On Feb. 17, President Donald Trump said in a tweet that “fake news” outlets, such as the New York Times, CNN and others, are the “enemy of the American people.” A week later, the White House blocked many of those news organizations, along with additional outlets like Politico and BuzzFeed, from attending a press briefing with Press Secretary Sean Spicer. Soon after, Trump said he will not attend the Correspondents’ Dinner, a yearly tradition honoring American journalists who report on the White House.
However, while these latest actions are drastic, they are nothing new: Trump long ago declared war on the press, and spent much of his campaign trying to discredit any negative reports. Journalism and political science professor Larry Stuelpnagel said a relationship between a president and the press hasn’t been this dim since Richard Nixon.
“The 25 years I spent as a reporter, I didn't consider myself an enemy of the people,” Stuelpnagel said, “and I don't feel like I'm training future enemies of the people. Really what [Trump] is trying to do is to undermine people's trust in the press. I think it's the most overtly hostile public attack on the press since Nixon.”
As a journalism student, I’ve gone from seeing Trump’s media battles as merely laughable to becoming actual threats. I’ve known I wanted to be a reporter since I was 14 years old – I am now 18, which means I made it through four years of “Isn’t journalism dying?” or “You should try communications instead” before arriving at Medill. My ultimate goal is to work for a company like Politico or CNN as a White House reporter, and I do not like the idea that my ability to do so may be jeopardized just because Trump doesn’t like when media outlets report information that may be unflattering for him.
But, Trump’s “war on media” goes beyond just affecting political journalists’ workday. Journalism has long been considered the fourth estate in a sound democracy, and banning typically well-respected media outlets from press briefings poses a serious threat to maintaining any facade of government transparency. Journalism professor Ellen Shearer, head of the Medill Washington Program, said the press serves an important function for the people of a democracy.
“The whole point of democracy is that we hold the powerful accountable for their actions, and that they are not dictators – they are not immune from questioning,” Shearer said. “In a democracy, those who elected the president get to question the president, and the media acts as their questioners.”
Shearer said she does not expect the blocking of media outlets to continue; however, she discussed how some other news outlets have said they will not attend if their colleagues are deliberately excluded, which has dangerous implications as well. (Plus, if no one besides Fox is attending the press briefings, how will SNL be able to make skits like this?)
The average American may be unaware of the impact news and journalism has on everyday society, but it is nonetheless an essential cornerstone of societal order. In 2014, the Washington Post reported on a study saying only 41 percent of Americans had watched, read or heard any news beyond headlines in the last week. For me, I’ve become a news junkie since deciding to major in journalism. Medill has turned me into one of those people who starts every sentence with “So I was reading an interesting article in – insert newspaper/magazine here – today, and…”, but I am so much more informed, and I truly feel like I am a better American citizen because I keep up with current events.
That being said, while staying informed may be important, it is also essential the press remain skeptical of whoever it’s dealing with (whether it’s Trump, or someone perhaps less contentious within his administration). Even if Trump and the media were friendlier with each other, it would still be important to keep fact-checking and scrutinizing every word that comes out of the White House.
“I don't care if you're a Republican or a Democrat – your job is not to be a mouthpiece for whoever's in office; your job is to check it out,” Stuelpnagel said. “If that means you upset people, then OK, it does. Everybody from Barack Obama to George W. Bush has referred to the press lately as indispensable for a democracy, and I would agree with that analysis.”
Shearer agreed: “No administration has ever loved the press,” she said. “This is not a relationship that is destined to be best friends, and that's not the point – that's never been the point. It's really just to treat each other with professional respect, assume good intentions on both sides and [recognize that] both sides have to do their job.”
However, I do not believe that just because Trump frequently confuses facts with fake news, America is doomed. The explosion of fact-checking since he became a serious presidential candidate is a great start to (attempting to) hold him accountable, and if the press survives the next four years – which I think is virtually a guarantee – I will embrace the challenge of becoming a political reporter after I graduate with open arms.