In order to understand how various media executives are planning on approaching “the unique challenges” of covering a Trump administration, the University of Chicago Institute of Politics invited Ann Marie Lipinski of the Nieman Foundation, David Rhodes of CBS News, Jeff Zucker of CNN and IOP Winter Fellow Matt Bai of Yahoo! News to discuss what comes next. The “Covering Trump” event, which is part of the IOP’s series “America in the Trump Era,” coincided with a week of increasingly confrontational rhetoric between the media and the new administration, which has left many wondering how the media will be able to operate in a time of “fake news” and “alternative facts.”
Bai, who moderated the panel, commenced the event with a recap of the week: major newspapers have been calling President Trump a liar; the president, in turn, has called journalists “among the most dishonest human beings on Earth”; and Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, said that the media “has zero integrity, zero intelligence, and no hard work.” When asked how the media should respond to this antagonism, Lipinski stated simply, “Shame on us if we take this bait.” She encouraged journalists to “buckle down” on their work and refrain from starting a war between the media and the administration. Lipinski later honed in on what she believes is the purpose of journalism: advocacy on behalf of the readers whom the media represents and informs. Rhodes and Zucker both echoed this sentiment, calling for journalists to “remain calm” and to do their jobs.
But this, of course, raises another important question: what is the proper role of media in our society, and how can journalists aim to do their job well? When asked whether the media has lost its ability to cover Trump objectively, Zucker replied by quoting the late Tim Russert of NBC News: “The role of the media is accountability of government.” The media is skeptical by nature, and should not be afraid to be critical of the actions and intentions of those in power if there is good reason for criticism. The danger, Zucker warned, comes when that skepticism turns into cynicism. Rhodes expanded on this sentiment, noting that it is crucial that journalists remember to stick to their fundamental values, particularly in the face of criticism and attacks against their credibility. Rhodes specifically rejected the idea that the media needs to “change the rules” to adapt to the new challenges. “I think that this is an opportunity,” added Lipinski, “I think we have a moment where all eyes are on journalism, and I think that’s a great thing … It’s time for us to be ever better, ever more vigilant, and to take advantage of this chance to prove [ourselves] again.”
The panel also reflected on the media’s role in the presidential campaign season, taking inventory of possible mistakes made during the election cycle while also providing a strong defense of their editorial decisions. When asked whether he would have given Trump less media attention if he had the opportunity to redo CNN’s election coverage, Zucker called the disproportional coverage a mistake, but cautioned that insinuating that the media was the reason that Trump became the Republican nominee or was elected president would be “giving [the media] way too much credit.” An important factor in the large amounts of coverage, Zucker added, was that Trump truly was making news. “Part of the reason we did this is because at one of his early rallies, he called out an entire religion. Later, he belittled Senator John McCain,” Zucker explained. “The fact is that he was the Republican frontrunner, he was making news, and that’s what our job is.”
In other words, the media is not the only entity that holds responsibility for balanced coverage of the news: politicians also have to be open to giving interviews, which, according to the panelists, was a problem during the initial stages of the campaign season. In August 2016, many several major media outlets noted that Hillary Clinton had not given a press conference in about 270 days, while Trump had given a total of seventeen press conferences in 2016, a discrepancy that naturally led to more media coverage of Trump than Clinton. That said, the media can use various tactics to cover the news in a balanced way. For instance, they can take advantage of increased networking between news organizations, which allows for more localized stories to be shared at a national level and for a multitude of perspectives to be presented on each issue. Many news organizations, including Lipinski’s Nieman Foundation, are currently pushing collaboration initiatives that they hope will keep local news branches alive and connect national media outlets to the rural stories that they have been accused of missing or ignoring during the election.
So how should the media respond to the new challenges of a Trump administration? The answer is complicated. First of all, media outlets need to recognize and address the mistakes that they made over the campaign season—in particular, too much focus on “bad data” and unbalanced reporting—and ensure that they don’t make the same mistakes in the future. Second, the media must stick to its fundamental values and focus on doing its job well. Only by doing this will the media be able to regain the trust of the public and continue to serve the public interest. Finally, the overarching theme of the night, which emerged in the answers to nearly every question, was a call for journalists to “get back to work.” Tensions between the media and the administration in the next four years are inevitable—for this reason, it is crucial that journalists take a step back and refocus on truthful, fair, and dedicated reporting to ensure that members of the public remain fully informed about what is happening in their country.