In battle of president vs. press, each side screams at the other but neither is listening

In battle of president vs. press, each side screams at the other but neither is listening
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The public jousting between the Trump administration and the press has become tedious and pointless. Neither side appears willing to admit its flaws.

On one side is traditional establishment media. One can argue that its leader is Dean Baquet, the executive editor of the most influential publication in the country, the New York Times.

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"Our president may not like or understand what we do. In fact, it is in his interest to undermine us since we cast ourselves as independent institutions who desperately and competitively want to know the truth," Baquet said in being honored Tuesday night by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

 

Baquet talks about the president's interest in undermining independent institutions but doesn't acknowledge the New York Times doing that very thing by eliminating an important position when it comes to holding itself accountable. 

In a staff memo announcing the end of the public editor column on May 17, 2017, Times then-publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. wrote about plans to expand the online commenting sections. He also pointed to outside media criticism as another reason the Times' oversight duties had "outgrown" the public editor position:

"The responsibility of the public editor — to serve as the reader’s representative — has outgrown that one office. Our business requires that we must all seek to hold ourselves accountable to our readers. When our audience has questions or concerns, whether about current events or our coverage decisions, we must answer them ourselves.”

What is a public editor? First let's look at its history: The position was created in 2003 following the Jayson Blair scandal that rocked the Times to its core, after it was discovered that Blair was regularly fabricating stories and sources. 

The public editor position soon followed to act as an internal, independent watchdog on the paper's reporting and to serve as a platform for readers' concerns.

From there, Times' public editors wrote columns critiquing the Times in the paper's own op-ed section. But as all those holding said position quickly learned, a large majority of writers and editors (and anchors and hosts and on the television side) are as thin-skinned as the president they currently cover. 

Result: In the span of 14 years, the Times went through six public editors, which is relatively high turnover, for a paper considered the place where many in this business aspire to ultimately work. And, in May 2017, Liz Spayd, its last public editor, was unceremoniously let go

Other publications including The Hill don't have public editors or ombudsman. But given the influence and sheer size of The Times, and also considering the precedent of creating the position there, eliminating it wasn't one of the better decisions the paper has made at a time when public trust in the Fourth Estate sits at all-time lows. 

In place of the public editor, the paper announced it was creating a "Reader Center" to act as a rapid-response platform for reader recommendations or suggestions. 

But to rely on comments sections and social media feedback is as troubling as it is lazy, from an accountability perspective. Know this: Twitter isn't a bully pulpit, it's the Roman Coliseum in the gladiator days. It's the mob where bullies, some of whom are journalists and columnists, rule the platform. The same goes for comments sections, where objective, lucid perspective is always drowned out by the loudest, most provocative voices in the room. 

If that's how the Times now holds itself accountable, that's a huge problem. 

But no worries, Baquet gets his award and gives the soaring speech right out of an Aaron Sorkin production about the free press holding institutions of power to account. 

On the other side is the Trump administration and the president himself. He sees the press as being a wildly unpopular institution among his base. 

How unpopular? 

A 2017 NPR-PBS Newshour-Marist poll found that 92 percent of what the poll calls “strong Republicans” and 93 percent of Trump supporters don't trust the media very much or at all. 

And according to data from Harvard-Harris in 2017, 65 percent, nearly two-thirds of voters, believe there is a lot of fake news in the mainstream media, including 80 percent of Republicans, 60 percent of independents and 53 percent of Democrats.

In terms of overall coverage, Pew Research found in its analysis of media coverage in all of 2017 that the president received just 5 percent positive coverage during his first year in office. Context: President Obama received more than eight times the amount of positive coverage in his first year, in 2009. 

President TrumpDonald John TrumpOmar fires back at Trump over rally remarks: 'This is my country' Pelosi: Trump hurrying to fill SCOTUS seat so he can repeal ObamaCare Trump mocks Biden appearance, mask use ahead of first debate MORE sees all of these numbers around trust and negativity and turns it to his advantage. It's the oldest play run in Washington: Attack an unpopular institution and exploit that unpopularity to your advantage. 

But instead of that institution being Congress or the IRS, it's now the media, in the eyes of most Republicans. 

And like many things this president and (by extension, his administration) does, this strategy went way too far on Tuesday at an EPA summit in Washington featuring the agency's embattled administrator, Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittJuan Williams: Swamp creature at the White House Science protections must be enforceable Conspicuous by their absence from the Republican Convention MORE.

"Reporters from CNN, The Associated Press and E&E News were among a group of journalists barred from attending a two-day-long event kicked off at EPA headquarters Tuesday morning," The Hill's Miranda Green reported on Tuesday. 



One AP reporter said she was grabbed by the shoulders and shoved forcibly out of the building.

“This was simply an issue of the room reaching capacity, which reporters were aware of prior to the event," an EPA spokesperson said.

But despite that claim, there were several seats vacant when Pruitt began speaking. In other words, this was a calculated message to certain outlets, and that's unacceptable. 


Add it all up, and you have a press that is overwhelmingly negative toward the administration and particularly the president. In the process, they refuse to accept the studies around heavily-tilted coverage against Trump and perception of fabricated stories likely fueled via the over-reliance of unnamed sources. 

There's very little contrition or self-reflection despite the public demanding it. And accountability? Please.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration and the president himself overplay their hand with almost-daily declarations of "fake news!" while playing into the authoritarian role the press continually accuses it of playing via this stupid stunt at the EPA on Tuesday. 

Each side screams at the other but neither is listening. 

In the middle are readers and viewers, who only hear the cacophony while not loathing one side or the other depending on how they voted. 

In other words, it's a mess out there with no end in sight. 

Joe Concha (@JoeConchaTV) is a media reporter for The Hill.