How should the press respond to President Donald Trump’s claim that “the fake news media” are “the enemy of the American people”?
By doing its job. And doing it well.
Trump’s comments have pushed the discussion about the importance of the press in our democracy into overdrive. They have also fueled an already simmering fire over what should happen to the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, an annual event designed as a celebration of a free, independent press but often criticized for creating the appearance of a too-cozy relationship with top celebrities and the White House. Who can forget Karl Rove’s rapping performance or then-President Barack Obama skewering then-reality TV star Trump even as questions about the Bush administration’s use of torture or Obama’s reliance on drone warfare swirled?
Scrapping the dinner will give credence to cries of liberal bias, while allowing the event to continue as usual wouldn’t fully take into account the potential threat of Trump’s words. But deciding what to do with a single dinner, no matter how high profile, or even how to process Trump’s words, should remain secondary concerns.
There’s a reason an independent press is expressly protected by the First Amendment. It’s not because the press is – or ever has been – popular. The press reaches into dark places and exposes the ugly that many neither want to grapple with nor even want to believe exists.
It holds to account the most powerful, serving as a bulwark against the powerful’s worst instincts and excesses.
Journalism, at its best, is not a popularity contest. That’s why Trump knew he picked a target-rich environment to try to distract from the many problems his new administration faces.
The media aren’t perfect. No institution is.
Trust in the media fell to an all-time low last year, according to Gallup. Only 32 percent of Americans have a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in the institution. Part of that is the result of a hyper-partisan environment in which many Americans trust only sources that say what they already want to believe. Part of it is because the press has gotten things wrong and ignored or soft-pedaled stories that warranted more attention.
That’s all the more reason to focus less on Trump’s attacks on the press and more on trying to answer questions about Russia’s ability to reach into our democracy, about what could happen to struggling people relying upon a health care law that might be repealed, about the fate of criminal justice, education and immigration reform. Exploring the effects of policies and personalities is a better use of the media’s time and precious resources than answering every potshot from the president.
Times like these call for serious, sober reporting and analysis.
That’s the mission. That’s the goal. Anything less would be a dereliction of duty.