What will post-Trump journalism look like?
Especially without persistent vilification from the White House?
On February 17, 2017, President Donald Trump asserted via Twitter that NBC News, CNN, and The New York Times, among others critical of his administration, were “fake news” and the “enemy of the people.”
For another president, these remarks would shatter the fabric of the nation. With Trump, however, the statement was far from uncommon.
From the beginning, the President’s tone regarding the news media was combative and his usage of the phrase “fake news” had become synonymous with his persona and his dislike of critical reporting on himself.
However, Trump’s characterization of the news media as “enem[ies] of the people” revealed a sense of media hatred from an American president unseen by journalists in decades. Critics lambasted the tweet as borderline authoritarian á la Joseph Stalin, who infamously referred to political opponents in such a manner.
Despite the pushback, the President’s disdain for the press, especially those considered center and center-left, only swelled with time.
One of the most controversial conflicts between the Trump administration and the media occurred when the President temporarily revoked the press pass of CNN reporter Jim Acosta for an undisclosed period of time. This move by President Trump came mere hours after a contentious post-2018 midterms news conference where Acosta attempted to ask the President several follow-up questions as a White House aide tried to take his microphone and the President called him a “terrible” person.
CNN, the White House Correspondents’ Association, and several other journalists and media outlets condemned the move, including Fox News, which had become known for providing an almost explicitly pro-Trump stance.
Another noteworthy episode between the press and the President was regarding a question from another CNN reporter, Abby Phillip. President Trump, responding to her inquiry pertaining to the Russia investigation, told her the question was “stupid” and that she asked “a lot of stupid questions.”
While Phillip moved on and Acosta‘s credentials were eventually returned to him, these moments, among an extensive list of others, highlight the profoundly unhealthy relationship between President Trump and the press.
Veteran journalism scholar and Columbia Journalism School professor Michael Schudson believes President Trump had “the worst presidential relation with the news media in memory — and that includes Nixon.”
Schudson further claims the President abhorred negative coverage of his administration, even if said coverage was honest and truthful. In other words, if it wasn’t full of praise, it was full of deceit.
“I’ve never seen any president behave more threateningly and corruptly to the media,” he concluded.
Several other experts feel similarly.
“Other presidents have grumbled about journalists and tried to limit and manipulate reporting on their administrations, but Trump took antagonism toward the media to a higher level than any president over the past twenty years,” said Jon Marshall, author of “Watergate’s Legacy and the Press: The Investigative Impulse” and associate professor of journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.
“By calling news outlets enemies of the people, he encouraged distrust of a free press and encouraged violence against journalists.”
Ellen Shearer, former president of the Washington Press Club Foundation and longtime judge for the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual awards, echoed this standpoint while highlighting the difficult experience for journalists trying to receive and report accurate information in the face of “continued disparagement” from President Trump.
It is this disparagement and divisive schoolyard side-picking culture that has defined the past four years in American journalism, Shepard Smith departing from his 23-year career at Fox News to CNBC as a symbolic testament.
However, as the established journalism industry fought distressingly to defend its honor against the President’s vilification, a new generation of journalists decided sitting on the bench was no longer for them. They wanted in on the game.
Just as the volatile political environment of the 1960s and 70s mobilized a generation to grab their notepads and chase the next breaking story, young people today have been energized by the chaotic, yet riveting and fast-paced political whirlpool that is the Trump era.
Journalism schools around the country have seen application numbers rise significantly since President Trump took office. This, despite the onslaught from the White House and the grim reality of the notoriously low-wage, highly competitive industry.
To that end, while interest in journalism has spiked upwards in recent years, overall, the field has witnessed a significant decline over the past few decades. This is telling through how Americans have lost confidence in the political neutrality and integrity of the press.
According to a recent Medill/Ipsos poll, 62% of respondents viewed the news media unfavorably, compared to just 36% who weren’t as skeptical.
So, what does this mean for the future of journalism after the hyperactive Trump era? Will the rapid-fire breaking news notifications from ABC or NBC become less frequent? No more testy press briefings, political Twitter feuds, and C-SPAN clips going viral? Will everyone’s interest in our political world and those who report on it fade with a tamer Biden administration? What about the bigger picture for the journalism industry?
Ellen Shearer, also the Washington Bureau Chief and William F. Thomas Professor of Journalism at Northwestern’s Medill, thinks public interest in political journalism “may wane a bit” with a new president in the White House, but on a positive note, “Americans seem more interested in government and public policy now.”
She and Jon Marshall both believe a new Biden administration will usher in a better climate between the White House and the press corps. Michael Schudson, acknowledging the tough work Biden will be tasked with and the long road ahead for the country as a whole, believes it is too soon to forecast what the after effects of Trump will be on the journalism industry and public perception of it.
Additionally, for those considering the field, Schudson believes journalism is great for those who “‘want to be ‘in the know’ on current affairs.” Yet, he alludes to the notion that journalism is not for the faint of heart or easily discouraged, especially given the current political climate, the industry’s reputation for low employment security, and a widening entry pool of journalists where being a captivating writer/multimedia guru with a prestigious degree doesn’t cut it anymore.
“There’s no telling at this point how things will play out,” he concluded.
Special thanks to Ellen Shearer, Jon Marshall, and Michael Schudson for their contributions. Additional thanks to Shearer for access to the Medill/Ipsos poll.