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.

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