Aesop’s Fables are rich with lessons that resonate through the centuries, not always comfortably. In “The Tortoise and the Eagle,” a tortoise complains about her earthbound life and wishes for the power of flight. A passing eagle obliges, lifting her to the clouds, then releasing her to be dashed on the mountainside. The moral: Be careful what you wish for.
We’d do well to listen to this warning as the voices railing against the news media grow louder.
No voice is more insistent than that of the incoming U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration. Trump’s first post-election news conference was a wild mix of disdain, bluster and dismissiveness beyond anything I’ve seen in such a setting. When “Saturday Night Live” tried a satirical turn of the event a few days later, it seemed almost tame in comparison.
Trump is hardly the first president (or president-elect) to call out the media—in this case, Buzzfeed and CNN were the subject of his ire over alleged, unsubstantiated Russian intelligence about Trump—but rarely, if ever, has it been done with such contempt.
More than a few people welcome Trump’s approach. Many of his supporters believe news media have it in for him, and for the conservative/right wing in general. For them, it’s about time the press was put in its place.
But what should trouble all of us is the post-conference rumblings that the White House press corps is about to be displaced.
Incoming White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said the administration is considering moving future news conferences—and those who cover them—to a larger venue, such as the White House Conference Center or offsite to the Old Executive Office Building. The current locale, a short stroll from the Oval Office, would no longer serve as a place for reporters to camp out and monitor what’s happening.
Priebus—who made clear no decision has been made—presents this as an issue of fairness, to allow more reporters to cover news conferences. Reporters fear this is a step in the direction of limiting access to the president and his administration.
Given Trump’s ongoing war with news media—remember, this is the man who threatened to weaken First Amendment protection of the press—I think the reporters are correct.
As I’ve noted before, journalism today is in a sad state. Staff reductions, budget cuts and the hard shift toward click-bait over hard journalism have decimated the industry. In this landscape Trump has proven incredibly adept at creating the headlines and distractions he wants—and make no mistake, he knows exactly what he’s doing—with a simple, seemingly misguided tweet or two.
But the challenge is more than overworked and underfunded newsrooms. A large swath of the American public doesn’t trust the news media—just 32 percent, according to a recent Gallup poll. Trump himself, with a historically low approval rating of an incoming president, scores better.
Modern journalists need to take this seriously. I would call this a crisis, and one of the most crucial tools in a crisis is a solid, well-executed communication strategy. Yes, that’s work over and above being good, responsible journalists who ask the hard questions and hold leaders accountable. But solid journalism alone, while absolutely critical, is hard pressed to break through the loss of credibility.
All this said … the news media are not the tortoise in this fable. The tortoise stands for the American people who celebrate the decline of journalism.
“Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government,” wrote Hugo Black, a U.S. Supreme Court justice in 1971. “And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell.”
The tortoise made a thoughtless wish and paid a deadly price. Should we do likewise regarding the role of the press in American society, our fate may be just as tragic.