In his more than two decades in journalism, Joel Christopher had never seen anything like it.
When he arrived at the Louisville Courier Journal as executive editor in late 2016, he found that his paper was frequently on the receiving end of abuse from Kentucky’s Republican governor, Matt Bevin. A newcomer to politics, Bevin came to office the year before as a wealthy businessman who cultivated an outsider, anti-establishment image on the campaign trail.
Bevin didn’t appear to have much use for traditional media, and often took aim at the Courier Journal. That may sound familiar. And, as it turned out, the governor was like Donald Trump in other ways, too. He was quick to attack journalists whenever he disagreed with something they published – a practice he continued into his fourth year as governor. (He lost his bid for re-election in November 2019.)
Enduring disparagement from politicians has long been part of journalists’ work, especially disparagement from officials who are the subject of critical news stories. In Louisville, the paper was investigating Bevin’s purchase of a mansion at below-assessment price from a political supporter.
But in the era of President Trump, the attacks have escalated to a new level. Any time the media report something that reflects negatively on the president, he and his surrogates immediately ignore the details and label the organizations or the stories as “fake news.” The president tweets his criticism of the news media almost daily, frequently repeating his accusation that they are the “enemy of the people.” After the congressional impeachment inquiry began in the fall of 2019, his rhetoric became even more aggressive. In a speech to U.S. diplomatic officials in New York he described reporters as “animals” and “scum.” He also has used the word “corrupt.” His allies have sought to raise money to investigate journalists’ backgrounds, obviously preparing the groundwork for more attacks.
The big national news organizations that are usually the target of Trump’s drumbeat have responded by not taking the bait. As Washington Post editor Marty Baron said in a quote widely praised and repeated among journalists: “We’re not at war with the administration, we’re at work.”
Baron’s comment, made in the first month of the Trump Administration, was part of a larger conversation about whether The Post would find itself in outright battle with the president of the United States, as the paper did in 1971 with President Richard Nixon over publication of the Pentagon Papers and again soon thereafter over Watergate. The media under Trump, Baron noted, had reached a strange point where “just being independent, which the press should be, is portrayed as being the opposition.”
Two and a half years later, New York Times editor Dean Baquet made a similar point when defending a much-criticized Times headline on a print story about a speech Trump gave after two mass shootings in August. The original headline, which was changed for later editions, said “Trump Urges Unity Vs. Racism” and it was seen as a tone-deaf misrepresentation of a speech in which racism was not the main theme, and from a president who is perceived as having worsened rather than quieted racial tensions.
In an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review, Baquet agreed that it was a “bad” headline because it didn’t convey enough skepticism. But in addressing critics who want the paper to take a more activist stance toward Trump, he echoed Baron’s notions of dispassion. The Times’ role, he said, is not to drive the resistance to Trump, but rather to simply tell the truth. “I don’t believe our role is to be the leaders of the opposition party,” he said. He reiterated that sentiment in a November 2019 interview with The Guardian.
Tension between political actors and an independent press is an inevitable and essential element of a healthy democratic system. Editors such as Baron and Baquet are seeking to maintain this traditional relationship, and to avoid allowing their news organizations to be, or be perceived as, participants in partisan warfare. Such participation would make it difficult to regain their status as unbiased chroniclers of these battles. A press that is too enraged, these editors are arguing, overreacts – which is exactly what Trump wants – and in effect proves his point.
Responding to attacks at the local level
Big publications such as The Post and The Times may be able withstand the kind of battle Trump is waging. The Times, in particular, is a national publication drawing on a select audience across the country. At a local level, where publications are trying to command a large share of their community, the problem of polarization is even more complicated. And in communities where a larger percentage of residents tend to be more conservative, attacks such as Bevin’s are more divisive and potentially more damaging because local papers are more vulnerable. They have less margin of error financially, and they also do not have a worldwide reservoir of potential readers to draw from. It would be devastating to them if, say, half their audience were persuaded by such attacks to stop reading.
[pullquote align=center]Editors have embraced a strategy of trust-building to inoculate their news organizations against partisan attacks.[/pullquote]
The disparagement is also more personal on the local level because the journalists usually live in the communities or regions they cover, sharing schools, municipal services, public spaces and cultures. And it is potentially more divisive because, if successful, it can turn members of the community against one another.
In such cases, dispassion may be even more critical. In theory, it can also be more persuasive if the news organization accompanies it with trust-building techniques such as being more transparent about how news is gathered. The better an audience knows the journalists being disparaged – and the more audiences understand how journalists conduct their work – the less successful the denigration will be. Editors like Christopher have embraced a strategy of trust-building to inoculate their news organizations against the attacks.
“We’re not the enemy. We’re not the political opponent,” said Christopher, who is now the executive editor of the News-Sentinel in Knoxville, Tenn.
In some cases, these editors say, the best response is to avoid a direct response, or, in cases where the news organization is accused of something it didn’t do, to simply state the truth. But in many cases, it can be helpful to address the community directly, lay out how a story was reported, be transparent about what is still unknown in a developing story, and make clear that the news organization has no hidden agenda.
Tensions between the Courier Journal and the governor escalated when the paper broke a story in the spring of 2017 about Bevin’s purchase of the mansion from a local businessman who was also a friend and Bevin donor at a purchase price lower than the property’s tax assessment.
Before it was clear who bought the property in Anchorage, Ky., Courier Journal reporter Tom Loftus went to the home to see what he could find out. He was met by a state trooper working on the governor’s security detail. His story shows he tried but could not get the governor’s office to respond to questions about it.
Later, after it became clear that Bevin was the buyer, the new assessment raised ethical questions about the deal, which the Courier Journal reported. The governor, in turn, attacked Loftus, calling him “a sick man” and accused him of “sneaking around” the home, language that echoed terms Trump has used.
In another episode later that year, the governor falsely accused the Courier Journal of sending a drone over the home. In fact, it was a local television station.
“It was a total shock to me to see not only a political leader but someone in that prominent of a role behave in a manner that seemed wholly inappropriate,” said Christopher. “The problem isn’t the criticism – we’ll accept vigorous criticism from anybody. But this was a sharp and frankly juvenile attack with utterly no basis in truth whatsoever.”
The lawmaker and The Bee
In California, The Fresno Bee has faced a similar situation as the Courier Journal – being attacked in Trumpian terms as fake or illegitimate. Rep. Devin Nunes, who began representing the 22nd congressional district in the Central Valley in 2003, has been conducting a public campaign against the newspaper since the early months of the Trump administration. Before Democrats took control of the House in 2019, Nunes was chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, which was investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election. That gave him more prominence nationally, and as a result more coverage both in The Bee’s news sections as well as its editorial pages, which were critical of his handling of the case.
There was plenty to cover. Nunes, an early Trump supporter, stepped aside from running the Russia inquiry in the spring of 2017 amid criticism that he was obstructing the probe and that he had possibly mishandled sensitive information. As The Bee covered Nunes more closely, their relationship deteriorated. At one point during an interview with a Bee reporter, Nunes said the paper was a “joke” and a “left-wing rag.”
The antagonism grew after a May 2018 story by reporter Mackenzie Mays about a 2016 lawsuit against a winery in which Nunes is an investor. In 2015 several winery investors went on a charity cruise that included prostitution and cocaine, the story said. Nunes was not involved in the cruise, and the winery made an effort to distance Nunes from the episode. The lawsuit, filed by a female winery employee who was on the cruise, was settled.
Nunes then heightened his attacks. He purchased ads criticizing the paper and put out a 40-page glossy mailer aimed directly at The Bee, purporting to tell “the dirty little secrets of the Valley’s propaganda machine.”
The same year, the national press started to pay greater attention. In March of 2018, Mother Jones wrote a piece headlined, “Why Devin Nunes and his Local Paper Suddenly Can’t Stand Each Other.” GQ magazine later ran an in-depth look called “The Fresno Bee and the War on Local News.” Vice News did a segment on its HBO news show. “Nunes Declares War on the Media,” said Politico.
In the spring of 2019 Nunes filed a $150 million lawsuit against The Bee’s owner, The McClatchy Co., alleging defamation. McClatchy called the lawsuit “a baseless attack on local journalism and a free press.” (The lawsuit is one of several the lawmaker has filed, including one against Twitter, which he called “a portal of defamation,” and later against reporter Ryan Lizza and Hearst Magazines, for a piece in Esquire exposing that a Nunes family farm is in Iowa rather than California.)
Attacks on news organizations, though, are usually not intended to win an argument on the merits, legal or journalistic. They are generally aimed at intimidating news organizations by making critical stories costly to defend, and as public relations stunts aimed at stoking division and creating doubt about everything the outlet publishes.
The potential for such division and doubt is something The Bee’s editor, Joe Kieta, says he thinks a lot about. And when he considers the best response in such a situation, he said in a phone interview, he always comes back to the need for reinforcing audience trust.
[pullquote align=center]Attacks on news organizations are usually not intended to win an argument on the merits, legal or journalistic.[/pullquote]
The Bee has taken several steps in that direction. Among them, it has formed a partnership with Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication to find ways to better connect the newsroom with The Bee’s readers. In a piece explaining the effort, the editors acknowledged the need: “The processes we use to report the news are developed to engender readers’ trust. But the problem is you don’t really know much about how we go about our work, or why you should trust what we do. That’s on us. We have to do a better job of explaining how news is made.”
When it profiled Nunes in 2018, The Bee appended a section to the story that explained “how we reported this story.” It laid out who the reporter talked with, who returned calls, who didn’t, and the range of documents reviewed.
“I think the best way we can attack this is to be as open and transparent as possible about the work we do, and explain the reasons behind our coverage and our work, and be as upfront as we can when we are scrutinized or criticized for our work,” said Kieta.
The editorial page voice
In a pitched battle with a public figure, another question is whether to take a formal editorial stand about the person, in addition to news coverage that establishes the facts.
The Fresno paper’s opinion pages have pushed back relentlessly against Nunes. After Nunes’ 2018 ad buy, the paper ran an editorial with the headline “The real ‘fake news’ is Devin Nunes’ ad about The Bee.” That was one of several editorials critical of Nunes before and after the ad.
An editorial sends a signal that the institution is taking a stand. In the traditional view, it is intentionally more meaningful than a column by a single writer or an opinion piece submitted by an outsider. In the case of the Nunes lawsuit against The Bee, such an editorial was used to “fact check” what it said were several of Nunes’ false assertions in the suit.
The New York Times has had a similar strategy with Trump – using the platform of its editorial board to publish opinions that would be out of place in the news pages. One unsigned editorial, for example, was headlined: “Why the Trump Impeachment Inquiry Is the Only Option.”
Some editors today worry that editorials taking sides on issues such as this have the effect of drawing the entire news organization, in the public’s mind at least, into fights in which the news side wants to avoid being a combatant.
The argument here is that in the digital era, people find news content through a number of paths – search engines, social media, sharing by friends, links in email newsletters – so it has become harder to see whether a story is coming from an objective reporter or a decidedly opinionated columnist. In the print era, those sections were easily segregated and marked for the reader. Joy Mayer, who runs the organization Trusting News (an affiliated organization of API’s that helps newsrooms build trust), wrote about this phenomenon in an issue of her “Trust Tips” newsletter.
For Christopher, the Knoxville editor, this is a big – even existential – question that contributes to trust. He thinks newspapers have not worked quickly enough to fundamentally restructure themselves toward a more community-oriented model.
“We try to communicate as widely as we can either through direct interaction with readers on social media or public events to continually make the point that we’re here to report stories, not engage in a particular partisan battle,” he said. “The problem is that through the structure of the American newspaper over generations, we’ve hampered our ability to make that case. Readers do not understand the editorial pages vs. news coverage, and if we aren’t able to communicate that difference, we’ve failed.” (This is a topic API has been exploring separately through a series of events and reports).
In August of 2018, Trump’s continued attacks on the media inspired a group of newspapers organized by The Boston Globe to band together to fight back, coordinating editorials defending a free press. The same week, the Senate passed a resolution stating that the press was not the enemy of the people. Trump used both occasions to take another swipe at the media.
Trump has almost certainly emboldened politicians such as Nunes and Bevin to attack the media. Yet it’s useful to note that the decline in trust in the news media that these politicians are exploiting can be traced back to the 1980s and is connected to a complex array of cultural, political and technological changes in the country.
Sometimes political figures also feed off each other’s methods, a cross-pollination accelerated by consultants who work across campaigns and even nations.
While Trump and Bevin in Kentucky rose to power independently – Bevin was elected a year before Trump – Christopher sees a “reinforcing effect” that takes hold when politicians see the other’s success with their tactics. Nothing in politics happens in a vacuum, he noted.
And in an era of polarization, Democrats have taken aim at the press, too, particularly when they feel that publications haven’t gone far enough in calling out Trump for his excesses.
“A vast swath of Democratic voters are pretty angry at the media,” Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior Obama administration adviser who is now a co-host of “Pod Save America” told Politico earlier this year. “They see a racist liar in the White House and a media too afraid to call him a racist or a liar.”
Such criticism may seem ironic when Trump is claiming the press is an arm of the Democratic Party, or part of a deep-state and out-of-touch elite dedicated to protecting the Washington “swamp.” But it is worth recalling that historically the far left and the far right have been aligned in arguing that journalistic notions of independence and disinterestedness were always impossible.
The motives behind Trump’s critique have at least two dimensions. Attacking the press as part of the deep state elite helps him cast himself as the anti-establishment disrupter “draining the swamp.” It also allows him, as a political figure, to then discount their monitoring him as illegitimate.
It takes a newsroom
Where does all this leave reporters on the ground? They are likely to feel the greatest impact of such hostility, as journalists are interacting daily with people who might refuse to talk to them because they believe reporters are biased, making things up or in cahoots with groups pursuing a particular agenda.
One answer is that it leaves journalists under something of a microscope. They need to be more scrupulous than ever about being independent in any public setting. That suggests that journalists should also be trained in practices such as social media use so that everyone understands they represent their publication and their industry in public, and that they are under scrutiny. Members of the media can fight the narrative that they are putting their own interests ahead of the public’s through their own public behavior.
Another area where journalists must be careful is in the field. Especially during breaking news events or other critical moments, reporters must be sensitive to their communities.
Teresa Frontado, the digital director at WLRN, the public radio station in the Miami market, recounted at API’s event that after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., two of her reporters witnessed reporters for other organizations high-fiving one another after they secured interviews with some of the surviving students. Exploiting trauma in your community, she said, is the quickest way to feed the stereotype of the media as disconnected from citizens and willing to abandon good judgment for a good story. Frontado said the episode was incorporated in a newsroom discussion about what the staff learned from Parkland and how to better cover traumatic events.
Reporters also should have diplomatic answers at the ready when they are confronted with accusations of bias or fakery.
Trusting News’ Mayer counsels that if someone accuses a reporter or editor of representing fake news, the journalist should be prepared with a response that says “here’s what fake news actually means and why it doesn’t apply to us.”
Similarly, journalists accused of political bias can be clear about how they work to be fair, and how they hold one another accountable.
When called “enemies of the people,” she said, journalists can articulate their news organization’s mission, talk about how long they’ve worked in the community, who they are as people, and how hard they work to deliver critical information that helps people live their lives.
Strategy summary for journalists being maligned
In contending with attacks on the media, journalists can avoid defensiveness and employ some best practices that we took away from our conversations with those who work in media and other experts in the field:
- Arm yourself with answers. Trusting News has a list of valuable tips for journalists who might be confronted by these attacks. Most of them involve preparation – having responses to common criticisms at the ready.
- Use transparency to build trust. Convey to readers why you did this story or that, or why you handled it the way you did. Listen to their complaints, and show them that you’re listening. In its weekly “Trust Tips” newsletter, Trusting News points to examples of good ways to handle these situations (and sometimes what not to do).
- Avoid a war footing. Adhere to the mindset that you are not at war, even when a politician appears to be at war with you. A bully’s objective is to trigger a fight-or-flight response – to force you counter-attack or recoil into a defensive crouch. Either one can be damaging. Your main mission is journalism.
- Insist on whole newsroom training. Everyone in the newsroom must know best practices for responding to criticism, whether it’s legitimate or not. In the era of social media and personality journalism, it’s no longer just the editor who is speaking for the news organization – it’s everyone.
- Sweat the details. Prepare to be scrutinized. At a time when critics are looking for fights to pick, they will be watching everything you publish.
- Correct mistakes. It shows you’re committed to the truth, even if it means admitting errors. Arizona State University’s News Co/Lab has a project to improve newsroom correction practices in the digital age. Their efforts include testing a process to send corrections to people who shared the piece on social media.
- Respond publicly when criticized publicly. Often, says Mayer, attacks on journalistic credibility come publicly, in the form of comments on stories or social media posts. Those offer an opportunity to correct the record about journalism’s motivations, ethics and processes. Journalists who respond publicly are talking not just to the person sharing the opinion but to everyone else who’s reading. And not answering amounts to giving control over the narrative about your work to the person attacking you.
- Be sensitive to your community at critical times. Avoid actions that make you a target of criticism that you are uncaring and only there for a good story.
- Maintain perspective. Politicians cycle in and out of public life. One might attack you or your news organization, but his or her replacement will probably be different. Moreover, news organizations may change their rules as times change, as Baquet told CJR, but in spite of pressures on the industry, their audiences still depend on them. Be able to articulate that history and role in the community.