'Covering Trump'

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Photo by Cynthia Price

Journalists discuss the role of the press

By Cynthia Price
Legal News

“We felt the need post-election to spark conversation on the challenges facing the press, so we put this together to take advantage of the hundreds of journalists who have called Wallace House home,” said Lynnette Clemetson, executive director of the Wallace House at the University of Michigan, about the Dec. 2 event “Covering Trump: The Presidency and the Press in Turbulent Times.”

Wallace House, named after the journalist Mike Wallace who donated it, is part of the University of Michigan, but located just off-campus. Wallace House staff oversees two influential programs: the Knight-Wallace Fellowships, which give exceptional journalists the opportunity for an academic year of intense study on a proposed subject area as well as a chance to network and deliverate, and the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists, which gives a monetary prize to honor outstanding achievement to those under the age of 35.

This year’s crop of international Knight-Wallace fellows plan to study a very wide range of topics, from Myanmar’s democratization to the prospects for hyper-local newspapers to “re-imagining growth for a finite planet” to the history of swimming instruction and drowning prevention.

All of the journalists on the “Covering Trump” panel were previous Knight-Wallace fellows, except two — one, Laura Meckler of The Wall Street Journal, had won the Livingston Award; and one was a non-journalist, Prof. Vincent Hutchings of the University of Michigan, who was invited to speak due to his expertise on voting behavior and election politics.

And all were amply qualified to have an opinion: Tracy Jan of The Boston Globe (who was about to start a job at The Washington Post) covered the Republican side of the 2016 election, including Donald Trump; Craig Gilbert of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Washington bureau has covered every presidential campaign since 1988; Meckler covered Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign; and Katie Zezima of The Washington Post covered the primary campaigns of Sen. Rand Paul and Sen. Ted Cruz.

Moderator Jon Morgan works in the Washington Bureau of Bloomberg News and was previously the senior editor of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

A lot of time went to discussing issues surrounding the recent coverage as prelude to the future.

The main issue under consideration was why the press had gotten the outcome of the election so wrong. Gilbert, perhaps the most intensely involved in analyzing that question, as well as the only panel journalist who was not a member of the “coastal media,” said he thought the Milwaukee paper had erred mostly because it focused on the suburbs of the city. He said that the Journal Sentinel had done a lot of research in that geographic location and found there was a lot of dissatisfaction with Donald Trump, which they mistakenly took to be emblematic of sentiments statewide.

“It was obvious that there was this disconnect among rural and urban,” he said, “but we were probably more focused on his weakness with suburban voters than on his strengths, because those are our readers,” he noted.

Morgan (and later questioners from the audience) brought up the widespread sense that the press on the East and West coasts of the country tends to ignore the great Midwest.

Several panelists pointed out that their papers had run extensive series on what was going on in the rest of the country, at considerable work and expense. Said Tracy Jan, “The Boston Globe did a series of stories.
America on Edge explored people’s fears and anxieties, over immigration, over radical Islam, terrorism, even millennial fears. But I don’t feel like that work was being consumed. It just wasn’t as consumable as cable news coverage.”

“When you went off the coasts, a lot of people were undecided because they didn’t like either candidate,” said Zezima, who interviewed people directly for The Washington Post.

The panelists also talked about Trump’s attitude on the press itself, including his ban on The Washington Post access, but most did not feel like that made their jobs as difficult as it might have in the past. They also said that how they felt about him personally was unlikely to have much effect on the nature of future coverage.

The large crowd of 200-300 who attended, including members of the public, current and past Knight-Wallace fellows, students, and others from the press, was all over the board with its questions, but it was clear that almost everyone was deeply concerned about what the press will do as Trump becomes president.

When Morgan asked panelists if they thought the Trump presidency should be covered as any other or he should be subjected to a higher degree of scrutiny, it was clear many had not yet answered that question for themselves, but felt as if their own publications had done a good job of calling out Trump’s lies and misstatements.

Many said they had already discussed the issue with their editors.

A related question is whether they will soften language in order to appear “neutral.” Some mentioned that there had been discussion in journalism circles about the term “lie” versus “falsehood.” The Associated Press apparently issued a memo cautioning writers to be very specific when using the term “alt-right,” which, it said, may be seen as a euphemism for “racist, neo-Nazi, and white supremacist” beliefs.

When all was said and done the panelists’ answer to the questions about covering Trump was that they would continue doing their job.

Tracy Jan referred to a recent speech by Washington Post editor Marty Baron.

In it, he said, “The ultimate defense of press freedom lies in our daily work... The public expects that of us. If we fail to pursue the truth and to tell it unflinchingly—because we’re fearful that we’ll be unpopular, or because powerful interests (including the White House and the Congress) will assail us, or because we worry about financial repercussions to advertising or subscriptions—the public will not forgive us.”

Jan commented, “I agree with what he said —the press needs to keep doing what we do. I don’t think that that should change in the age of Trump, even though  it may be harder.”

After the 90-minute event stretched to an hour and 45 minutes, and it was clear people were very excited by the opportunity to discuss, Clemetson invited everyone to an after-reception.

“We think that one of our responsibilities as an organization is to really promote civil discourse, the kind of role we play in having conversations like this. That is also journalists doing their job,” she concluded.

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