Trump’s war with the press may save journalism

Thanks, Trump.

The President-elect may have unknowingly kicked some life back into journalism, not the click journalism of today but rather the old-school journalism, the one where reporters went after the truth by sifting through documents, working a source list of insiders and knocking on doors when their phone (and email) messages were ignored.

It just makes me want to dig out my copy of All The President’s Men and remember a time when good old fashioned reporting could make even the most powerful man in the world, the President of the United States, accountable for his actions.

I have to admit that, for a while, I’ve been worried about my journalistic brethren. Trump went after the news media hard, threatening to loosen libel laws, shouting down a CNN reporter during a live press conference, and mocking the disability of a New York Times reporter (Yes, he did!), among other things. But he also managed to play the press as fools by repeatedly getting them to focus on some outrageous tweet instead of some other potentially more damaging development, like his $25 million Trump University settlement. Most recently, he’s been trying to discredit news outlets by labeling their reports as “fake news,” a tactic that his followers seem more than happy to adopt.

Now, days before the inauguration, the Washington Press Corps has stepped up to announce that Trump isn’t the only one who can shake things up. In an open letter to Trump, published this week in the Columbia Journalism Review, the press corps has put Trump on notice, reminding him that, as an institution, the press still holds the upper hand in this game. And no matter what the incoming President does to block their access or keep them at arm’s length, they will continue to pursue — and publish — stories about him and his administration, with or without his cooperation.

So even though he thinks that no one other than reporters are interested in his tax returns or that he doesn’t need to divest himself from his business interests (because presidents can’t have conflicts of interest), the members of the press corps want him to know that they will decide what’s newsworthy — not him. From the post:

While the Constitution protects the freedom of the press, it doesn’t dictate how the president must honor that; regular press conferences aren’t enshrined in the document. But while you have every right to decide your ground rules for engaging with the press, we have some, too. It is, after all, our airtime and column inches that you are seeking to influence. We, not you, decide how best to serve our readers, listeners, and viewers.

The letter then goes on to list of some actions that Trump should expect from the press — a list that is sure to rub him the wrong way. For example, they inform him that they will set the ground rules for what’s off-the-record and what isn’t, that they will obsess over the details over government and will call out statements that are wrong, that the various news outlets will begin working together and supporting each other and, most importantly, that the press has been around since the beginning of the republic — and that they play the long game.

It was a bold move for the press corps, to essentially try to put Trump back in his place in a public forum, as opposed to just silently continuing to dig for facts. The media never wants to be the story, or even a part of the story, but Trump waged his war with the press in the public forum and it seems that an open letter in a journalism publication was the right approach and the right platform, as opposed to, say, multiple tweets at 3 a.m.

While Trump has been in the headlines for decades, he’s always been a private citizen and businessman, never a public official. The treatment he received from the press in his previous life isn’t even in the same league as the scrutiny he will face as President. He cannot just shut out reporters and think they’ll go away.

During the campaign, the Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold did some amazing work with his legal-pad notes — and clever use of Twitter to engage the help of others — to chase down Trump’s charitable giving. Ironically, what started off as an attempt to validate Trump’s claims of being generous to charities led to a number of questions about Trump’s Foundation. A couple of weeks after the election, the Foundation came clean and reported to the IRS that it had violated a ban on self-dealing.

Mind you, it wasn’t an earth-shattering development or headline — but it was a small victory for government watchdog journalism and a reminder that even the highest government officials can — and will — be held accountable for their actions.

It’s important to remember that Nixon didn’t resign after Woodward and Bernstein’s first news story. Putting the pieces of the puzzle together to discover the truth takes time, patience and diligence. Fahrenthold’s work is an important part of the larger puzzle.

It very well could be that Fahrenthold — or some other truth-seeking journalist out there — will be the next Woodward or Bernstein. With that said, Trump should be careful about how he handles his relationship with the media going forward — or he very well could find himself being the next Nixon.