Whatever you might think of President Trump’s chief White House strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, you have to admire his bluntness. Bannon responded to the uproar over Trump saying he is at war with the “dishonest” media by throwing gas on the fire.
Bannon said the mainstream media was wrong about the election and now should be be acting chastened instead of challenging the president and his people.
“The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while,” he said in an interview on Wednesday.
Of course, Bannon doesn’t really want nor expect that reporters and news show hosts will shut up. What he wants is to get them barking and openly hostile to Trump. That makes a martyr of his boss, signals that elite, insider Washington has been wounded by the outsider and undercuts the credibility of major news organizations.
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The challenge for those news organizations is to not take the bait. Don’t get mad. Get better. The response to Trump and Trumpism isn’t hostility. It’s an unrelenting presentation of the truth. That’s not a new mission for the free press, but it should be a renewed one.
Bannon wants to delegitimize the media by politicizing it. “I want you to quote this,” he said in the same interview. “The media here is the opposition party.”
Once the media is seen as partisan and political, its legitimacy is as vulnerable as any political party. Its power is dependent on its popularity. This tactic also lumps the mainstream media with the partisan media. The right-wing website Bannon ran, Breitbart News, and the carefully balanced and nonpartisan CNN become the same.
This is a difficult time for much of the media to work harder at serving as a check on government and powerful interests while standing up for rights and justice. Many media organizations are scrambling to find a business model that generates enough revenue to support robust reporting. The network news is facing a shrinking and aging audience, and social media giants are struggling to figure out how to eliminate the distribution of fake news.
There are so many sources of personal and public information that some pay less attention to where news comes from and how it is weighed and confirmed. It’s a disengagement that’s ripe for disinformation and for taking for granted the cost of finding and verifying real news.
As media organizations put their energy into adapting to changing information technology, demographics and patterns of consuming news, it’s hard to generate a bigger push for more deep and critical reporting. It may be reduced reporting resources more than elite aloofness that accounts for why the mainstream media “missed” the story of Trump’s unlikely election. Bannon, in his interview, put a needle to this sore point when he said of the media, “They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Trump is the president of the United States.”
The truth is Bannon doesn’t understand why either. Trump is president because of extremely narrow wins in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, an opponent for whom there was little Democratic enthusiasm, Anthony Weiner’s sexting, Jim Comey’s FBI and Russian hacking.
The media that Trump hates also played a role in his success. Trump received endless free exposure and not enough, or belated, scrutiny.
All the mainstream media gave excessive coverage to Hillary Clinton’s private email server and hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and her campaign chairman, John Podesta.
Still, The Washington Post provided a model for journalism in the Trump era by digging into Trump’s questionable history of charitable giving. For its aggressive coverage, The Post earned the honor of having its credentials revoked by the Trump campaign. About a dozen other media organizations also were banned. Those reporters who didn’t have their credentials revoked were often confined to a pen at Trump rallies where they were criticized by the candidate and heckled by his supporters.
The New York Times did a good job delving into Trump’s tax issues despite his unwillingness to release his returns.
The good news about the news is that Trump’s contempt for the media is generating a new appreciation for the role and the rights of a free press. It’s impossible to keep Trump honest – he seems allergic to truth – but it is possible to expose his dishonesty. That is the proper reaction to Bannon’s and Trump’s derision of the media. Take it as a challenge to report what the nation now so badly needs – the truth.
Barnett: 919-829-4512, or firstname.lastname@example.org