On a sunny Nov. 2, 2016 morning in Orlando presidential candidate Donald Trump stepped onto an outdoor stage, sporting the iconic red cap that says Make America Great Again, and called the media “the most dishonest people anywhere.”
The Toronto Star’s Washington correspondent Daniel Dale was in the media pen, covering one of 15 Trump rallies he attended. “It’s strangely comical, in a way, because it’s so over the top,” Dale says. “But it’s also unsettling, because you know the people you’ve been interviewing at these events – who have been nice to you and who seem normal in a lot of ways – idolize and believe this man.”
Dale says Trump supporters look at the news media as much worse than they should – and much worse than they would “if left to their own thoughts.”
The irony is that Trump’s attacks on journalists and journalism could create exactly what the president does not want. Donald Trump may be ushering in a golden age of journalism.
The Trump Bump
From Twitter rants, to Russia or the threat of a nuclear war, Trump provides near-constant content for journalists to cover. It’s both a nerve-wracking and titillating time to be a journalist.
It’s also a time that, over the past two years, has seen major rating and subscriber growths for mainstream and alternative news organizations. Studies by the Pew Research Center show 2016 was a peak or steady year across most news media platforms in the United States. The lone exceptions were physical newspaper circulation, newsmagazine TV shows (like 60 Minutes) and local network news affiliates (like ABC Boston, whose audiences cyclically dip during election years).
The 2017 fiscal year has shown more of the same in the U.S., proving that politically-engaged citizens want to know what’s happening, and that many will pay for good journalism.
Since June 2015, when Trump started campaigning, the New York Times has added more than one million digital news subscriptions. This includes a growth of 308,000 in the first quarter of 2017, which a company report says was “the single best quarter for subscriber growth” in its 166 years.
The Times now has over two million digital news subscriptions, and three million subscribers overall.
Over the same time span, CNN’s TV ratings have continually increased. In 2016, CNN’s top-ranked political event coverage – such as candidate debates and election night – helped the cable network have its most-watched year ever.
CNN has followed that up in 2017 with its best first quarter since 2003, averaging 826,000 total day viewers. This year has also provided its most-watched second and third quarters ever – 791,000 and 797,000 viewers respectively.
Fox News is one of the few organizations Trump doesn’t deem “fake.” The cable news channel with the highest ratings for more than 15 years, its ratings, too, have increased. And in Q1 2017 it averaged 1.72 million total day viewers – the highest-rated quarter in cable news history.
“Trump speaks cable,” says Gwenda Blair, a journalism professor at Columbia University. She has written and produced biographies on Trump since the 1980s.
Blair says that in tweets, interviews, and debates Trump speaks in incomplete sentences, with a simple vocabulary – “soundbite remarks.” They’re often negative or insulting, but “extremely quotable.” She says this differs from, say, the New York Times, which speaks in “complete, fact-based” sentences.
Ultimately, however, part of the news bump comes from Trump’s roots in entertainment. Blair says people are “mesmerized” by the thought of what’s to come.
Look no further than Oct. 5, 2017. While taking pictures with top military personnel, Trump asked, “Do you know what this represents? Maybe a calm before the storm.”
When reporters pressed him on what he meant, Trump teased, “You’ll find out.”
Alternative news media
Each February, the American Society for Magazine Editors names a Magazine of the Year. Publications like New York Magazine, the New Yorker and the Atlantic are often in the running. But in 2017 Mother Jones took home the award – for the first time in its 40-year history.
Mother Jones is an independent, politically progressive magazine based in San Francisco. The magazine’s intense coverage of Donald Trump played a key role in winning the award.
On the other side of the political spectrum, Breitbart last year was a 10-year-old, controversial news outcast. That is, until Trump hired Steve Bannon as the CEO of his election campaign.
A 2017 Pew Research Center study found 11 per cent of Trump voters – versus one per cent of Clinton voters – visited Breitbart regularly for election news. Today Breitbart is the 50th most trafficked website in the U.S.
On social media, there were – and are – fake news stories. During the election, and today, many people thought those stories were true. “Social media makes it so that a news source you never would’ve looked for is trending, or your friend has shared it,” said Stephanie Edgerly, a journalism professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.
Breitbart has benefitted from this sharing.
Edgerly studies different news packagings. Specifically, their effect on how audiences’ political engagement. She also looks at how people share news on social media and how they choose their news.
She says one positive that came out of the 2016 election is a new attention to news media literacy – the ability to be healthily skeptical of information presented to you. Schools and organizations are now striving to improve that skill.
In Washington State, a June 2016 bill made media literacy part of the state’s education curriculum. California’s Senate Education Committee passed a similar bill, SB 203, in April 2017. In September Google Canada gave $500,000 to the Canadian Journalism Foundation and CIVIX, a non-partisan, non-profit organization focused on youth civic engagement. The grant was to develop NewsWise, a news media literacy program for Canadian grade school students. NewsWise should be accessible countrywide before the 2019 Canadian federal election.
Ultimately, none of these efforts will stop the creation of fake news. But, Edgerly says, they will give more people the tools “to seek out high-quality information; and know low-quality, fake news when they see it.”
The Deep Throat myth
“The importance of Deep Throat is mostly myth,” says Barry Sussman, a former Washington Post city editor. In the 1970s, Sussman directed the coverage for the Post’s Watergate investigation.
Sussman says Deep Throat would confirm information for stories the Post wanted to run, “but there was not a single story where Deep Throat ever provided the lede to Bob Woodward.”
Simply put, Deep Throat was a fact-checker. A highly-placed fact checker, but nothing more.
During the Watergate era, people who worked for the Nixon administration were scared to give journalists information. Woodward and Bernstein’s ability to find sources and get them to talk is what got the job done.
Those reporting techniques haven’t changed. The difference is how the information gets out.
After the 2016 presidential election the New York Times created an anonymous tip line. On its website it describes what makes a good tip and lists five different secure means of contacting the paper, whether through an app, encrypted emails or snail mail.
The Washington Post, the Guardian and BuzzFeed have done the same.
Mark Mazzetti, the current Washington investigations editor for the Times, says “leaks are essential to investigative reporting.” A leak also, Mazzetti says, often “implies some sort of deliberateness.” Somebody wants that information out for a reason, so it’s up to journalists to weigh whether there’s a hidden agenda at play – and if so, to make sure the leak is worth reporting.
Mazzetti says the Times’ tip line is “a very valuable resource.” A March 2017 Times article revealed the line receives 50 to 100 tips every day.
Because some tips are “garbage”, there’s a vetting process. First make sure there’s no agenda or misinformation. Then decipher whether the tip is information or if somebody wants to talk – “in which case, we’d follow up with them” – and establish ground rules for speaking on or off the record, and for anonymity. From there, Mazzetti says, “you make sure you’re comfortable with the sources” and run with the story.
Trump’s contoversial phone calls with the Australian prime minister and Mexican president came from a leak. Michael Flynn’s resignation was fueled by a leak saying he wasn’t upfront about his communications with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. Trump asking the FBI to drop the Flynn investigation was reported after a leak.
“We don’t want to pat ourselves on the back,” Mazzetti says. “But there has been a great deal that has been unearthed about this administration – in a pretty short period of time.”
Donald Trump has been U.S. president for less than a year, and has spent a great deal of that time discovering just what power his position does – and does not – hold. His animosity towards journalists shows no sign of abating, and may get much more severe.
Trump may indeed usher in a golden age of journalism. Just don’t expect it to be nice or easy.