There is a crisis in American journalism. For too long, news outlets have prioritized their bottom line over real stories, at the expense of the American people. Stories about the vast systemic problems in America, from war to staggering income inequality to climate change to the amount of money being spent on our political system, are perpetually eclipsed by a 24-hour circus of infotainment.
Nowhere has the failure of the media been clearer than in the 2016 presidential election, where scandals, false statements and horse-race politics so often took precedence over policy. A study from the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, at Harvard’s Kennedy School, found that coverage of Trump on eight major news outlets in 2015 alone was worth $55 million in free advertising for the candidate.
Every time major media outlets asked an irrelevant question at the presidential debates, every time they cued a roundtable of Trump and Clinton surrogates, every time they ignored or downplayed independent or third-party candidates, they failed. They decided to play a dangerous political game, and in turn, were played.
Now we have a president who has openly threatened and aggressed against members of the media. He has called for opening up libel laws and suing the press for their coverage. When we do not fully exercise our press freedoms, when we do not remain vigilant, we are jeopardizing those very liberties and thereby jeopardizing our democracy. Democracy is only as strong as a media that is a watchdog, not a lapdog, of power.
As we enter uncharted political terrain, our jobs as journalists have gotten more difficult and more critical. We cannot afford to foment division at a time of heightened hate speech and crimes against our nation’s most vulnerable populations. We cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the most pressing issues of our times, such as healthcare, poverty and climate change. We cannot afford to fail the American people again.
1. Don’t consent to closed-door meetings
While refusing to hold a single press conference so far since his electoral college victory, Trump has staged private, off-the-record meetings with prominent pundits and network executives. Last month, journalists from major media outlets gathered at his extravagant Mar-A-Lago Estate in Palm Beach, Florida for a closed-door session. More off-the-record meetings followed, including an meeting with Vogue and Vanity Fair editors. The press should treat a man as powerful and dangerous as Trump with utmost scrutiny and transparency—and must never agree to his terms of secrecy. We’re all at risk when the press corps is too busy soaking up sunlight at Mar-A-Lago to shine sunlight on the incoming administration.
2. Stop normalizing hate
It is irrefutable that Donald Trump predicated his presidential campaign on incitement against immigrants, refugees, Muslims and the Black Lives Matter movement. As president-elect, he has appointed white nationalist Stephen Bannon as “chief strategist and senior counselor” and nominated renowned racist Jeff Sessions to be his attorney general. As leaders of Black Lives Matter put it in a recent statement:
Donald Trump has promised more death, disenfranchisement and deportations. We believe him. The violence he will inflict in office, and the permission he gives for others to commit violence, is just beginning to emerge.
Instead of informing the public of the real dangers presented by a president-elect who is giving organized white supremacists a direct line to the White House, many media outlets and prominent pundits are portraying these appointments as legitimate and normal.
On November 9, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times ran an article titled “Gritting Our Teeth and Giving President Trump a Chance.” NPR host Kelly McEvers aired an interview soon after in which she allowed white nationalist Richard Spencer, widely recognized as a leader of the so-called “alt-right,” to lay out his hateful agenda with no aggressive questioning.
We call on media outlets to take a hard, unflinching look at the real dangers the Trump administration poses to society—and report those accurately, clearly and courageously.
3. Cover real issues
According to the Tyndall Report, from the beginning of 2016 until the election, ABC’s World News Tonight, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News spent a mere 32 minutes covering issues such as healthcare, climate change, gun violence or trade. That is a 70 percent decline in issue coverage compared to 2012. This kind of disregard for real issues affecting Americans is unacceptable.
News outlets must do better than focus on personality-driven politics, clickbait headlines, scandals and fluff pieces.
4. Diversify the newsroom
African-Americans make up just 5 percent of television newsroom jobs—a level of representation essentially unchanged from 50 years ago. Back in 1968, Lyndon B. Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, wrote that part of what caused the riots that befell American cities in the mid-1960s was that
the media report and write from the standpoint of a white man’s world. . . . Fewer than five percent of the people employed by the news business in editorial jobs in the United States today are Negroes.
Race, gender and class identities are not the only variables that make up a good reporter. But when a community is not represented in the staff of a media outlet, it often means their stories are left out.
Today, the issues facing most people of color, and most working-class people, are a world removed from the life experience of the majority of newsroom staff.
5. Coverage of local issues
Journalism is facing an industry-wide reorganization that has gutted local reporting. According to the Pew Research Center, weekday circulation for newspapers fell 7 percent across the country in 2015. Pew notes that “smaller budgets have continued to lead to smaller newsrooms: The latest newspaper newsroom employment figures show 10 percent declines, greater than in any year since 2009.” When there are fewer reporters watching statehouses, local courts and corporate boardrooms—and when there are not enough journalists talking with ordinary people—we end up with a pundit class that is profoundly out of touch. As national media stars show themselves willing to engage in ethically questionable off-the-record conversations with Trump, it is more clear than ever that we need real reporting, rooted in local accountability, with the aim of expanding transparency in the service of the public good.
6. Coverage of political dissent
In cities and towns across the country, people have marched through their communities and organized emergency meetings to make it clear that they reject the Trump administration. Many are having hard conversations about how to defend those communities that will be attacked first under Trump’s most retrograde policies. These efforts necessitate coverage, as does their repression. Demonstrations and public dissent are a constitutional right guaranteed by the First Amendment, and audiences should be reminded of this.
Anti-Trump protests have also nearly always been nonviolent. Showcasing smashed windows when thousands are demonstrating peacefully is inaccurate. Rather than telling protesters they are being too rash, or drawing false equivalencies between angry demonstrations and Trump-style hate, the pundit class should report on dissent and resistance with the respect and attention it deserves.
Francesca Fiorentini (AJ+)
Jordan Flaherty (Author, No More Heroes)
Sarah Lazare (AlterNet)
Laura Flanders (Laura Flanders Show)
Nadia Prupis (Common Dreams)
Deirdre Fulton (Common Dreams)
Kate Elston (AJ+)
Chelis López (KPOO)
Michael Aria (AlterNet)