Week Nine: Now what? Journalists need to stand up for each other

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In a little over a week, Donald Trump takes the oath of office. Yesterday, during a bizarre press conference, there were clear signs that office may slide straight into kleptocracy. There will be no divestment or blind trusts for Trump, who does not even believe that conflict of interest applies to him. Trump announced that his sons would run his business, then handed the mic to a lawyer to try to explain this weird arrangement that breaks tradition with every other modern American presidency. The director of the US office of government ethics promptly denounced it as “wholly inadequate,” but his protestation hardly matters. No one can force Trump to do the right thing. The overriding message from his press conference was that no one can force him to do anything. I use the term press conference loosely. It felt more like a twisted game show, complete with a laugh-track provided by paid Trump staffers who whooped it up for his occasional sneering joke, and clapped on cue throughout the script.

As for press freedom during the Trump administration, the worrying anti-press trend intensified before the presser even began, with Trump’s soon-to-be press secretary Sean Spicer and Mike Pence scolding the media for daring to print a story. Trump’s denunciation of BuzzFeed as a “failing pile of garbage” and his statement “I think they are going to suffer the consequences,” should scare the hell out of everyone, regardless of whether you support or denounce BuzzFeed’s decision to print the unverified 35-pages of allegations against Trump. The president-elect’s refusal to take a question from CNN’s senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta and his denunciation of CNN as “fake news” tells us everything we need to know about his continued disdain for a free press.

So, the question remains, now what? Journalists need to stand together in the face of this threat to press freedom. If a reporter is denied the right to ask a question simply because the president doesn’t like his news organization, then the next reporter should ask the same question, and so should the next, and the next, all down the line until the question is answered, or, more likely, until the president storms out in a huff.

Many journalists will disagree with this strategy. What about getting the story? What about the competitive nature of news? So what if Jim Acosta is blackballed—too bad for him, but I don’t work for CNN. I don’t work for BuzzFeed.

But this isn’t business as usual for journalists or anyone else. This isn’t just another four years with another president. To be effective, we have to work together more closely. The wholly competitive news model isn’t the only model, as the level of international press cooperation on the Panama Papers showed us—though many of those journalists are now under threat. And what story, exactly, can any journalist hope to get from a Trump press conference? Any substantive reporting will doubtless take place far from the White House briefing room. How many official briefings can we expect from this president? Yesterday was his first press conference since July. As presidents elect, NPR reports that Barack Obama met with the press 18 times and George W. Bush spoke to them officially 11 times. Based on his behaviour to date, there is no reason to expect regular press access to this president and every reason to believe that Trump’s antagonism towards journalists will continue after January 20.

Standing up for press freedom also means journalists standing up for each other.

© 2017, Kate Barker. All rights reserved.

Week One

Why now? Why me?

I’m a journalist and a historian. It is from this dual perspective that I write about what it means that Donald Trump is to be the next president of the United States. Historians typically shy away from analysing current events through a historic lens, or vice versa. The argument is sound—that you cannot apply the values and realties of today to a different time, that to do so taints the evidence you are trying to unearth. Historians call this “presentism,” and it is frowned upon. As a journalist, however, I am unashamedly presentist. I think we can view the past with the present without muddying the timeline. I believe that we need to make connections between the past and today in order to bring a depth to our understanding of current world events. I also see the study of history and journalism as twin disciplines, connected by the same core values—pursuing the truth and then telling those stories. And we need to tell them well. I look to the past to try to make sense of the present. I want to bring some historic context to what a Trump presidency means today. That is the challenge of Seeing Double. I also believe that the more witnesses and different perspectives there are to Trump, the better. I just hope I can add something useful to the conversation.

Kate Barker, November 12, 2016

Week One:  Significance of November 9 and treatment of the press:

That we woke up on November 9 to the dystopian reality of a Trump presidency is chillingly ironic. November 9 holds special significance in German history. It was on the ninth of November that Adolph Hitler tested his popular strength in the failed Beer Hall Putsch of 1923.

And later, it was on another November 9 in 1938, when, backed by the power of the racist Nuremberg laws, Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, instigated Kristallnacht. Named for the sound of breaking glass, it continued for two nights as Jewish homes, shops and synagogues were ransacked in waves of anti Semitic violence that erupted across Germany, Austria and the just-annexed Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia.

On the morning of November 9, 2016, I posted my fears to Facebook:

“This feels like the dawn of a brutal new world when I thought we were on the cusp of full equality at last. Instead of a strong, smart, compassionate woman at the helm, America has elected a sociopath. The American response to the worst refugee crisis since World War Two is defined by hatred. The spectacle is eerily and historically familiar—a charismatic celebrity on stage, reducing all complexity and nuance to over-simplified sound bites. Rabid nativism and misogyny dominates intellectualism and basic human decency. The ones to pay will be all of the Others—the scapegoats, the targets of this monstrous dumbing down of all things to one, terrible reality—American democracy now trembles on a knife edge.”

Like many others, I was overwhelmed by the events of the first few days. Nothing has assuaged those initial shell-shocked fears. Trump’s continued disdain towards the press is an alarming indicator that American democracy is in jeopardy.

On Thursday night, Trump tweeted about the many protests taking place across America:

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A few hours later, it had been re-messaged to this:

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This wasn’t even the first indication that Trump’s contempt for the press continues after the election. He also refused to allow a press pool aboard his plane when he went to meet with President Obama, something no other president in the modern era has done. In a 60 Minutes interview on Saturday, he defended his use of Twitter as a weapon against any media that ran “a bad story” about him. And then yesterday, he did just that with twin tweets:

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As usual, Trump is not correct. New York Times subscriptions are not down. According to a report in the Washington Post, print subscriptions are lower in this quarter from last year, but its 116,000 new digital-only subscriptions counter that. Mine is one of the them. Ditto the Post. Right now, I’m a grad student and a sessional instructor at a Canadian university. This means I don’t make much money. If I can do it, so can you. It’s time to support the news organizations that call Trump to account, and stop supporting those that legitimize him. (I don’t buy People Magazine, and won’t start now.)

Curtailing a free press has always been a top priority of any fascist state. Benito Mussolini banned public protests and shut down opposition newspapers in 1924. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, was immediately put in charge of all German newspapers in 1933. Under the Reich Press Law that took effect on October 4, 1933, Jewish journalists and editors were all fired. Any stories that appeared in print had to be “racially clean.” Under Francisco Franco’s 36-year reign, the Spanish press was heavily censored.

Assessing the status of a free press in America will be an ongoing focus of this blog.

 

© 2016, Kate Barker. All rights reserved.