Jules Witcover: Trump and erosion of American journalism

Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON — President Trump’s war on American journalism — labeling the bulk of it “fake news” as a cloak over his own serial lying and misrepresentations — has created a genuine crisis of credibility in the news business. Yet the best and most honest of its practitioners persevere, in both print and electronic branches, to meet the needs of the public.

Three of the of oldest established newspapers — The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal — have provided deep investigations into the business and personal affairs of candidate and now President Trump, raising questions about his qualifications and abilities to lead the world’s greatest democracy.

Seasoned political analysts have filled network and cable television screens with endless inquiry and commentary, much of it opinionated but also much of it truth-seeking. The best of the lot was the recent interview of President Trump by NBC News anchor Lester Holt. He courteously yet relentlessly grilled Trump on camera over his pivotal White House dinner with FBI Director James Comey, whom Trump subsequently fired. Trump acknowledged that, concerned by what he called “that Russian thing,” he canned Comey himself, not on the recommendation of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

Assembled network and cable punditry panels have included knowledgeable print and television analysts and academics. But also lumped in on many of them now are partisan hacks and pitchmen spouting their biases, affording them equal weight to viewers who may not readily recognize the difference.

Among the best of the former is David Axelrod, a longtime Chicago Tribune political reporter who became chief strategist of the 2008 presidential campaign of Barack Obama. He now is director of the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and a CNN political panelist. Recently, he has begun interviewing major veteran political figures, starting with Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Gov. Jerry Brown of California, eschewing politics as usual in favor of examining the motives and quests of their lifelong careers in public service.

Other Sunday political talk shows on television are hosted by scrupulous moderators such as the mild-mannered John Dickerson of CBS News on “Face the Nation.” He is heir to the seat honorably occupied for years by the now retired Bob Schieffer, known for his courtly though probing questions.

In a recent interview with Trumps’ secretary of defense, retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, Dickerson followed that tradition by asking the famed warrior nicknamed “Mad Dog”: “What keeps you awake at night?” The grim-faced general shot back: “Nothing. I keep other people awake at night.” It was a reply particularly revealing about the man who may well be Trump’s most influential adviser.

The weekly political talk-show format began on radio in 1945 as “Meet the Press,” produced by American Mercury magazine owner Lawrence Spivak, with radio personality Martha Rountree as host. The program debuted on television in 1947 and ran for a half-hour until 1992, when it was expanded to a hour, under a series of hosts.

Inevitably, some of the best reporters from major newspapers responded to the call of much higher pay and celebrity in television and became regular “talking heads.” With the rapid spread of digital journalism, a new generation of would-be reporters began writing for blogs on the Internet, flooding the newsgathering market.

Now anybody calling himself or herself a reporter or a blogger can be one, with or without professional training, and many are very good at it. They now dominate social media such as Facebook and Twitter, sometimes adhering to the accepted journalism standards of accuracy, honesty and precision, sometimes ignoring them.

Unsurprisingly, the bar of credibility in news reporting has slipped in the hands of many casual or uncaring scribblers of news, rumor, gossip or just plain malicious fake news. Trump, who deals so casually with lying and misrepresenting facts himself, does so for his own purposes.

This new and dangerous president who tells his trusting flock that the press is the enemy of the people is really describing himself, as he digs himself, and the country, ever deeper into destructive delusion.

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