Journalism must take Trump seriously and literally

He went over the heads of traditional news media and spoke directly to voters. Trump understood Twitter’s potential as no other presidential aspirant did.

Not that long ago, newspapers were the authoritative local media voices in our communities.

Local dailies spoke to readers and opinion leaders, whether in the kitchen, schools, the barbershop, industry, business, finance or politics.

Anyone who wanted to influence public opinion courted local reporters, editors and publishers. 

Except for an interlude at an international news service, I pursued my trade during the last half of the past century at local dailies in three countries. 

The Cincinnati Enquirer was my final stop before retiring and joining CityBeat. I hated the jingle, “I read it in The Enquirer,” but it reflected the role a local daily paper played in a lot of lives. 

Some readers complained about the poverty of state, national and international news in The Enquirer, but local news was our franchise; no one could match the paper’s coverage, and readers could get news outside I-275 elsewhere, even before the internet. 

TV drew some readers and eroded that historic authority; more people said they got their national news from ABC, NBC and CBS nightly news than newspapers. Local TV news was thin gruel of sports, weather and crime scenes, but it was free.

But TV didn’t change the central role of dailies. We didn’t tell people what to think; instead, our news choices suggested what to think about. 

It’s still true to some degree locally, but with national news media, Donald Trump’s brilliant use of Twitter buried that conceit. 

He went over the heads of traditional news media and spoke directly to voters. Trump understood Twitter’s potential as no other presidential aspirant did. 

Supporters loved his spontaneity, free of intervening news media, whether the critical New York Times and Washington Post or sycophants at Fox News and Breitbart News. 

Complementing this dreary picture is the rise of Facebook. Nonpartisan audience research finds Facebook has replaced TV as a primary news source for at least 40 percent of Americans.

Worse is the explosion of phony stories — false news — on the internet. Readers say they’re often as credible as the real stuff and sometimes more entertaining. 

Analysts are debating the impact of fake news on the recent presidential election, but it can be toxic as millions repeat and begin to believe false stories because so many are repeating them. Just as Twitter enabled Trump, “bots” can be programed to repeat false stories endlessly. 

Most phony news happens online and on social media, but TV can be suckered, especially when a fake story takes off or it fits a network’s biases.

Ignoring false news risks people believing and sharing it through social networks as well as personal contacts. Debunking false news risks further eroding trust in all news.

But back to what passes for reality today. 

Even if he isn’t an anti-semitic, racist, xenophobe and misogynist, Trump’s playing in the sand box with them. He’s validated and articulated their hatreds and is the first president to invite them under the GOP’s big tent. We’ve reported that. 

Trump supporters either don’t care or they write off these stories as mainstream news media bias.

Trump promised a great deal, and whether it was at rallies or in tweets, I take Trump at his word. His retreat from over-the-top statements is not convincing. 

I can’t join Pollyannas who assure each other that Trump doesn’t really mean what he says. 

Some commentators draw a line between lying and bullshitting. Lying is Trump knowingly saying what he knows is not and cannot be true. Bullshit is when he doesn’t care whether what he says is true or false. We’ve reported that. 

It wasn’t bullshit when he promised to deport 11 million illegal aliens, prosecute Hillary Clinton over her emails and reduce constitutional protections for the news media and for legal abortions.  

My general rule: When someone says they’ll do something nasty, they mean it. When they back off, that’s just buying time until they have the power to redeem their promises. He’ll have that Jan. 20. 

I can’t embrace the popular confidence that realities of the Oval Office will moderate Trump’s spontaneity or actions. Look for more tweets, more attacks on the news media.

Unless reporters and editors take Trump seriously and literally, journalism will repeat its failures of the primary and presidential campaigns. 

For starters, I hope reporters will contrast his faux sincerity at Thanksgiving with threats over the past 18 months: 

“It’s my prayer that on this Thanksgiving that we begin to heal our divisions and move forward as one country strengthened by shared purpose and very, very common resolve.”

Talk about gallows humor from a man with a rope.

So what can be done? 

Facebook and Google say they have or can develop tools to identify and block fake news and hate speech. That’s great if you don’t mind their owners and software developers deciding what we’ll be allowed to read.

We shouldn’t emulate Great Britain and many European countries that have criminalized much of what we protect as noxious speech. 

Instead, we fight offensive speech with more speech. That’s the beauty of the First Amendment.

Diminished as they are, TV networks' news operations have a role in reasserting the primacy of facts in our public life. First, however, they’ll have to rent spines for the next four years. Maybe Angela Merkel will share hers. 

Trump won’t make nice. He’s manipulative and he knows that owners of the TV networks — broadcast and cable — are more interested in his drawing power than any obligation to tell us what we need to know to govern ourselves.  

The often-reviled New York Times played it differently. After Trump’s tantrum — initially canceling his date by tweet hours before they were supposed to meet — Trump came to them on the Times’ terms. 

When he was newsworthy, public radio reported what he said. NPR never gave him the blank check and air time for his speeches that, say, CNN did. 

What’s ahead?

National TV will continue to perform as always, in thrall to the White House, its staged news conferences and events, and presidential travels. 

Dailies like the New York TimesL.A. Times and Washington Post will hold Trump and his appointees to their promises and draw the anger of Trump voters for their elitism.

And it will be up to dailies like The Enquirer to keep asking how Trump’s threats and promises are playing out in their hometowns. Who’s losing health insurance? Who’s deported? Who’s denied a legal abortion?

This becomes local news, and dailies are the only local news media with the resources to hold the new administration accountable in their regions.

If local journalists fail, don’t look to national news media to fill the holes. They’ll do this as badly as they did during the primaries and presidential campaigns. 

Curmudgeon Notes:

• I prefer to follow the substance of American politics through the eyes of foreign journalists and their English-language reports and commentaries. 

Especially valuable are the London weekly Economist, the “quality” British dailies, the BBC, Canadian Broadcasting Corp. and France 24 websites, Israeli and other dailies in the Middle East and Pakistan and India. 

They caught on early to Trump’s dog whistles to white voters unhappy with their economic, social and cultural lot. Here is a sample from before and after the election:  

Writing in September, CBC’s Keith Boag noted how Trump “flirted with the white nationalist movement.” 

Then Boag asked, “Why on earth would a candidate for president associate himself with that fringe — a loose collection of right-wing populists, white supremacists, anti-Semites and neo-Nazis, some of whom crack jokes about the Holocaust?”

He got an answer during repeated interviews with Ed Hunter, a “late-middle-aged white construction worker with an enthusiasm for Tea Party politics” in Maryland:

“The American people are being replaced.” 

Boag added, “It was that simple — every social, economic and political complaint of Trump’s followers stuffed into a single short sentence. The Third World was replacing American workers; immigration was replacing American culture; the super-rich were replacing ‘We the People.’ ”

When asked whether Trump voters were “mostly white people who resented having lost the power they once had in America,” construction worker Hunter responded, “Well, they should be” because they’re struggling for “self-preservation.” 

Hunter continued, “You know what they want more than anything? They want to be left alone. They don’t want to be fighting off hordes and hordes of people from foreign cultures that are utterly changing their country to the core.

“You go into any airport, any public building, any public school and you look at what it is now compared to what it was 30 years ago, the level of security needed, the constant surveillance, the constant police presence.

“That’s not the America we grew up in. We didn’t need that. What changed? Who did they bring in that makes everybody so afraid?”

Boag wasn’t surprised by any of this. “We’ve watched for a long time as Trump has played with ‘othering.’ He has whipped up suspicion about Barack Obama’s birthplace and faith. He has spread phony data on black crime rates while citing a statistics bureau that doesn’t even exist. And of course there is his Muslim ban.

“Trump has the endorsement of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and the support of the neo-Nazi site Daily Stormer, and he attracts people from the white nationalist fascist group Traditionalist Worker Party to his rallies.

“There is a reason for that. They hear what he is saying and recognize that he traffics in the same racial division they do.”

• Nicky Woolf in London’s Guardian found angst among a Trump believer as he appeared to change his tune after the election:

“President-elect Donald Trump’s disavowal of Richard Spencer and his far-right think tank, the National Policy Institute, a day after video of Spencer’s supporters giving the Nazi salute at an event in Washington DC surfaced, has dismayed some of his supporters on the ‘alt-right.’ ”

“This constant virtue signaling needs to finally end, otherwise our civilization will simply collapse,” a commenter wrote underneath the article of Trump’s disavowal on rightwing news site Breitbart.

Woolf said “people in the myriad ‘alt-right’ communities that have flourished online in recent years are also expressing their displeasure that Trump appears to have abandoned the most extreme of his policies — at least for now — such as building a wall and prosecuting Hillary Clinton. They also objected to his visiting of the New York Times for an on-the-record meeting on Tuesday, at which Trump described the news organization as a ‘world jewel.’ ”

Woolf turned to the political discussion board of the anonymous message-board 4chan, where one poster wrote: “Already reneging on his word before he even takes office?! People will remember that.”

The Guardian’s reporter said that a post on Reddit’s alt-right board, one of the movement’s home bases, linked to Trump’s disavowal and asked: “Anyone here feeling bamboozled by the Donald?” 

Dozens of commenters responded, Woolf found. “You are fooled if you think Trump was going to give us some sort of permission slip to start cleansing America. He isn’t our ‘man on a white horse.’ ” one said. 

Another wrote: “Trump can’t be non-negative on the alt-right. We support him because he agrees with us on important policy goals, not because he flatters us.”

Over on 4chan’s politics discussion board, Woof said, “fierce discussion was raging on the issue of how to deal with Richard Spencer and his neo-Nazi event. Many thought that Trump was right to disavow him." 

Another wrote: “The leaders of the alt-right no longer look like attractive, young, rebellious counter-culture intellectuals, but now they look like fat, dumb racists.”

Woolf said, “Opinion on the board was split, with many saying that the entire debacle was a ‘false flag’ operation cooked up to discredit their movement, and others — a small minority — calling for the board to rally in support of Spencer.”

He continued, “On Reddit’s r/The_Donald board, one of the most popular pro-Trump corners of the internet, supporters urged patience in the face of signs discouraging to the ‘alt-right,’ like the rumors that Mitt Romney was the frontrunner for secretary of state.

“One post urged people to ‘stay fucking calm’ until the appointment of Romney — who is a reviled figure amongst the alt-right — was reported by Breitbart.”

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]