Donald Trump has single-handedly changed journalism. It’s not that the news business was any paragon of balanced coverage before Trump, but at least the craft made an effort to conceal its biases. Now we have two streams of journalism each at polar opposites to the other in terms of tone and even in terms of facts. Did this ideological gulf start with Fox News and Roger Ailes who made no secret of his goal to use the TV news operation to make Donald Trump president? Or did it start decades earlier, with the growth of right-wing talk radio exemplified by Rush Limbaugh and his imitators? Or, as their followers would argue, were Fox and Limbaugh simply an equal and opposite reaction to decades of overwhelming Liberal bias in the mainstream media dating back to the 1960’s? It’s impossible to say who fired the first shot in the news wars.
But here we are this week with Trump and his COVID 19 team holding daily news briefings. Trump’s eyes darting around nervously whenever team member Dr Anthony Fauci, takes the mike to try to use facts to offset the torrent of sycophancy provided by Vice President Mike Pence, who in a desperate attempt to soothe an increasingly unhinged Trump, feels compelled to praise Trump in every sentence he delivers. The only other place we see this kind of shameless groveling to a leader is North Korea.
It is a time when facts matter more than ever, and, an old school newsman, can be forgiven for worrying when the “Mainstream” media (a phrase that seems suddenly quaint) make errors that allow Trump to say “See…they really are fake news…” An example was in last Friday’s news conference when a reporter asked Trump to comment on the story that US Senators Richard Burr and Kelly Loeffler, both Republicans, had unloaded millions of dollars’ worth of stocks back in January after receiving classified briefings on the coronavirus threat. Trump quickly pointed out that the reporter had neglected to include the name of Senator Diane Feinstein, a longtime Liberal Democrat who had also dumped millions of dollars in biotech stocks. Said Trump, “I find it interesting that you mentioned two people, but you didn’t mention the one who is a Democrat.” Ouch.
Mainstream media have apparently decided to drop the guise of objectivity—an elusive term that probably never really existed. We are in a time when respected traditional journalists—Pulitzer Prize winners like Carl Bernstein– refer to Trump as a “pathological liar.” Until very recently no journalist would use the term “liar.” Instead they would report what the newsmaker said and then provide factual information contradicting whatever the statement was. The reader or viewer was allowed to draw their conclusion. But in this age It’s a tough call because Trump is, in fact, a pathological liar. That’s not name calling—it’s a clinical description given that, as of January 20th the Washington Post had catalogued over 16,000 lies since Trump took office. Either later this year or in four and a half years Trump will be gone. The question that needs serious discussion is whether journalism can return to a more dignified version of itself, or whether it has changed forever in the age of Trump.