Anyone with a Twitter account knows that President Donald J. Trump is not shy about voicing his disdain for the press. President Trump has revoked press credentials for journalists working for organizations that have published unfavorable articles about him; he has accused several reputable organizations of producing ‘fake news;’ and let’s not forget his 140-character declaration of the press as the “enemy of the American people.” Here, I explore how President Trump’s divisive, combative approach to the media has resulted in increased partisanship of more recent, digital start-ups, while giving traditional news organizations, such as newspapers, a renewed motivation to uncover the truth.
When President Trump issues an attack on the credibility and accuracy of the media, more ‘liberal’ news organizations such as BuzzFeed, Vox, and the Huff Post, formerly known as the Huffington Post, are quick to frame these moments as a broader threat to American political norms and the sanctity of democracy. Digitally driven news outlets that have begun within the last decade have produced more biased content throughout President Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and subsequent administration than what is tolerated for long-standing, traditional news outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post.
President Trump’s continuous attacks on the media and the discriminatory nature of his political agenda has resulted in resistance and pushback by organizations such as BuzzFeed, Vox, and the Huff Post, evident in headlines calling the president a ‘liar’ and a ‘racist.’ These organizations are producing this kind of biased content in part because it speaks to the politically engaged millennial audience they are targeting, and it increases traction on the online platforms through which they are published. Yet the audiences these organizations attract and the methods in which their content is disseminated does not change the fact that some of the most widely shared, viral news articles often communicate fierce opposition to President Trump’s policies.
President Trump’s election has seemingly inspired many recent, digitally driven news organizations to pursue a more partisan approach to politics.
In December 2015, months before Donald Trump had become the Republican Party’s nominee for president, the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed, Ben Smith, posted an internal memo to Twitter in which he essentially gives BuzzFeed employees permission to call Donald Trump a racist. In an email with the subject line reading: ‘Trump and Our Social Media Guidelines,’ Smith writes, “It is, for instance, entirely fair to call him a mendacious racist, as the politics team and others have reported clearly and aggressively: He’s out there saying things that are false, and running an overtly anti-Muslim campaign. BuzzFeed News’s reporting is rooted in facts, not opinion; these are facts.” Although Smith may believe he is voicing facts, he is drawing conclusions based on his own opinions and observations of Trump, and encouraging his employees to produce editorial content based on those same conclusions.
In an article published one day after the 2016 presidential election, Fusion Editor-in-Chief Dodai Stewart called her organization “the voice of the resistance.” Stewart also outlined several efforts the organization is committed to, such as emphasizing the reproductive rights of women, understanding the Voting Rights Act, gerrymandering, and analyzing what the state of the Supreme Court means for women, people of color, immigrants, and LGBTQ Americans. With this article, Stewart makes it clear that, unlike President Trump, the issues concerning women, immigrants, the LGTQ community, and other marginalized groups are some of Fusion’s top apprehensions as well.
Similarly, John Avlon of the Daily Beast published a piece titled ‘The Loyal Opposition,’ which describes employees of the publication as ‘early, principled, and unapologetic opponents of Donald Trump’s divisive and demagogic campaign.’ The Daily Beast has subsequently published several articles calling President Trump a liar and a dictator.
In December 2016, Lauren Duca, a writer at Teen Vogue, wrote an article titled, “Donald Trump is Gaslighting America,” where she asserted that Donald Trump won the presidency by “condoning and encouraging hatred, but also by normalizing deception.” After an appearance on Fox News’ “Tucker Carlson Tonight” where Carlson attempted to degrade Duca’s legitimacy by referring to previous articles she has written, which discuss topics such as thigh-high boots and Ariana Grande, Duca began a weekly op-ed column called “Thigh-High Politics.” According to the Teen Vogue website, Duca’s column “breaks down the news, provides resources for the resistance, and just generally refuses to accept toxic nonsense.” With Duca leading a new era of political coverage for Teen Vogue, it is fair to conclude that the magazine, which directs its content toward female teenagers, has adopted a highly partisan, anti-Trump approach to its political content.
The Daily Beast, BuzzFeed, and Fusion, among others, are essentially saying they are dedicated to the task of reporting on American politics from a perspective of opposition and disagreement with President Trump. The decision to shift company resources in order to produce editorial content that communicates the opinions of that organization’s employees is an obvious expression of political bias. It is important to acknowledge that the shift these platforms are making are a direct result of the election of Donald Trump as president.
Conversely, long-established, traditional news organizations, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, hear the President’s condemnation of many reputable media outlets and use it as fuel in their search for the truth. It is interesting to note that the organizations that are often the target of President Trump’s condemnations of biased, unfair reporting are the same organizations that are renewing their commitments to editorial accuracy and fairness.
In several of his tweets, President Trump has referred to the New York Times as ‘failing,’ ‘dishonest,’ and ‘fake,’ and has repeatedly criticized the publication for its ‘bad’ and ‘inaccurate’ coverage of him following his election on Nov. 8.
In response to the nationwide conversation regarding the accuracy and credibility of their organization, Dean Baquet, executive editor of the Times and Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher, released a letter to their readers on Nov. 13, stating: ‘As we reflect on the momentous result, and the months of reporting and polling that preceded it, we aim to rededicate ourselves to the fundamental mission of Times journalism. You can rely on The New York Times to bring the same fairness, the same level of scrutiny, the same independence to our coverage of the new president and his team.” With this memo, Baquet and Sulzburger are expressing the New York Times’ commitment to seek fairness and accuracy in their news coverage despite the election of a President who has often made accusatory, demeaning attacks to the integrity and motivations of their publication.
The Washington Post, having also come under scrutiny by the President for its coverage of his election and administration, took steps to reaffirm their commitment to seeking the truth by implementing a new tagline: “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” After making the announcement regarding the new slogan in February 2017, the Post published an article explaining that the paper’s readers are interpreting the new slogan as an indirect reply to President Trump’s attacks on the media, but that was not the intention. Paul Farhi, the author of the article, went on to say that the paper’s leadership decided to come up with a slogan before Donald Trump was the presidential nominee, with the sole goal of communicating that, “The Post has a long-standing reputation for providing news and information with unparalleled analysis and insight. Our position must be conveyed disruptively so we can shake consumers out of their news-as-commodity mindset.”
However, the timing is suspicious. In a time in which the President of the United States threatens to change libel laws, declares any negative polls as ‘fake news,’ and continuously bashes the credibility of reputable news organizations, it behooves the Post to assert their authority as one of the country’s journalistic powerhouses. Although executives at The Washington Post claim their intent with the new tagline was not a response to President Trump, its mere existence inherently communicates the message that the newspaper values the democratic principles of journalism now more than ever.
As some news organizations strive to affirm their reputation of unbiased reporting while others embrace a more partisan approach, one of the most prominent television news networks, CNN, has struggled to determine where it lies on the spectrum of neutrality in the wake of President Trump’s election. After repeatedly facing scrutiny for its left-leaning coverage, the network decided to hire pro-Trump correspondents to appear on the network and express their support for the President. CNN executives made this decision in an attempt to balance the political views of its mostly left-leaning panelists and provide the network with a greater degree of objectivity. However, this attempt only undercut CNN’s goals of authentically informing its audience, and it remains to be seen how CNN will continue to address accusations of political bias.
News organizations attempting to produce fair, truthful content and partisan publications publishing information that reflects a particular political opinion are both valuable assets to a public that is not only trying to understand the current state of American politics, but also develop their own opinions about it as voters. However, an increasingly partisan news climate has the potential to be problematic if there is a lack of disclosure between the organization and its readership. When one watches Fox News or reads an article from The Daily Beast, he or she must always keep in mind the political perspectives through which that organization is relaying the news. It is crucial that partisan and non-partisan news organizations continue to inform readers about the intentions and motivations behind the content they are providing in order to ensure the public is consuming news in a critical, intelligent way.