Credit Photograph by Hiroko Masuike / The New York Times / Redux
The abbreviated holiday week brought with it a full measure of developments in the moral quandary in which the press has found itself since Donald Trump became a candidate, and, more acutely, since he won the Presidency, three weeks ago. Nothing in Trump’s combative meeting with television-news journalists and executives, last Monday, or his decision to cancel, then un-cancel, a meeting with the Times, on Tuesday, departs from what sixteen months of campaigning indicated about his personality, outlook, and inclinations. He is who we thought he was. Trump reportedly lambasted the media as “liars” in his Monday-evening meeting. His Tuesday meeting with the Times lasted seventy-five minutes, during which time he alternately expressed interest in a better relationship with the publication and complained of what he saw as unfair treatment he’d received in its pages. After the meeting concluded, Brian Stelter, the CNN media critic, tweeted that “Trump deserves credit for sitting around the table with NYT reporters/editors & answering pointed Q’s.” But this is, more accurately, a reflection of how low Trump’s frequent fulminations at the press have set the bar—the minimal courtesy of sitting in a room without dispensing too many insults is considered a major sign of détente.
Just before Barack Obama took office, eight years ago, he had dinner with prominent conservative columnists, including Charles Krauthammer and David Brooks, at the home of George Will. The dinner was off the record, but Krauthammer later remarked that the most frequent complaint was that after two hours of conversation Obama remained an enigma to journalists gathered there. Compare that with Trump’s gathering Monday, at which he seemed intent on arguing that it is possible to be both a billionaire and a martyr.
On Tuesday evening, Christiane Amanpour delivered an address to the Committee to Protect Journalists, in which she discussed the tides of authoritarianism sweeping the world. Amanpour began with the chilling words “I never in a million years thought I would be up here onstage appealing for the freedom and safety of American journalists at home.” In the immediate aftermath of the election, it was not entirely uncommon to hear practitioners questioning whether journalism mattered. The excavation of Trump’s past and the vast canon of lies he told during the campaign had, after all, with the possible exception of his braggadocious admission of sexual assault, left little discernible impact.
Those initial existential concerns have given way to a new debate over the “normalization” of Trump and Trumpism in the wake of his election. The rote political routine in which the winning and losing candidates offer blandishments in each other’s honor, like two boxers embracing, is intended to reassure the public that the orderly transfer of power supersedes partisan disagreement. This is a worthwhile tradition, even in rancorous moments like this one. Journalism is not, however, bound by these strictures. Brooks wrote in the Times that the media outrage Trump has ginned up with regularity is “useless” and denounced the reactions as “a series of narcissistic displays and discussions about our own emotional states.” Yet the alarm has hardly been confined to the ranks of overwrought journalists. Obama has reportedly spent a good deal of his time post-election reassuring world leaders who are alarmed by the prospect of a Trump Presidency. Dara Lind, writing for Vox, warned that, in fighting against the normalization of Trump’s more alarming behavior and ideas, progressives may miss the more mundane ways he undermines democracy.
It nonetheless warrants remembering that there is nothing normal about what we are witnessing. In the past two weeks, the President-elect has settled a fraud lawsuit over Trump University and assailed the cast of “Hamilton” on Twitter, while the neo-Nazi National Policy Institute held a gathering in Washington, D.C., at which some of its attendees offered the Nazi salute in praise of Trump. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has issued a statement reminding Americans that the Holocaust “did not begin with killing; it began with words.” Two years ago, any one of these events would have been seen as extraordinary. In the current crush of the absurd, they come dangerously close to blending into the background in the way that police sirens can become ambient noise in New York City.
The United States is currently ranked forty-first out of a hundred and eighty countries in the Press Freedom Index; in 2002, it was ranked seventeenth. Its slide in the rankings roughly corresponds to the onset of the war on terror. The Index currently cites the Obama Administration’s punitive approach toward whistleblowers as a justification for the ranking. Last month, Sandra Mims Rowe, the board chair of the Committee to Protect Journalists, released a statement declaring Trump an unprecedented threat to freedom of the press. This was not only on account of his own behavior toward the media—ridiculing a disabled reporter, denying press credentials to outlets that have been critical of him, threatening to sue the Times—but also for its ripple effect. A Trump Presidency would represent a threat to press freedom in the United States, but the consequences for the rights of journalists around the world could be far more serious. The United States’ failure to uphold its own standards would embolden dictators and despots to restrict the media in their own countries. This appears to be of no concern to Trump.
Yet the long-standing deference to the First Amendment in this country reveals a curious liability within the American press: the absence of direct experience in handling domestic authoritarianism. This is highlighted, for instance, in the way that euphemisms like “alt-right” and “fake news” have echoed through contemporary media discussions. It seems apparent at this point that the term “alt-right” is designed to produce just enough moral distance to allow people to forget that in 2016 fascism has become a viable element of our national politics. Similarly, “fake news,” which in the past most accurately described stories in supermarket tabloids, with references to celebrities, infidelity, and intergalactic life forms, is an inadequate term for the remarkable prevalence of disinformation in our political landscape. “Propaganda” is a more accurate term.
This question of normalization cannot be separated from the bigger anti-democratic concerns that have attended Trump since he became a viable force in Republican politics. There’s a reason why authoritarians typically begin by assailing the press. Given that the incoming Administration has lauded the strongman tactics of Vladimir Putin, it seems wise for American journalism to pay closer attention to the best practices gleaned from journalists in places like Turkey (a hundred and fifty-first on the Press Freedom Index) and Russia (a hundred and forty-eighth). The alarm over Trump’s disdain for democratic norms has not been isolated to the United States. Our thinking about how to respond to him should not be, either.