact world,’ ‘post-truth society.’” Jacob Weisberg, editor-in-chief of The Slate Group, felt that so-called alternative facts (an example of the Trump machine’s “linguistic refuse,” in Remnick’s mind) “is a rough translation of disinformation.” Fake news, Weisberg reminded everyone, didn’t necessarily have to convince people—rather, its purpose is to “divert people with a debate.” Remnick said of Trump, “The psychological garbage that he leaves behind is incredible.” Case in point: Even after Trump admitted Obama was born in the United States, many Trump supporters still feel otherwise.
The status quo isn’t going to cut it.
“We can’t fool ourselves and think that if we just behave the same, that eventually truth will out,” Polgreen said. Remnick also expressed dismay that the media was “filled with, in certain quarters, these clichés of ‘He must be given a chance, he is, after all, our president.’” He stressed: “This is not a normal presidency, but I think the job, the principal is the same: pressure on power.”
At the same time, innovation isn’t necessarily the answer.
Remnick insisted that “the problem is spiritual, not technological,” and said that technological innovation was secondary to the mission at hand: “do our work and do it ferociously and fearlessly and not be freaked out by the press secretary’s performance at the podium on Saturday. Stop it!”
Likewise, Polgreen felt that it was important to appeal to the low-information, Obama-Trump swing voter who was motivated primarily by fears and concerns about globalization and automation rather than by bigotry. “I do think there is something to the idea of journalism responding in a very authentic way to people’s lived experience, and I don’t think the answer to that is a factcheck bot, I don’t think the answer to that is a cool explanatory video,” she said. “I think the answer to that is fundamentally changing the tone and tenor with which we do journalism about people’s lives and trying to rediscover that sense of empathy.”
But collaboration might be.
Borja Echevarría, editor-in-chief of Univision Digital, recommended that news outlets team up in the way that Univision had with ProPublica, BuzzFeed, WNYC, and others for their hate-crimes compendium, “Documenting Hate.”
White House correspondents should also band together, in light of the way Trump dressed down CNN’s Jim Acosta. “There should be a lot of meetings and dinners right now where they agree to ground rules about sticking up for reach other,” said Weisberg, who also called for the cancelation of the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. “The idea that faced with these attacks on our doing our job we’re going to invite this guy to come and mock us in person is just abhorrent,” he said.
Journalists will need stamina. The best stamina.
Weisberg admitted he was “worried about becoming tedious,” but everyone agreed that it was important to keep punching. “I think Donald Trump is counting on exhaustion, I think he’s counting on this kind of umbrage burning itself out,” Remnick said. He singled out David Brooks’s controversial op-ed about the Women’s March: “With all due respect to David Brooks, it is interesting that people that are hardest on identity politics are white men.” He added, “I think that kind of scolding and everybody saying, ‘Calm down,’ I’m wary of that.”
Media companies will have to know who their enemies are.
Threats to the media are coming from all sides. American journalists can learn lessons not just from Putin’s influence over Russian media, but also the Peter Thiel-funded lawsuit against Gawker Media, and an array of threats to South African and Indian media. “It’s not just about this kind of iron fist, ‘I’m going to go force this paper out of business,’” Polgreen said. “There are some very, very wealthy people besides Donald Trump associated with his administration.”
At the same time, one of those threats— loss of access—isn’t as big a deal as we think.
“My feeling is, no great stories come from a press room, ever,” Remnick said. “I think a big organization has to show up [to White House press conferences]. I think it’s a great applause line, ‘We shouldn’t go,’ but yeah, somebody’s gotta go. But that isn’t where Watergate was found or Abu Ghraib was found or anything of earth-shattering importance.” (Speaking of scoops, Remnick said he didn’t know whether he would’ve published the infamous memo posted by BuzzFeed— and he didn’t have it, anyway: “This business that everybody had the dossier, I felt a little left out.”)
Journalists will also have to make the public aware of the stakes.
Though Trump wants it to look like there’s a war between him and the media, Echevarría feels that “we have to explain to our audience, to the people, that this is not about media, this is about freedom of information, freedom of speech, access to information.”
Newsrooms need to be more diverse, but not just in that way.
Echevarría admitted that “we have a problem with ideological diversity,” and noted a need to hire “smart, young people that think differently to the rest of the newsroom. Because my newsroom may be diverse in that sense [of ethnic, gender, and sexual diversity] but none of them voted for Trump.” Remnick admitted to having the same dilemma: “How do I get and speak to and hear from conservative voices or libertarian or not the usual ‘amen’ corner that is coming out of my mouth or the mouths of my colleagues?” He reminded everyone: “You have to realize, 60-odd million people voted for Donald Trump and part of our jobs up here, too, is to get our shit together and know why and understand the difference among those voters and not brand them all with the same comments.”
Remember: Trump is listening.
Remnick said that “in meetings, and I have this pretty reliably, there’s always a television on and while he’s being briefed on this, that and the other thing he’s watching himself on television. There’s also the infantile aspect of this presidency that’s disturbing and makes a difference.”
And remind yourself that it’s not as bad as you think.
Echevarría observed that compared to some of the Latin American newsrooms he visits, there’s a better capacity for self-reflection and “a level of creativity in this country, a capacity of innovation, of changing things.”
Remnick acknowledged that “I see a lot of demoralized people around,” and told them to “buck up” and keep things in perspective: “Somebody with an assertive, authoritarian, demagogic style has come to power, and if you aren’t energized by that prospect as a journalist you should become a certified public accountant.”