By Joe Sheller / Media Column
This month more than 300 newspapers across America opined on the same point, taking President Donald Trump to task for describing media as “fake news” and “enemies of the people.”
The day of commentary with its unified theme on Aug. 16 was promoted by the Boston Globe. Opinions expressed that day included an editorial posted by the Corridor Business Journal and another editorial printed in The Gazette. Other Iowa papers, from the Ames Tribune to the North Scott Press, and including The Des Moines Register, contributed viewpoints.
Some media critics decried the effort. Politico’s senior media writer Jack Shafer wrote, two days before the editorials appeared, that President Trump “will reap enough fresh material to whale on the media for at least a month.”
And on Aug. 16, President Trump did not hold back, calling the press in America “the opposition party.”
Despite Mr. Trump’s predictable response, I applaud the Iowa media outlets that objected to the “enemy” label. The Gazette, CBJ and Des Moines Register don’t often agree on a given controversy, but these three Iowa media outlets all made important points in their editorials.
I hope you read some of them.
The CBJ’s eloquent editorial noted that the current atmosphere of distrust of the media is not new, but now has reached a level of dangerous, authoritarian rhetoric. “The shift has largely come from the top down,” the editorial states. “President Donald Trump, never one to pull his punches, has intensified his attacks against the news media, recently describing journalists as ‘fake newsers,’ ‘dangerous and sick’ and the ‘enemy of the people’ – a particularly blood-soaked phrase favored by Soviet leaders, but found throughout history whenever a group in power seeks to destroy those who threaten it.”
The Gazette also noted that anti-media language is not new, but that Mr. Trump has pushed the language to new extremes. “Trump did not invent the type of scorched-earth political gamesmanship he is peddling today,” the paper wrote, “but he has pushed it to new levels when it comes to dealing with journalists. A healthy republic demands a free press, and Americans must demand political leaders who will respect it.”
The Des Moines Register also took Republican leaders, such as Gov. Kim Reynolds, to task for not standing up to the president’s assault on the press: “The true enemies of the people — and democracy — are those who try to suffocate truth by vilifying and demonizing the messenger. “The response to that cannot be silence.”
President Trump responded to the thoughtful commentary in a series of inarticulate Twitter rants. “Now the Globe is in COLLUSION with other papers on free press. PROVE IT!” he tweeted on Aug. 16. That was the danger of which some media observers warned — the editorials playing into a Trump vision of the “liberal” media as a force unified against him.
I don’t see it that way. I think the response from Mr. Trump was both predictable and not particularly important. The newspapers that all independently decided to write their own commentary on the same topic were performing one of the tasks of newspaper editorials: clarifying an issue. I don’t think it’s OK for the media to stand by and be labeled an “enemy” by a national leader who both seeks media attention and displays loathing for the same group.
But there are other realities at play here, too. The disconnect between the media and a significant portion of the public can’t be blamed only on politicians. While Mr. Trump deserves criticism for his authoritarian language regarding the press, it’s also true that he’s a political animal who senses a winning strategy to fire up his base. News media and journalists have become deeply unpopular, seen as “elite” and out of touch, with its content reflecting political insider gossip more than the hard realities of life in America.
The editorials of August don’t heal that divide. They weren’t meant to — they are declarations of a position on a question — but the disconnect between audience and news outlets is real and troubling.
President Trump has irresponsibly tossed gasoline on a fire, and decried the results. That’s reckless. Still, he didn’t light the fire of media disenfranchisement, which has been smoldering for decades.
So, hooray for a free press. But our media system is adrift. I fully endorse the message of the CBJ and others who opposed the “enemies” label. Still, to many potential audience members, the media doesn’t seem like friends, either.
Joe Sheller is an associate professor of communication and journalism at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids.