Be fair and fear­less

Walker County Messenger - - Front Page -

Many of Don­ald Trump’s tweets are im­pul­sive and re­pul­sive, in­ac­cu­rate and in­cen­di­ary. But one of his re­cent blasts on so­cial me­dia was cor­rect: “My use of so­cial me­dia is not Pres­i­den­tial -- it’s MOD­ERN DAY PRES­I­DEN­TIAL.”

Trump has shrewdly and suc­cess­fully used so­cial me­dia to spread his mes­sage di­rectly to his sup­port­ers with­out the messy and an­noy­ing scru­tiny of main­stream jour­nal­ists. In ef­fect, he’s cre­ated the TBN, the Trump Broad­cast­ing Net­work. And with more than 30 mil­lion fol­low­ers on Twit­ter alone -- who can then retweet his mis­sives to their own con­nec­tions -- his reach is enor­mous.

Trump’s prob­a­bly right when he says that with­out so­cial me­dia, he would not be pres­i­dent. “The FAKE & FRAUD­U­LENT NEWS ME­DIA is work­ing hard to con­vince Repub­li­cans and oth­ers I should not use so­cial me­dia,” he tweeted, “but re­mem­ber, I won the 2016 elec­tion with in­ter­views, speeches and so­cial me­dia. I had to beat #FakeNews, and did. We will con­tinue to WIN!”

But the larger and more crit­i­cal ques­tion is what he ac­tu­ally says on so­cial me­dia now that he’s pres­i­dent. How does he use this pow­er­ful plat­form to con­vey his poli­cies and val­ues?

To his core fol­low­ers, he’s still a hero. But to many Amer­i­cans, in­clud­ing a grow­ing num­ber of Repub­li­cans, he’s not win­ning on so­cial me­dia. He’s los­ing. In­stead of el­e­vat­ing pub­lic dis­course, he’s low­er­ing it; in­stead of dig­ni­fy­ing his of­fice, he’s de­mean­ing it.

In a re­cent NPR/Marist poll, 7 out of 10 Amer­i­cans, with lit­tle par­ti­san dif­fer­ence, agree “the level of ci­vil­ity in Wash­ing­ton has got­ten worse since Pres­i­dent Trump was elected, while just 6 per­cent say the over­all tone has im­proved.” And Trump’s vit­ri­olic di­a­tribes on Twit­ter con­trib­ute heav­ily to that cli­mate of con­tentious­ness.

In a Politico poll, 69 per­cent said Trump tweets too much. Fifty-nine per­cent called his Twit­ter habit a “bad thing” and only 23 per­cent called it a “good thing.” Even Sen. Mitch McCon­nell, the Repub­li­can leader, con­cedes that he’s “not a great fan” of Trump’s tweets. The pres­i­dent’s re­peated out­bursts dom­i­nate news cov­er­age and drain en­ergy and at­ten­tion away from his own leg­isla­tive agenda.

The news me­dia has long been a fa­vorite tar­get of Trump’s so­cial me­dia ma­chine, and lately his ob­ses­sion has got­ten worse. He’s pur­sued an inane vendetta against morn­ing talk show hosts Joe Scar­bor­ough (“Psy­cho Joe”) and Mika Brzezin­ski (“low I.Q. Crazy Mika”). And he’s re­peat­edly la­beled CNN “fake news” and “garbage jour­nal­ism.”

Trump reached a new low, even for him, when he posted an old video of him­self, made to pro­mote pro wrestling, pum­mel­ing an op­po­nent to the ground. The foe’s head, how­ever, is re­placed with the dis­tinc­tive CNN logo.

In the cur­rent cli­mate, where a de­ranged shooter feels free to at­tack Repub­li­can con­gress­men just be­cause of their pol­i­tics, jour­nal­ists rightly fear for their safety. But the pres­i­dent’s real goal is not to en­dan­ger jour­nal­ists’ se­cu­rity -- it’s to un­der­mine their cred­i­bil­ity. His tweets might seem un­hinged, but there’s a care­ful strat­egy be­hind them.

He’s try­ing to con­vince vot­ers that they should not be­lieve his crit­ics. In Trump’s Twit­ter World, there are no in­de­pen­dent prov­able facts, only “fake news.” The pres­i­dent alone knows The Truth. Any­one who con­tra­dicts him is “psy­cho” and “crazy” and speak­ing “garbage.”

This is pro­foundly dan­ger­ous. The pres­i­dent is de­lib­er­ately try­ing to crip­ple an es­sen­tial el­e­ment of democ­racy, the abil­ity of a free press to hold the lead­ers of the coun­try ac­count­able.

Other pres­i­dents have de­spised the press -- Richard Nixon comes to mind -- but Nixon didn’t have Twit­ter.

“Nixon didn’t air his griev­ances as pub­li­cally as Trump does,” his­to­rian H.W. Brands said in the Wash­ing­ton Post. “We’ve never seen any­thing like the on­go­ing per­for­mance of Pres­i­dent Trump.”

No, we haven’t, and he’s hav­ing an ef­fect, at least on his most par­ti­san sup­port­ers. A re­cent Pew poll found that 70 per­cent of Amer­i­cans feel the me­dia “keeps po­lit­i­cal lead­ers from do­ing things that shouldn’t be done.” But while 89 per­cent of Democrats share that view, only 42 per­cent of Repub­li­cans em­brace the me­dia’s watch­dog role.

Be­tween the two of us, we’ve spent al­most 100 years as pro­fes­sional jour­nal­ists, de­voted to the prin­ci­ples that Trump den­i­grates ev­ery day. We be­lieve deeply that jour­nal­ists must pro­tect the pub­lic by pre­vent­ing their lead­ers from “do­ing things that shouldn’t be done.”

But we also be­lieve that jour­nal­ists must per­form that role ac­cu­rately and eth­i­cally. No cheap shots or flimsy sto­ries. Re­sist the pres­sure to be first and wrong. The me­dia can be fair to the pres­i­dent and still be fear­less.

Steve and Cokie Roberts can be con­tacted by email at steve­[email protected]

News­pa­per En­ter­prise Assn.

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