Covering President Trump

Last Updated by Michael Getler on

This column has not much to do with PBS specifically—other than the nightly PBS NewsHour and the weekly investigative series Frontline are part of the increasingly broad media/press landscape that will now have to report on and cover our new president, Donald J. Trump.

There is, actually, one other thing about PBS that brings this column subject to mind, and that is the broadcasting service’s fondness for British drama. So in thinking about journalism in the age of Trump, several well-known British passages came to mind.

One is the famous, or infamous, opening sentence from an otherwise obscure 1830 English novel: “It was a dark and stormy night.” It has become a synonym for mocking bad writing and is always fun to invoke. Now, it is taken more literally by some as a description of an environment that journalists will find themselves in as a president takes office who has insulted, mocked, banned, threatened, and sought to turn the public, his millions of supporters and some laws against reporters and serious news organizations.

Another is perhaps the most well-known opening paragraph in English literary history by the great novelist Charles Dickens, who started “A Tale of Two Cities” this way: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

That was 1859, but that description has captured other times of historic tension and it also seems to be a good description of how many in our intensely divided country now look at things.

What’s That Over Yonder?

Then, there is the term “Fourth Estate” which the writer Thomas Carlyle attributed to Edmund Burke who, in 1787 upon the opening up of Britain’s House of Commons to press reporting, reportedly said: “There were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters' Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”

Finally, I add a brief but eloquent statement from the then newly independent United States of America. It reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” It was no accident that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the most vital freedoms of American citizens and that freedom of the press is among those rights. It has, nevertheless, been a constant and evolving battle, since that First Amendment declaration in 1791, to preserve and exercise that right.

So, Where am I Going with All This?

It is to say that despite the fear of many that we are headed into some “dark and stormy night” or that this may indeed be “the worst of times,” it is, at least in my opinion, a great, exciting and important time to be a journalist in a country with a free, serious and unintimidated press. I’m not talking here about partisan websites or radio stations or social media users and promoters who pass along a lot of unverified, unreported, unaccountable information.  Rather, I’m talking about venerable, tough-minded, independent newspapers such as, and especially, The Washington Post and the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, Boston Globe, Dallas Morning News, Des Moines Register and many other good, solid regional and metropolitan newspapers; and about the Associated Press and Reuters and Bloomberg News and about CNN and the big commercial networks, NBC, ABC and CBS and new investigative organizations such as ProPublica. And the NewsHour and Frontline.

It is true that many so-called mainstream, or establishment or legacy press organizations are under severe financial pressure and are cutting back staff and losing readers and viewers. But at the same time, many are growing on their websites and may well have more readers and a wider audience than ever. Americans are not stupid. They understand that factual, verifiable information is crucial to their well-being and future, no matter what they do and how they vote. So I have confidence that, however fractured the media seems now, that these central, experienced and dedicated organizations and reporting teams will retain their place and importance in our culture, using all the new platforms as well as the old ones.

An aggressive, no-punches-pulled free press is still “more important far than they all.” It remains an unofficial yet absolutely essential part of the system of checks and balances that sets this country and our democracy apart and that was understood by the framers of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. It is crucially important now; the only real independent check left standing at a time when the White House, Senate and House are under one-party control, as are most state houses and legislatures, and when the Supreme Court may soon have its previous majority restored.

One reason that this may be “the best of times” for those journalists still working is that if President Trump’s hostility toward the press, toward challenging questioning, proper probing and critical coverage carries over from the campaign and transition to the presidency, it will open up a new and probably better way to cover our government and society.

A Diverse Country of Sources

If a president or an administration bans you or is openly hostile and unresponsive, there are lots of others to talk with: politicians and civil servants in Washington and around the country who are not afraid, opposition figures, citizens’ groups, think tanks, former officials and experts in various specialties, financial, business and religious leaders, citizens and community leaders in this most diverse of all countries, immigrant groups, foreign leaders, thinkers and diplomats. It is exciting and educational to cast that wider proverbial net.

Journalists have other duties as well should this beyond-normal adversarial relationship persist. Reporters don’t own the printing presses or the online or broadcast companies, so they must bring pressure however they can internally on owners and editors to do the right thing, to resist intimidation. American citizens do have the right to know. That is not just a cliché.

Equally important, there should be increased attention by editors and reporters to ensure their journalism is beyond reproach. Mistakes are inevitable but they now are used by many to try and disparage any news organization that is reporting hard-hitting stories. So care in writing, checking and presentation is more essential than ever.

The big and reasonably secure news organizations, in particular, need to invest, even in hard times, in adding or expanding investigative reporting teams and lawyers to protect them. The work of fact-checkers that has proved so valuable for this past year and a half needs to be secured, expanded and more prominently displayed and in as close to real-time as possible, especially on television.

It is, I believe, incumbent among all of us as citizens to wish that our president succeeds in bringing better times and a better future for this country and its people, all its people. That is my hope. Yet it is also clear that several times in the past 50 years—Vietnam, Watergate, Iraq—many people have been torn between a love for country, respect for the office and a loathing of the person or persons at the top. That is a terrible ambivalence and an awful feeling. There was a lot of lying, false premises and a false sense of certainty presented to the public in all of those situations, by Democrats about Vietnam and Republicans about Watergate and Iraq.

Tough Times Before

You can argue about the role of the press in one crisis or another, but there is no substitute for the work, courage and public enlightenment of that cluster of journalists who documented the struggle for civil rights in the 1950s and ’60s and the reality of Vietnam battlefields in the mid-1960s or the secret corruption of our laws and politics in the early 1970s.

Despite the poisonous politics and divisions in our country, and the emergence of a uniquely controversial new president, it is not the 1960s when President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr were assassinated, when American cities were burning, when a war in Vietnam was tearing the country apart and on its way to killing 57,000 American servicemen and countless Vietnamese, when there were riots at a Democratic convention and, just a little bit into 1970, National Guardsmen opened fire on students at Kent State.

We came through all that. Over time, good work, bi-partisanship and a more general agreement on the common good prevailed. But the bitterness is back, big time, and this time that "Fourth Estate" is more important than ever.

Posted on Jan. 19, 2017 at 12:12 p.m.

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