The Pressures of Journalism in Trump’s America

At a campaign rally on wednesday night, President Donald Trump spoke out against political violence.

“We should not mob people in public spaces or destroy public property.  There is one way to settle our disagreements, it’s called peacefully at the ballot box,” he said.  

Without wasting any time, Trump continued: “The media also has a responsibility to set a civil tone and stop the endless hostility and constant negative and oftentimes false attacks.”

Even though Trump’s use of the word ‘mob’ has seemingly become a thinly veiled code for ‘democrats’, he is right about one thing: violence is ultimately not the answer; especially when it comes to affecting long-term change.  So why did he (along with a stadium full of his supporters) make light of (and applaud) the fact that Greg Gianforte attacked Ben Jacobs, a journalist from The Guardian? Surely Gianforte, a United States Congressman, has a responsibility to set a civil tone as well.  At the very least, should he not be held to the same standard as the rest of us who are expected to settle our disagreements peacefully?

President Trump is just one of tens of millions of Americans who does not trust mass media.  In 2016, only 32% of Americans expressed a fair amount of trust in the mass media.  For Republicans, that number was only 14% and has likely continued to decline in the era of “fake news”.  This means that when Trump offers up the media as a scapegoat for incivility, a lot of people are willing to accept it at face value.  

The news media has been a convenient target of ridicule for as long as I can remember. Living in central Pennsylvania, I’ll never forget Joe Paterno being fired amidst the nationwide Jerry Sandusky scandal.  As Penn State students took to the street in protest, they chanted in unison “F*** the media!”  Many students were so angered by the coverage that they vandalized and tipped over a news van.  

But what most people seemed to not realize was that Sandusky may have never been brought to justice without the crucial help of the media. It would be years before journalist Sara Ganim could log in to Twitter without threats in her inbox for having the courage to uncover the truth.  This seems to be par for the course in the field of journalism in the United States.

What’s worse, journalists in many foreign countries literally risk their lives by choosing to report information that the government does not like.  Under Putin’s presidencies alone, at least 50 Russian journalists have been killed, yet President Trump falls silent on this trend.  Jamal Khashoggi was killed just days before he planned to disclose information about Saudi Arabia using chemical weapons in Yemen.  While Khashoggi’s murder has been the most famous this year, he is but one of 44 journalists killed in 2018.  

As a young journalist, I am greatly inspired by Sara Ganim, Jamal Khashoggi, and every other journalist who persists in the face of extreme adversity. They serve as real reminders of how vitally important the press is to a functioning society. People of power, politicians and even governments will go to extreme lengths to silence them, but the press will never be silenced. As long as government exists, so will the press; and this means politicians/governments have adopted less fatal ways of attempting to silence them.

Since before his election, President Trump has condemned media of all forms for spreading misinformation.  In addition to blaming the media for “endless hostility,” Trump has called the press “the enemy of the people” and has assured Americans that “what you are seeing and what you are reading is not what’s happening.”  Whether you agree with what he is saying or not, he is plainly trying to sow mistrust in any information that does not come directly from his administration (or his Twitter feed), and it’s pretty effective.

On Sunday, far-right social networking site “Gab” (which was recently no-platformed) had this to say: “The internet is not reality. TV is not reality. 80% of normal everyday people agree with Gab and support free expression and liberty.”  

The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.

-George Orwell, 1984

In dismantling people’s perception of reality, figures of authority can undermine the effectiveness of the press and replace the current narrative with whatever they please. This is one of the biggest struggles American journalists face today: gaining back the trust of the people who are unsure what to believe anymore.

My college professors always talked about the press being “the fourth estate,” or the fourth branch of government. In fact, because a healthy democracy is fueled by the general population being informed, it may even be the most important branch of government. Yet, many journalists are underpaid, undervalued and forced to constantly face the reality that the industry is in a decline. There’s a reason why one career site listed ‘news reporter’ as the #1 worst job of 2016.  Even still, they persist.

Why?

Almost all of the journalists I speak to share a common interest in the truth. When people accuse the press of lying, they tend to forget that most media outlets are usually comprised of individuals who have dedicated their careers to finding that truth.  

Now, more than ever, Americans should often be reminding themselves of how much President Trump and his administration stand to gain by establishing a mistrust of the press; and how much they stand to lose against the truth.  

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