20200
P
1
20100
R  E
2
2070
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2050
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2040
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2030
O  U  R  N  A  L
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2020
I  S  M  2  0  2  0
7

A president leads, the press follows, reality fades

“Flood our screens with the truth and crowd out everything designed to distract us from it. You still get to decide what’s news. Don’t be in such a hurry to give up on your agency.”

For a press that has been shunned, embargoed and shut out of press conferences, the American media has been remarkably willing to cover the White House to the tune President Trump sets. The president tweets; the press amplifies. The president makes a statement designed to be outrageous; the press gawks. The president condemns journalism; the press gently knocks back at the White House door. If this were a dance, he’s the alpha male in conventional lead mode, and the press is the reluctant dance partner who was too polite to decline. Rarely has a press been so appalled and enthralled with a president at the same time.

Trump’s running again, and neither bookies nor polls have ruled out his chances for reelection. At any rate, he is the president. That happened — more than three years ago by now, but much of the media is still shaking its head in disbelief. It’s still behaving like it happened yesterday — or perhaps not at all. It’s time for the press to start covering him as a president and not as a presidential candidate. We elected a president who treats the business of news with the mentality of reality TV. We aren’t the first. We won’t be the last. Get over it, and do something instead.

What do I mean? Be proactive. Most of the American press has covered Trump in a reactive mode. Seldom has a president manipulated journalists so skillfully, and hardly ever have politicians been able to use social media so deftly to their advantage. He points; the press looks. He pushes the press aside in favor of Twitter as an agenda-setting conduit; the press runs over to meet him. He yells; the press pumps the volume up by offering a headline, at the expense of covering what is happening in the rest of the world. Here’s my headline: News trails the president, forgets about the rest of the world. This is what I worry will continue happening in the following year: The president leads, the press follows, reality fades, and countless stories go unreported. So stop.

Imagine what would happen if tomorrow, we woke up to headlines that did not repeat things we had already heard about on Twitter. If the press did not spend inordinate time and space covering a president who has threatened to set policy but has mostly enforced a standstill cycle of non-movement upon the Capitol and the nation. Cover that, sure. But also cover what’s happening elsewhere, and give that above-the-fold space if it’s worth it.

A tweet is not a headline. Fake news does not belong on the front page. Spin tactics designed to taunt attention should not distract the press from covering climate change, economic inequality, social injustice, financial insecurity, the rise of populism in depth. Not as bullet points — evolve out of PowerPoint culture. Snap out of Alexa mode. If we want the bullet points, we know where to find them.

We will extend our famously short attention span if you give us something worth reading, worry not. If all we get are bullet points, we will allot a few seconds while we multitask. So help us understand why the U.K. is so desperate to leave the EU despite the fact that doing so seems immensely difficult. Explain to us how the Ukrainian president rose to power so that we can make sense of the history and culture of a country that has become so involved in our impeachment politics. Climate change is not an argument, but there’s financial advantage associated with choosing to debate it as such; detail that for us instead of reporting on the issue as fake news bickering.

Finally, we are a polarized nation. Work to help us evolve out of that mode. Resist the urge for drama, casting us as characters, using binary mode to report on right vs. wrong, evil vs. great, good vs. bad, fake vs. real. Yes, fake vs. real. Don’t report so-called fake news so as to refute it. You’re just making it more visible. Over the past three years, you haven’t been terrific at refuting it, either. So ignore it and report reality. Flood our screens with the truth and crowd out everything designed to distract us from it.

You still get to decide what’s news. Don’t be in such a hurry to give up on your agency.

Zizi Papacharissi is a professor of communication and political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

For a press that has been shunned, embargoed and shut out of press conferences, the American media has been remarkably willing to cover the White House to the tune President Trump sets. The president tweets; the press amplifies. The president makes a statement designed to be outrageous; the press gawks. The president condemns journalism; the press gently knocks back at the White House door. If this were a dance, he’s the alpha male in conventional lead mode, and the press is the reluctant dance partner who was too polite to decline. Rarely has a press been so appalled and enthralled with a president at the same time.

Trump’s running again, and neither bookies nor polls have ruled out his chances for reelection. At any rate, he is the president. That happened — more than three years ago by now, but much of the media is still shaking its head in disbelief. It’s still behaving like it happened yesterday — or perhaps not at all. It’s time for the press to start covering him as a president and not as a presidential candidate. We elected a president who treats the business of news with the mentality of reality TV. We aren’t the first. We won’t be the last. Get over it, and do something instead.

What do I mean? Be proactive. Most of the American press has covered Trump in a reactive mode. Seldom has a president manipulated journalists so skillfully, and hardly ever have politicians been able to use social media so deftly to their advantage. He points; the press looks. He pushes the press aside in favor of Twitter as an agenda-setting conduit; the press runs over to meet him. He yells; the press pumps the volume up by offering a headline, at the expense of covering what is happening in the rest of the world. Here’s my headline: News trails the president, forgets about the rest of the world. This is what I worry will continue happening in the following year: The president leads, the press follows, reality fades, and countless stories go unreported. So stop.

Imagine what would happen if tomorrow, we woke up to headlines that did not repeat things we had already heard about on Twitter. If the press did not spend inordinate time and space covering a president who has threatened to set policy but has mostly enforced a standstill cycle of non-movement upon the Capitol and the nation. Cover that, sure. But also cover what’s happening elsewhere, and give that above-the-fold space if it’s worth it.

A tweet is not a headline. Fake news does not belong on the front page. Spin tactics designed to taunt attention should not distract the press from covering climate change, economic inequality, social injustice, financial insecurity, the rise of populism in depth. Not as bullet points — evolve out of PowerPoint culture. Snap out of Alexa mode. If we want the bullet points, we know where to find them.

We will extend our famously short attention span if you give us something worth reading, worry not. If all we get are bullet points, we will allot a few seconds while we multitask. So help us understand why the U.K. is so desperate to leave the EU despite the fact that doing so seems immensely difficult. Explain to us how the Ukrainian president rose to power so that we can make sense of the history and culture of a country that has become so involved in our impeachment politics. Climate change is not an argument, but there’s financial advantage associated with choosing to debate it as such; detail that for us instead of reporting on the issue as fake news bickering.

Finally, we are a polarized nation. Work to help us evolve out of that mode. Resist the urge for drama, casting us as characters, using binary mode to report on right vs. wrong, evil vs. great, good vs. bad, fake vs. real. Yes, fake vs. real. Don’t report so-called fake news so as to refute it. You’re just making it more visible. Over the past three years, you haven’t been terrific at refuting it, either. So ignore it and report reality. Flood our screens with the truth and crowd out everything designed to distract us from it.

You still get to decide what’s news. Don’t be in such a hurry to give up on your agency.

Zizi Papacharissi is a professor of communication and political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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