Journalism changed under Trump — will it keep changing under Biden?

“Twentieth-century America held tightly to the illusion that there’s no gap between objectivity and justice. For better or worse, those days are over, and only an act of deep historical amnesia can bring them back.”

Journalism, by taking an increasingly oppositional stance toward the Trump administration over the past four years, has begun to transform itself far more fundamentally than any digital technology (blogging, podcasting, the iPhone) ever has.

For the past 60 years — the occasional well-publicized in-depth investigation aside — most political reporting in the United States has tended to set the boundaries of the possible somewhere in between the positions of both political major parties. Journalists have relied heavily on elite sources (officials in government — not just politicians themselves but their staffers and the permanent Washington bureaucracy) for story tips and off-the-record feedback. In essence, political journalism in the United States has been largely driven by elites, written by elites, and consumed by elites, too.

The problem for Western journalism in the 21st century is that the political elites have revealed themselves to be quite problematic. Public trust in elite systems across the board — from churches to police to legislatures — has caved in. Even more ominously, the elite system seems to be irrevocably divided between a responsible liberal-centrist governance wing and an almost nihilistic right-wing populist insurgency of deliberate misgovernance.

Journalists are thus increasingly forced to choose between either (a) representing the range of important political opinion that actually exists, or (b) holding fast to their foundations as enablers of democracy. How does one enhance the democratic potential of an elite system in which half no longer believes in liberal democracy?

Consider this New York Times story from November 2019, headlined “How the State Dept.’s Dissenters Incited a Revolt, Then a Rallying Cry” and written at the height of the impeachment of President Donald Trump. Penned before the public testimony of a parade of career officials who called for the impeachment of the president, it noted:

Rarely has the State Department, often seen as a staid pillar of the establishment, been the center of a revolt against a president and his top appointees. But as a parade of department officials has recounted to lawmakers how policy was hijacked by partisan politics, many career diplomats say they have been inspired by their colleagues’ willingness to stand up to far more powerful voices after nearly three years of being ignored or disparaged by Mr. Trump and those he has chosen to lead the department.

This story, like many other news reports written during the first term of the Trump presidency, reflects a circumstance that I call “the crackup of the elites.” By this I mean the dynamics by which a relatively coherent system of elite governance, to which journalists have traditionally indexed their information-gathering processes, has begun to decompose.

Under pressure from both the rise of anti-liberal populist parties and the increasing centrality of social media in the formal and informal mechanisms of political communication, the elite system that once powered journalistic operations in democratic states has turned against itself.

This creates critical procedural problems for high-level public affairs reporting that have been exacerbated and complicated by a normative impasse: The anti-liberal tendencies of new elites expose the underlying and unexpressed liberalism of most of the political media, forcing them to choose between their values and what they see as their duty to report the positions and statements of those in positions of political power.

We can see this clearly in the example above from the Times, but it’s been repeatedly evident, across news coverage of not only the Trump administration but of the regimes of many hobbled democracies across the western world. It highlights yet another degradation of journalism’s long-held ideals, in which the conditions on the ground sorely undercut the conditions of the imagination.

The output of news outlets reporting on the administration regularly came to resemble coverage of political machinations in foreign autocratic countries more than it did the centrist, understated, and unproblematized articulations of the lifetime bureaucrats of Foggy Bottom, which had long characterized the Times and other media like it.

With power soon to be back in the hands of Biden and his team of (depending on how you want to look at it) either steady professionals or his out-of-touch old friends, the major question for the next year is how journalism will reorient itself. Now that the so-called “adults are back in charge,” American journalism will have to decide whether it learned a liberal lesson from the past four years or a radical lesson. Either would represent a major change, but to greater and lesser degrees.

If journalism has learned a liberal lesson, it would see its mission as having largely been successful: The Republic didn’t collapse, liberal norms were (barely) upheld, and journalism outed itself as having a value system — a liberal one. To the degree that the GOP continued to try to overturn elections and subvert liberal norms, beltway journalism would remain opposed to it.

If journalism has learned a radical lesson, though, it will have learned that it should always be opposed to political elites, whether Republican or Democrat, and that this oppositional stance also needs to embrace the marginalized and the historically left-out: women, Black and Latinx communities, LGBT and trans people. It would engage in what Wesley Lowrey has called a true “reckoning with objectivity.”

What journalism will do in 2021 remains to be seen. But for a clue as to the consequences of either choice, it would behoove Americans to cast their gaze a little wider and look at how journalists in the rest of the world have functioned under decaying democratic regimes.

Twentieth-century America held tightly to the illusion that there’s no gap between objectivity and justice. Only in America do we think “fake news” is a new phenomenon. And our long-held assumption that our elites were generally responsible and trying to “do what’s best” has been profoundly tested. For better or worse, those days are over, and only an act of deep historical amnesia can bring them back.

C.W. Anderson is a professor of media and communication at the University of Leeds.

Journalism, by taking an increasingly oppositional stance toward the Trump administration over the past four years, has begun to transform itself far more fundamentally than any digital technology (blogging, podcasting, the iPhone) ever has.

For the past 60 years — the occasional well-publicized in-depth investigation aside — most political reporting in the United States has tended to set the boundaries of the possible somewhere in between the positions of both political major parties. Journalists have relied heavily on elite sources (officials in government — not just politicians themselves but their staffers and the permanent Washington bureaucracy) for story tips and off-the-record feedback. In essence, political journalism in the United States has been largely driven by elites, written by elites, and consumed by elites, too.

The problem for Western journalism in the 21st century is that the political elites have revealed themselves to be quite problematic. Public trust in elite systems across the board — from churches to police to legislatures — has caved in. Even more ominously, the elite system seems to be irrevocably divided between a responsible liberal-centrist governance wing and an almost nihilistic right-wing populist insurgency of deliberate misgovernance.

Journalists are thus increasingly forced to choose between either (a) representing the range of important political opinion that actually exists, or (b) holding fast to their foundations as enablers of democracy. How does one enhance the democratic potential of an elite system in which half no longer believes in liberal democracy?

Consider this New York Times story from November 2019, headlined “How the State Dept.’s Dissenters Incited a Revolt, Then a Rallying Cry” and written at the height of the impeachment of President Donald Trump. Penned before the public testimony of a parade of career officials who called for the impeachment of the president, it noted:

Rarely has the State Department, often seen as a staid pillar of the establishment, been the center of a revolt against a president and his top appointees. But as a parade of department officials has recounted to lawmakers how policy was hijacked by partisan politics, many career diplomats say they have been inspired by their colleagues’ willingness to stand up to far more powerful voices after nearly three years of being ignored or disparaged by Mr. Trump and those he has chosen to lead the department.

This story, like many other news reports written during the first term of the Trump presidency, reflects a circumstance that I call “the crackup of the elites.” By this I mean the dynamics by which a relatively coherent system of elite governance, to which journalists have traditionally indexed their information-gathering processes, has begun to decompose.

Under pressure from both the rise of anti-liberal populist parties and the increasing centrality of social media in the formal and informal mechanisms of political communication, the elite system that once powered journalistic operations in democratic states has turned against itself.

This creates critical procedural problems for high-level public affairs reporting that have been exacerbated and complicated by a normative impasse: The anti-liberal tendencies of new elites expose the underlying and unexpressed liberalism of most of the political media, forcing them to choose between their values and what they see as their duty to report the positions and statements of those in positions of political power.

We can see this clearly in the example above from the Times, but it’s been repeatedly evident, across news coverage of not only the Trump administration but of the regimes of many hobbled democracies across the western world. It highlights yet another degradation of journalism’s long-held ideals, in which the conditions on the ground sorely undercut the conditions of the imagination.

The output of news outlets reporting on the administration regularly came to resemble coverage of political machinations in foreign autocratic countries more than it did the centrist, understated, and unproblematized articulations of the lifetime bureaucrats of Foggy Bottom, which had long characterized the Times and other media like it.

With power soon to be back in the hands of Biden and his team of (depending on how you want to look at it) either steady professionals or his out-of-touch old friends, the major question for the next year is how journalism will reorient itself. Now that the so-called “adults are back in charge,” American journalism will have to decide whether it learned a liberal lesson from the past four years or a radical lesson. Either would represent a major change, but to greater and lesser degrees.

If journalism has learned a liberal lesson, it would see its mission as having largely been successful: The Republic didn’t collapse, liberal norms were (barely) upheld, and journalism outed itself as having a value system — a liberal one. To the degree that the GOP continued to try to overturn elections and subvert liberal norms, beltway journalism would remain opposed to it.

If journalism has learned a radical lesson, though, it will have learned that it should always be opposed to political elites, whether Republican or Democrat, and that this oppositional stance also needs to embrace the marginalized and the historically left-out: women, Black and Latinx communities, LGBT and trans people. It would engage in what Wesley Lowrey has called a true “reckoning with objectivity.”

What journalism will do in 2021 remains to be seen. But for a clue as to the consequences of either choice, it would behoove Americans to cast their gaze a little wider and look at how journalists in the rest of the world have functioned under decaying democratic regimes.

Twentieth-century America held tightly to the illusion that there’s no gap between objectivity and justice. Only in America do we think “fake news” is a new phenomenon. And our long-held assumption that our elites were generally responsible and trying to “do what’s best” has been profoundly tested. For better or worse, those days are over, and only an act of deep historical amnesia can bring them back.

C.W. Anderson is a professor of media and communication at the University of Leeds.

Tauhid Chappell and Mike Rispoli   Defund the crime beat

Nicholas Jackson   Blogging is back, but better

Rick Berke   Virtual events are here to stay

Richard J. Tofel   Less on politics, more on how government works (or doesn’t)

Francesca Tripodi   Don’t expect breaking up Google and Facebook to solve our information woes

Jody Brannon   People won’t renew

Ben Collins   We need to learn how to talk to (and about) accidental conspiracists

Megan McCarthy   Readers embrace a low-information diet

José Zamora   Walking the talk on diversity

Francesco Zaffarano   The year we ask the audience what it needs

Gabe Schneider   Another year of empty promises on diversity

Parker Molloy   The press will risk elevating a Shadow President Trump

Logan Jaffe   History as a reporting tool

Nonny de la Pena   News reaches the third dimension

Candis Callison   Calling it a crisis isn’t enough (if it ever was)

Raney Aronson-Rath   To get past information divides, we need to understand them first

Aaron Foley   Diversity gains haven’t shown up in local news

Errin Haines   Let’s normalize women’s leadership

Celeste Headlee   The rise of radical newsroom transparency

Joni Deutsch   Local arts and music make journalism more joyous

Imaeyen Ibanga   Journalism gets unmasked

Jennifer Choi   What have we done for you lately?

Anna Nirmala   Local news orgs grasp the urgency of community roots

Tonya Mosley   True equity means ownership

Edward Roussel   Tech companies get aggressive in local

Alicia Bell and Simon Galperin   Media reparations now

Catalina Albeanu   Publish less, listen more

Garance Franke-Ruta   Rebundling content, rebuilding connections

Chicas Poderosas   More voices mean better information

Don Day   Business first, journalism second

Danielle C. Belton   A decimated media rededicates itself to truth

Jessica Clark   News becomes plural

Rishad Patel   From direct-to-consumer to direct-to-believers

Jonas Kaiser   Toward a wehrhafte journalism

Samantha Ragland   The year of journalists taking initiative

Kate Myers   My son will join every Zoom call in our industry

Amara Aguilar   Journalism schools emphasize listening

Linda Solomon Wood   Canada steps up for journalism

Ståle Grut   Network analysis enters the journalism toolbox

Mark S. Luckie   Newsrooms and streaming services get cozy

Joanne McNeil   Newsrooms push back against Ivy League cronyism

Nikki Usher   Don’t expect an antitrust dividend for the media

Tanya Cordrey   Declining trust forces publishers to claim (or disclaim) values

Hadjar Benmiloud   Get representative, or die trying

Chase Davis   The year we look beyond The Story

Beena Raghavendran   Journalism gets fused with art

Sarah Stonbely   Videoconferencing brings more geographic diversity

John Davidow   Reflect and repent

Alfred Hermida and Oscar Westlund   The virus ups data journalism’s game

Masuma Ahuja   We’ll remember how interconnected our world is

Kevin D. Grant   Parachute journalism goes away for good

María Sánchez Díez   Traffic will plummet — and it’ll be ok

L. Gordon Crovitz   Common law will finally apply to the Internet

David Chavern   Local video finally gets momentum

Benjamin Toff   Beltway reporting gets normal again, for better and for worse

Astead W. Herndon   The Trump-sized window of the media caring about race closes again

Christoph Mergerson   Black Americans will demand more from journalism

Tamar Charney   Public radio has a midlife crisis

Matt DeRienzo   Citizen truth brigades steer us back toward reality

Cherian George   Enter the lamb warriors

Matt Skibinski   Misinformation won’t stop unless we stop it

John Saroff   Covid sparks the growth of independent local news sites

Victor Pickard   The commercial era for local journalism is over

Cory Bergman   The year after a thousand earthquakes

Hossein Derakhshan   Mass personalization of truth

C.W. Anderson   Journalism changed under Trump — will it keep changing under Biden?

Anthony Nadler   Journalism struggles to find a new model of legitimacy

Jesse Holcomb   Genre erosion in nonprofit journalism

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen   Stop pretending publishers are a united front

Laura E. Davis   The focus turns to newsroom leaders for lasting change

Marie Shanahan   Journalism schools stop perpetuating the status quo

Joshua Darr   Legislatures will tackle the local news crisis

Jean Friedman-Rudovsky and Cassie Haynes   A shift from conversation to action

Moreno Cruz Osório   In Brazil, a push for pluralism

Whitney Phillips   Facts are an insufficient response to falsehoods

Stefanie Murray and Anthony Advincula   Expect to see more translations and non-English content

Rodney Gibbs   Zooming beyond talking heads

Renée Kaplan   Falling in love with your subscription

Marissa Evans   Putting community trauma into context

Charo Henríquez   A new path to leadership

David Skok   A pandemic-prompted wave of consolidation

Jennifer Brandel   A sneak peak at power mapping, 2073’s top innovation

Taylor Lorenz   Journalists will learn influencing isn’t easy

Ariane Bernard   Going solo is still only a path for the few

Andrew Donohue   The rise of the democracy beat

Steve Henn   Has independent podcasting peaked?

Heidi Tworek   A year of news mocktails

Burt Herman   Journalists build post-Facebook digital communities

Kawandeep Virdee   Goodbye, doomscroll

Mike Ananny   Toward better tech journalism

Sue Cross   A global consensus around the kind of news we need to save

Tim Carmody   Spotify will make big waves in video

Tshepo Tshabalala   Go niche

Ray Soto   The news gets spatial

Jeremy Gilbert   Human-centered journalism

M. Scott Havens   Traditional pay TV will embrace the disruption

Nico Gendron   Ask your readers to help build your products

Colleen Shalby   The definition of good journalism shifts

Marcus Mabry   News orgs adapt to a post-Trump world (with Trump still in it)

Zizi Papacharissi   The year we rebuild the infrastructure of truth

Kerri Hoffman   Protecting podcasting’s open ecosystem

Loretta Chao   Open up the profession

Pia Frey   Building growth through tastemakers and their communities

Eric Nuzum   Podcasting dodged a bullet in 2020, but 2021 will be harder

Cory Haik   Be essential

Bill Adair   The future of fact-checking is all about structured data

Bo Hee Kim   Newsrooms create an intentional and collaborative culture

Janet Haven and Sam Hinds   Is this an AI newsroom?

Jacqué Palmer   The rise of the plain-text email newsletter

Talmon Joseph Smith   The media rejects deficit hawkery

Mandy Jenkins   You build trust by helping your readers

Robert Hernandez   Data and shame

Patrick Butler   Covid-19 reporting has prepared us for cross-border collaboration

james Wahutu   Journalists still wrongly think the U.S. is different

Rachel Schallom   The rise of nonprofit journalism continues

Gonzalo del Peon   Collaborations expand from newsrooms to the business side

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams   The download, podcasting’s metric king, gets dethroned

Ashton Lattimore   Remote work helps level the playing field in an insular industry

Shaydanay Urbani and Nancy Watzman   Local collaboration is key to slowing misinformation

Sam Ford   We’ll find better ways to archive our work

Jim Friedlich   A newspaper renaissance reached by stopping the presses

Andrew Ramsammy   Stop being polite and start getting real

Basile Simon   Graphics, unite

Julia Angwin   Show your (computational) work

An Xiao Mina   2020 isn’t a black swan — it’s a yellow canary

Pablo Boczkowski   Audiences have revolted. Will newsrooms adapt?

Doris Truong   Indigenous issues get long-overdue mainstream coverage

Ryan Kellett   The bundle gets bundled

Mark Stenberg   The rise of the journalist-influencer

Michael W. Wagner   Fractured democracy, fractured journalism

Nabiha Syed   Newsrooms quit their toxic relationships

Rachel Glickhouse   Journalists will be kinder to each other — and to themselves

Brandy Zadrozny   Misinformation fatigue sets in

Natalie Meade   Journalism enters rehab

Jer Thorp   Fewer pixels, more cardboard

John Garrett   A surprisingly good year

Sarah Marshall   The year audiences need extra cheer

Delia Cai   Subscriptions start working for the middle

Cindy Royal   J-school grads maintain their optimism and adaptability

Zainab Khan   From understanding to feeling

Mariano Blejman   It’s time to challenge autocompleted journalism

Ben Werdmuller   The web blooms again

A.J. Bauer   The year of MAGAcal thinking

Sonali Prasad   Making disaster journalism that cuts through the noise

Brian Moritz   The year sports journalism changes for good

Julia B. Chan and Kim Bui   Millennials are ready to run things

Sumi Aggarwal   News literacy programs aren’t child’s play

Nisha Chittal   The year we stop pivoting

Sara M. Watson   Return of the RSS reader

Ernie Smith   Entrepreneurship on rails

Mike Caulfield   2021’s misinformation will look a lot like 2020’s (and 2019’s, and…)

Alyssa Zeisler   Holistic medicine for journalism

Ariel Zirulnick   Local newsrooms question their paywalls

John Ketchum   More journalists of color become newsroom founders

Kristen Muller   Engaged journalism scales

Meredith D. Clark   The year journalism starts paying reparations

Annie Rudd   Newsrooms grow less comfortable with the “view from above”