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'Maximize Trust': Media Critic Jay Rosen On Covering The Trump Administration

Carolyn Kaster
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer takes questions at a news briefing. As news organizations have been grappling with how to cover the Trump Administration, media critic Jay Rosen is sharing his ideas. Rosen speaks on Wednesday night at St. Mike's.

President Donald Trump has a tense and at times hostile relationship with the media, and news organizations have been grappling to figure out how to cover an administration where a top official has referred to the press as the “opposition party.”

Jay Rosen teaches journalism at New York University and directs the school's Studio 20 program. He also write about the media and journalism in his blog PressThink. He’s been writing about the relationship between the Trump Administration and the press and how he thinks that press should cover President Trump.

VPR spoke with Jay Rosen in advance of a talk at St. Michael’s College, scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 1 at 8 p.m.,  titled “What We Need From Journalists Now That Trump Has Been Elected.”

This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity. Listen to the full audio above.

VPR: The media has not been really popular with the American public in recent years. What risks do you see to journalism during the Trump presidency?

Rosen: “Well, so far, we haven't seen journalists arrested. We haven't had news organizations prevented from publishing what they know by the government, because the First Amendment, in that sense, is still intact.

"You have an organized movement to discredit mainstream journalism on the right in this country. And it's succeeded, at least with Trump supporters, to the point where they now describe what appears on CNN or in Washington Post or The New York Times as 'fake news.'" — Jay Rosen

“But it's a pretty threatening climate for the free press as a check on power, and not just because you have a president who is constantly attacking the media and his aides who are following up on that.

“You have an organized movement to discredit mainstream journalism on the right in this country. And it's succeeded, at least with Trump supporters, to the point where they now describe what appears on CNN or in Washington Post or The New York Times as 'fake news.' So when you put all those things together, it's  a pretty dark time.”

White House Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon recently referred to the media as the opposition party, and said that they should just “shut up and listen.” Those kind of statements are met with trepidation by folks in academia and by the press. But what about folks in the rest of America, beyond that hardcore base of Trump supporters?

“When I think about that, I try to break it down into three groups. There's Trump's hardcore supporters, who now believe that mainstream journalism is, as Steve Bannon said, part of the opposition, and they actually participate in the discrediting of the press.

“Then there's Trump's hardcore opponents, who want the news media to do a tougher job on him, but who also freak out at every violation of democratic norms, as Brendan Nyhan puts it, that they see coming.  

“The more that Trump's opponents scream and shout —of course they're doing that for very good reasons in lots of ways — the more Trump supporters feel, 'This is the war we wanted.'

“And then for the middle group, the people who are neither hardcore Trump fans nor dedicated opponents, I think that the situation is one of confusion. The cost to remain an informed and alert citizen keeps rising, because the atmosphere of crisis on both sides keeps rising.

“And I think part of the strategy here, although it's hard to tell if it's deliberate, is to make it really difficult for the neither-nor people to pay attention and figure out what's going on.

“So it's not that everybody is behind this attack on the press; it's that the press has a harder time than ever claiming the attention of the public for the important information that it digs up.”

In your most recent post on PressThink, you wrote that major media outlets like CNN and The New York Times should start sending interns to the White Housepress briefings rather than seasoned reporters. You didn't mean that in a snarky way, you meant that literally. Why?

“Well, I think most announcements from the White House are actually dis-informing the public, and are of very little value journalistically.

“But the talented people, the experienced people with contacts and sources, shouldn't be in that briefing room to get turned into a hate object by Sean Spicer. They should be elsewhere.”

So send in the interns and let them deal with Press secretary Sean Spicer?

“Yeah, maybe they'll learn something, maybe they’ll come up their own way of doing it that's different. And also to send a signal to the Trump White House that we're going to listen to you, but we're not going to put our best people on this, because there's a lot of things going on that you don't want us to investigate and we're going to dig into those.”

A lot of recent statements quoted by the press have been from anonymous or unnamed senior administration officials. Why are media outlets such as The Washington Post repeating those anonymous statements and not demanding more specific clarification on who exactly is saying what about administration policy?

“It's even worse than that, because these anonymous Trump administration officials are not only being quoted in the press, but they're being quoted defending their boss.

“They're being quoted on such things as, 'Everything is working great.’ Well, why [be] anonymous if everything's working great?

“It's bizarre. We're going to tell you things are going swimmingly but don't use our name. It's so far beyond common sense and logic that it really was an early low point.”

NPR recently explained that their reporters covering Trump refrain from using the word "lie" in reference to many of the plain falsehoods that the president said or tweeted because they say the word "lie" implies intent to obfuscate the truth, and a reporter can't be inside Trump's head to know if that's the case. What do you think about that decision?

“Well, I have an agnostic position on that. I don't care that much if the word ‘lie’ is used. What I think is important is to communicate very clearly and from the beginning that this is a false statement that the president is saying, something that's false. Not to say, 'Well, here's what he claims, and you know what, some people disagree with him,’ but to frame it from the beginning and in the headline as false. And as long as that is done, whether the word lie is used, to me, is up to the individual newsroom.”

How can the media be an effective counterpoint to White House falsehoods if Trump can appeal to his base and beyond just by Twitter?

“I think something even more insidious is going on. It's not just that Trump can go around the news media and reach his base with Twitter. That's true.

"We could start to see that Trump doesn't just want to criticize and put down the news media. He wants to replace it. He wants to be the source of information for what's going on in the Trump government." — Jay Rosen

“A more dramatic thing is happening. During the campaign, I often tried to describe Trump as a rival media company who has a hit show, The Trump Show, that all other media companies kind of want.

“And in a way, that disempowered journalists and news executives at the networks, because his show was better than theirs.

“Now, I think it's gone further than that, and we could start to see that Trump doesn't just want to criticize and put down the news media, he wants to replace it. He wants to be the source of information for what's going on in the Trump government. Him and his aides, not the press.

“And I think this is so contrary to the way we think about president-press relationships. We think of the president as the one being covered. No. Trump wants to replace the news media with his own voice, his own feed, his own presence as the source of information about what he is doing."

That gets to the question of your talk at St. Michael's, then. What do we need from journalists now that Trump has been elected? What can they do about that very problem you just described?

“Well, I think the battle is for those neither-nor viewers [and] listeners. [News organizations] have to start speaking to them and to their concerns in a powerful way, and they have to begin changing their practices to maximize trust.

“That means ending things like anonymous officials saying how great their bosses is doing, ending things like that obscene White House Correspondents Dinner where sources fraternize with journalists and the president and the press, pretending that this is all one big game.

“But it means more serious things, too, like always show the documents and sources that you are using for your story. And if people don't believe it, they can see for themselves.

“It means taking extra care that you've got it right before you run it. It means, I believe, that journalists have to be more upfront with us about their priorities and the core values that they are working from so that they don't pretend to be the voice of God or take the view from nowhere.

“And these kinds of changes that make it easier for people to trust the press aren’t going to speak to Trump's hardcore supporters who have now dedicated themselves to be enemies of journalists, but they could start to reach that middle group.”

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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