The role of the news media is rarely agreed upon. For many, it’s purely a source of information or even entertainment. For others, it can serve as a watchdog against the government. In the United States, we tend to take it as a little of all three. As much as we love to remain in-the-loop regarding current affairs, we also love watching two partisan analysts argue on live TV.
It’s that watchdog role, though, that we often take for granted. When the news media shed its partisan entrenchment in the early 1900s, American reporting evolved into a massive media system seeking to be objective. Reporters focused on coverage of the latest controversy, while opinion was reserved for the editorial pages. Politicians and other officials were held accountable not just by their staff but the news media and its consumers.
The press enjoyed a long run of safety. Through events such as Watergate, the Vietnam War and the Pentagon Papers, the press would do its job uninterrupted by the major political figures it covered.
President Donald Trump’s latest words and actions, however, indicate an unfortunate shift in belief regarding how the news media should be treated.
It was vaguely ironic when CNN dominated the news last week after one of its reporters, Jim Acosta, had his White House press pass revoked. At a post-midterms press conference, Acosta pressed Trump regarding claims he had made about a migrant caravan moving through Mexico in the United States. Trump was not pleased with the line of questioning, giving brief answers before targeting Acosta and CNN with jabs about ratings. An intern attempted to take the microphone away while other reporters vocalized their discontent with the exchange.
For those of us on the editorial board who listened to the ordeal, “chaotic” would be the best word to describe it.
Just hours later, Acosta’s hard press pass was revoked, stunning both reporters and news agencies. Originally, the White House claimed this was because Acosta placed his hands on the intern attempting to take the microphone away. Of course, anyone there or who saw the video of the incident knew this never happened.
So the White House decided to release video evidence of its allegation but did so using doctored footage that made Acosta look violent. It was immediately discredited and derided, leading the White House to entirely change its reason for revoking Acosta’s press pass.
It’s an enormous mess of inconsistency and incompetency that plays into Trump’s abhorrent pattern of antagonizing the news media. His behavior at the press conference, albeit bizarre, was representative of his poor standing with the major agencies. Rather than answer tough questions, he would often deflect or make a personal attack against the reporter. On multiple occasions, he told reporters to sit down. He made references to the press being the “enemy of the people” and its hostility toward him.
Just a few days later, when asked about the investigation into collusion with Russia on his part, he called the question “stupid” and claimed the reporter asked a lot of stupid questions.
Hostile remarks like these have become far too common from Trump, especially in response to questions pertaining to his own statements or conduct. It’s revealing of a number of things related to his character, but it most notably demonstrates his lack of respect for the role of the news media. The news organizations are large and aggressive for a reason; when there are clear problems, inconsistencies or injustices, they have a responsibility to follow up on them.
The relationship between the news media and the president has been clear for decades now, and very few presidents have struggled with navigating it. But instead of navigating, Trump has chosen to undermine. In doing so, he is setting a dangerous precedent, one where the president can be selective about who covers him.
Now, we hesitate to compare it to the media repression seen under authoritarian regimes, as some commentators have. But we also recognize the message it sends when the president takes it upon himself to tell the media how to do its job. If anything, the roles should be reversed.
The importance of a watchdog media cannot be understated. Even in contexts as small as this campus, having an independent mediary of information and actualities is important. Necessary change does not occur unless someone is asking the questions that matter for everyone to see.
It is understandable to be frustrated with the persistency and difficulty of questions of the media. But Trump should’ve known what he was signing up for when he went for the Oval Office.
The President’s constant battle with the news media has not made his already difficult presidency any easier or helped to alleviate the suspicions of tyranny.