After a long campaign in which President-elect Donald Trump played fast and loose with the facts and expertly manipulated the media into free coverage, we have to ask ourselves whether Donald Trump needs the “news media” now and after his transition into office. That question (along with what defines the “news media” these days) is in play as the president-elect’s entourage played cat and mouse with the press pool through the streets of Manhattan to dine at 21 Club. Reporters since have criticized the abandonment of the protective press pool, prompting new efforts to educate the public about the role and necessity of such a pool. Coupled with Trump’s resumption of tweeting shots at the New York Times, the late night pursuit evidences no reason to assume that the Trump Administration will settle into any sort of a conventional relationship with the media that has characterized recent administrations and the traditional role of the White House press corps.
Donald Trump knows how to avail himself of free TV coverage (see his primary campaign through last weekend’s “60 Minutes”) and he will likely continue to do so when it suits him. But unlike any prior administration and past dependency on traditional, mainstream media to convey the President’s message, Trump has made clear his intention to establish his own direct pathway to his audience. With direct access to more than 15 million followers on Twitter (and growing), supplemented by the specter of Breitbart, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham assuming the mantle of “official” White House news agencies and agents, the incoming administration is well on its way to controlling its own mediums and messages, while also avoiding the filter of the once great, but declining institutions of independent American journalism.
As post-election analysis has revealed happened during the campaign, it’s not so far-fetched to imagine a White House and its surrogates manipulating or spinning fake news on social media to create their own propaganda. And with Breitbart‘s executive chairman taking a role that will be steps from the oval office, Breitbart could become the closest thing to a state-operated “news” agency that the United States has ever seen. A challenge is clearly at hand for the likes of the New York Times and other national media to counter the Trump strategy, making themselves relevant in new ways and thus indispensable. To succeed, they must hold fast to promises they’ve made to be fair and be perceived as regaining neutral ground, which they can demonstrate by heaping praise when warranted on sensible policies and being vigilantly critical of failures.
At a City Club of Chicago post-election discussion among four outstanding political journalists, one opined that, as President, Trump will discover that he needs to cultivate a more traditional relationship with the White House press corps. Others observed, however, that Trump’s direct Twitter pipeline, coupled with feeding off of the alt-right’s social media versions of reality, will allow him unfettered ability to sidestep, dismiss, and continue to attack conventional news organizations—even as those organizations have seen spikes in subscriptions and readership since his election.
Gumshoe reporters will (and must) continue producing unbiased, hard-hitting investigative journalism, perhaps even making their trade great again, amid the incessant chatter on cable TV. But the pillars of traditional media are likely to become increasingly marginalized by an administration that, in fact, does not need the “news media” in the same manner we have previously understood and accepted. Now, more than ever, with the possibility that the First Amendment may be tested more than any point in history since the Sedition Act, independent journalism and the free press must stand up to the test of Thomas Jefferson’s preference for “newspapers without government” over “government without newspapers.”