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Opinion

Can objective, independent journalism survive a Donald Trump presidency?

Melania Trump and President-elect Donald Trump walk from

Melania Trump and President-elect Donald Trump walk from a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at the U.S. Capitol Nov. 10, 2016 in Washington, D.C. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Mark Wilson

Donald Trump was right. Most journalists were out to get him.

How could any decent reporter or editor not have been out to get Trump? He showed himself over and over again to be racist, xenophobic, misogynistic and unfit to be president of the United States of America. Journalists let their minds see him as any highly educated, fair-minded person would.

Last month, the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative journalism group, issued a report saying 96 percent of journalists who made campaign contributions did so to Hillary Clinton. Of the $396,000 that came from those identifying themselves as “journalists, reporters, news editors or television news anchors,” $14,000 went to Trump.

I think more and more journalists are willing to come out and say, especially in one-on-one conversations, where they lean politically. This is notably true among millennials, as opposed to those of my generation, the boomers. And it’s true especially among those working for websites as opposed to mainstream newspapers.

The change in attitude between the traditionalists and the digital natives is stark. The old way of political reporting is heading for the cave.

That old stringent way came back to me two months ago, when I read that Robert Timberg had died. Bob stood out among reporters in America. A former Marine Corps officer whose face was disfigured from an explosion in Vietnam, he chose political reporting as his salvation.

I used to sit near Bob when I was starting out as a reporter at the Baltimore Evening Sun in the mid-1970s. It was the age of Watergate, and objectivity was a vow we took upon entering our craft. Bob was so serious about this that he did not vote.

I, too, tried my best to steer clear of involvement in politics and long refused to join organizations of any type.

But today’s journalists are not the cigarette-smoking, fedora-wearing men (yes, men) of half a century ago. Journalists back then could keep tight lips about their political preferences and get away with it, even as they wrote article after article for a powerful daily newspaper. Anyone wanting to disagree with an omission or perceived bias had two options: Get you on the phone or send a letter to the editor. Lotsa luck.

But today one can express disagreement via tweets, Facebook updates, blog posts or emails. And news organizations have been reacting by trying to establish rapport with their readers, listeners and viewers, especially through Facebook and Twitter.

This has led to openness, but it has also led to a growing compartmentalization, as like-minded writers, bloggers and vloggers bond in virtual spheres. Journalists sympathetic to Trump have coalesced at news sites like Breitbart News and the Drudge Report. Some communications scholars see this new transparency as a salvation for the craft.

But, be aware. The old-fashioned he-said, she-said approach is still out there. In fact, it could be argued that the he-said, she-said way of reporting allowed Trump to rise as high and fast as he did. CNN was among the worst offenders, giving Trump huge streams of air time to answer one charge after another early in the campaigning. To showcase its “objectivity,” CNN this summer hired Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager, as an on-air commentator. This is the same Corey Lewandowski who earlier in the year had been accused of yanking a female reporter to the ground as she tried to question Trump.

That incident took the meme of the press-versus-Trump to a surreal low-point.

In the tiny sphere of Latina, Republican-learning, working journalists, one stood out from the crowd. That was Michelle Fields, born to a Honduran mother, educated at Pepperdine University and eager to develop a reputation as a right-leaning journalist. Her empathies with Trump, however, were torn to shreds last March when she said Lewandowski (then working with Trump) grabbed her as she tried to ask Trump a question (reportedly about affirmative action). When Fields complained publicly about the incident, her bosses at pro-Trump Breitbart News refused to stand with her, and she resigned, moving on to the Huffington Post and an anti-Trump camp of journalists.

Let’s now be sure to give credit to mainstream journalists who tried hard to reveal the real Donald Trump. The Washington Post unleashed the viral video of Trump bragging about groping women. And The New York Times ran powerful front-page stories about Trump’s alleged sexual aggressions and his years of not paying taxes.

But let’s also here say that the fight between the press and candidate Trump is now over, and we know who won.

The question is whether the media — the many hundreds of news organizations who print, broadcast or post news reports — will survive as a force in American society. You see, we are approaching a time of life or death for the American press. I say that literally because a number of journalists have expressed fears for their safety around Trump supporters.

Some press historians might hear whistle warnings from a distant past.

Around 1800, as the United States was trying to establish itself as a democracy, anger-filled blowhards occupied both sides of the political spectrum. One journalist of that era, James T. Callender, stood out. It was Callender who caused Alexander Hamilton to fall from grace, writing of Hamilton’s dalliances with a married woman and Hamilton’s payments to the woman’s husband to keep quiet about the affair.

Callender was secretly paid by man-on-the-rise Thomas Jefferson, and when Jefferson became the third president of the United States, he made the mistake of not responding to Callender’s requests for more money. Fed up with Jefferson’s non-replies, Callender published the following about Jefferson in the Richmond Recorder:

“It is well known that the man, whom it delighteth the people to honor, keeps, and for many years past has kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves. Her name is SALLY . . . The delicacy of this arrangement must strike every person of common sensibility . . . There is not an individual in the neighborhood of Charlottesville who does not believe the story; and not a few who know it.”

Within a year of that “scoop” about Jefferson’s black mistress Sally Hemings, Callender was found dead in shallow waters of the James River. The official report was that he had drowned after falling, drunk, into the waters. But recently, accusatory fingers have pointed at Jefferson’s allies. The case was brought to light in a 1990 book, “With the Hammer of Truth: James Thomson Callender and America’s Early National Heroes,” by Australian scholar Michael Durey.

I like that: The Hammer of Truth.

The idea of wielding a blunt instrument of honesty is what attracts young people to journalism today. They want to be truth tellers. They want to find comforting knowledge and share it with others.

The tools of the journalism trade are different today than a generation ago, and the money is scarcer. But hopes and ambitions are high. The millennial reporter Michelle Fields spoke for her cohort when she was interviewed several years ago by C-SPAN.

“With this new internet world, one voice, my voice, anyone’s voice, can be just as loud as The New York Times or The Washington Post,” she told interviewer Brian Lamb.

I have confidence that young journalists and would-be journalists out there now will show us the way, will help keep the grand experiment of democracy alive, and will give us reason for hope.

 

Ron Howell, a former Newsday reporter, is an associate professor of English at Brooklyn College.

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