Tump’s escalating war with media puts reporters in no-win position

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

The Trump White House has open disdain for real journalists and the job they do, but the appropriate response from reporters is unclear.

In case anyone doubted Trump’s hatred for the press — which he frequently labels the “enemy of the people” — last week’s press conference should remove any doubts. In a single session in front of the press he called Yamiche Alcindor racist for asking a perfectly legitimate question and dubbed CNN’s Jim Acosta a “terrible person” for refusing to give up the microphone. Trump’s press secretary then circulated a clearly doctor video clip of the incident that purports to show Acosta chopping down on a press aid’s arm as she reaches for the microphone. This was the definition of fake news, as authentic video shows this chop never happened. This amounts to an intentional attempt at character assassination and should be well beneath the office of the President but was nevertheless used as a pretext for removing Acosta’s access to the White House (which have since been returned by court order).

All this puts the press in a difficult position when it comes to how to respond. A recent Politico article highlighted some media figures’ struggles with this.

The most obvious — and in my view, probably correct — response is to continue to show up and do your job. Reporters generally don’t want to be a part of the story (Acosta notwithstanding), and for good reason. They’re there to tell the story. When you become a part of it you lose the distance that makes objectivity possible.

But a part of me thinks there should be a robust response from the press that could include anything from boycotting White House news conferences to a revisiting of the Boston Globe’s #FreePress day, in which the paper’s editorial board organized newsrooms around the country to publish editorials criticizing the Trump White House and supporting press freedom.

Perhaps the latter becomes a regular feature of news coverage in the age of Trump. Standing up for a free press is clearly something that bears repeating.

This does run the risk of setting up the press as the opposition party, something Trump and his fellow travelers clearly relish. But Trump isn’t just attacking Acosta and Alcindor or any of the other reporters he’s abused. He’s attacking the very legitimacy of journalism. Any effort to stand up to Trump’s attacks would have to make clear that they are criticizing that specific element of Trump’s rhetoric, not Trump or his presidency more broadly.

That’s a fine needle to thread, but perhaps a necessary one. It troubles me to see these attacks on the news media go unchallenged. At some point those who believe in the righteousness of a free press — which presumably would include reporters, themselves — have to stand up and say so.

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