President Donald Trump has been in office for five days, and his administration has already made headlines for how the White House treats the media.
School of Media and Public Affairs professors Nikki Usher Layser
and Ethan Porter
have been watching the battles between Trump and the media unfold. They spoke to George Washington Today about how journalists can navigate the new administration and how to report in an era of disputed facts.
Assistant Professor of Media and Public Affairs Nikki Usher Layser
Q: How did White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s briefings on Saturday and Monday set the tone for his relationship with the media in the future? How might the role of daily press briefings change under this administration?
A: On one level, we have to ask ourselves: Why do we find ourselves so surprised? This misrepresentation of reality—these falsehoods, these lies—have been a consistent feature of Mr. Trump’s campaign. The expectation that this would somehow be different now that Mr. Trump is in the office might have been unfounded.
It is my hope that press briefings will become less important—they should be anyway. All briefings can do is set off hysteria among members of the press: "They're lying, they're lying! Trump is a liar! Listen to this big lie that just happened!" Nonetheless, it seems Mr. Spicer is at least vaguely aware that he can't entirely violate norms. Not taking questions at all is a problem, and insulting the press is another. He seems to have extended a brief olive branch about the relationship, but he's not going so far as to tell the truth.
Here's the thing: We expect politicians to spin. We expect them to present their version of reality in the way that best benefits them. That's public relations, that's political communication and that's at the core of the press-politician relationship. But we don't expect our politicians to lie to us—at least not so obviously. We don't expect outright falsehoods, at least those that can be easily disproven by some other objective measure with even just a quick Google or record check or reference to a factual authority. That's what's so strange about this. We really have entered some sort of doublespeak, wherein distortions of the truth are obvious but there's absolutely nothing that can be done to change this because the “ministry of truth” only lies.
Q: Mr. Spicer stood by his statement that the inauguration was the most-watched inauguration ever. Did journalists do enough to push back on this claim, and how should they approach misinformation from him in the future?
A: Some journalists pushed back, others did not. NPR wrote a notoriously neutral headline about it, while the New York Times and CNN pointed out the false claim. I think this was where social media did a great job, enabling people to see side-by-side (and fact check on their own) the veracity of the photos and the source and spread their analysis to others in their network. Public fact checking worked to supplement journalistic hesitancy. But this, of course, is a process that backfires just as well (think Pizzagate as a conservative fact-check conspiracy).
The scary thing is we actually don't know if we can trust anything our president says. That's terrifying. If X casualties happened in a specific country, do we really know whether X casualties happened? Was it more? Less? Did they happen? There is access to information that only the executive branch has, and in some cases, there's no easy way to check whether they're honest. The presumption that we will ever have any sort of accurate depiction of reality from the press is off.
Q: You wrote about how Mr. Trump's behavior as president-elect was changing White House reporting more broadly. How is this playing out in his first days in office? Are we seeing anything different on his end—any restraint on Twitter?
A: Mr. Trump is certainly not restraining, though it's unclear what the role of the @potus account will be versus the @realdonaldtrump account. He's attacking the media at every turn rather than focusing on the presumptive reason for a specific appearance.
I wish, however, that Washington reporting would change more broadly. I'm not sure that it has or can. But at least the major news organizations are staffing up in D.C., and that's really important.
Assistant Professor of Media and Public Affairs Ethan Porter
Q: After Mr. Spicer’s press briefing on Saturday, Mr. Trump’s White House counselor Kellyanne Conway asserted that Mr. Spicer had offered “alternative facts” on the inauguration crowd size. How should the media approach alternative facts?
A: Based on the research I’ve done, the media should be pretty aggressive about calling out corrections, because people across the ideological spectrum and on both sides of the aisle are willing to accept factual corrections, even when those corrections go against the politicians they support. Even though they’re willing to accept the corrections, it doesn’t change their underlying views toward the politicians.
I think sometimes the media is hesitant about corrections because they’ll be viewed as putting their thumb on a scale for one politician or one party. To be blunt, I think they should drop that concern. People are still going to hold their attitudes toward the politician, but they’re going to be slightly more misinformed if media doesn’t make corrections.
My concern is that there are so many misstatements and attempts to evade the truth that it might be hard to push back on all of them, but so far journalists have adopted an adversarial pose toward the Trump administration. Journalists should be unafraid to call out misstatements and truths when they see them.
Q: How should the media combat accusations of “fake news”?
A: The term fake news has already been appropriated by Trump supporters for their own ends. I think the media should realize the term “fake news” is more trouble than it’s worth at this point. The problem is that for Facebook and for other social networks that distribute news of questionable veracity, their reputation is on the line. It’s bad for Facebook, if over the long term, people associate it with unreliable news.
The onus is on the tech companies as much as it is on media organizations. What we think of as mainstream disseminators of news—they’re not the ones publishing fake news. Fake news is being published by other outlets that rely on social networks for dissemination, and it will be up to the tech firms that control those social networks to more strongly police the distribution of fake news. Sometimes the prohibition of fake sites has been done, as well as equipping users with tools to identify fake news.
Q: Many presidents have had contentious relationships with the press—how is what we’re seeing different?
A: All administrations and all political leaders have spokespeople who try to frame the news in their boss’s favor—there’s nothing new there at all. The media accepts this as the job of the political aide. What’s new, however, is that the Trump administration often seems unconcerned with whether or not its claims are in accordance with the truth.
So, for instance, Mr. Trump recently said that millions of illegal immigrants had voted in this election. This is not true. The media called it a lie—because it was a lie. He’s been told many times that there is no evidence to support this. The lack of fear of political blowback is very unusual and unsettling. Mr. Trump might be able to keep his base of support, but he’s going to need more than his base to win a reelection campaign.