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News After TrumpJournalism's Crisis of Relevance in a Changed Media Culture$

Matt Carlson, Sue Robinson, and Seth C. Lewis

Print publication date: 2021

Print ISBN-13: 9780197550342

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2021

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780197550342.001.0001

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PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (oxford.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2021. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use. date: 27 November 2021



Decentering Journalism in the Contemporary Media Culture

(p.1) Introduction
News After Trump

Matt Carlson

Sue Robinson

Seth C. Lewis

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This introductory chapter begins by calling for a decentering of journalism in favor of a broader view of the complex political communication environment that has accompanied the proliferation of digital media channels. In this environment, journalism is engaged with other social actors in a struggle for the right to provide truthful accounts. At issue is the very relevance of journalism as an epistemic authority. These shifts in the media culture are not a passing moment but rather a confluence of enduring factors that need to be confronted. This informational context can be understood by examining how anti-institutional movements, such as populism, rely on denigrating journalism. This chapter argues that journalism theory and practice benefit from this broader contextual view. It ends by providing an outline of the book.

Keywords:   journalism, digital media, media culture, relevance, journalistic epistemology, objectivity, normativity, Donald Trump

“Our media is not free. It’s not fair. It suppresses thought. It suppresses speech, and it’s become the enemy of the people. It’s become the enemy of the people. It’s the biggest problem we have in this country.”1 These words were spoken by Donald Trump at a rally outside the White House on January 6, 2021. Thousands of Trump supporters had come to Washington, DC, to support Trump and his baseless claims that he, and not his opponent Joe Biden, had triumphed in the November 2020 election. Trump’s speech began with him badgering reporters—“the fake news media,” he called them—for downplaying the size of the crowd while he simultaneously falsely inflated its size to “hundreds of thousands.” As he spoke, Trump continued to denounce journalists as actively working against him by dismissing his fraud claims and suppressing information that would vindicate them. He accused journalists and congressional Democrats of working together (along with “big tech” firms like Google, Twitter, and Facebook). The theme was clear: journalists could not be trusted. As Trump told his crowd of fervent supporters: “The American people do not believe the corrupt fake news anymore. They have ruined their reputation.”

By the time of Trump’s 2021 speech, his attacks on journalists had become familiar to the point of ritual. Trump had been labeling journalists as the “enemy of the people” since 2017, and the initial outcry over this authoritarian rhetoric had been replaced by numbness. His discounting of news stories as fake news and his conjoining of journalists with the Democratic Party had also become common tropes. They were echoed in scores of speeches and press gaggles, repeated in hundreds of Twitter posts, and echoed in right-wing news outlets. Years of relentless belligerence toward journalists had simply become a standard part of the discursive environment.

Even with these jabs at the news media and other assorted opponents, the January rally was not a normal speech. For the bulk of it, Trump held tight (p.2) to his claim that he had won and that an election outcome that saw Biden defeat Trump by more than seven million votes with an Electoral College victory margin of 306 to 232 was nothing but a fraud. Trump proceeded to confidently spew dozens of allegations of election malfeasance that had been consistently discredited by election officials and judges at all levels. Most notably, he called on Vice President Mike Pence to refuse to certify the Electoral College results. That this was largely a ceremonial act dictated by law with no chance of affecting the electoral outcome did not matter; the defiance did. It was about asserting authority over reality. Trump ended his speech by urging his supporters to march to the Capitol Building, saying that he would be there with them to support them. His words ignited the agitated mob, already well stoked by prior speakers such as Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who called for “trial by combat.”2

What followed was a deadly attack on the Capitol by throngs of Trump supporters fighting their way into the building and sending lawmakers into lockdown. Unimaginable images poured out on live television and through social media, from attackers using steel barricades to break windows and gain entry, to hours later when police and National Guard soldiers cleared the building with tear gas. Journalists struggled with the language to describe what was occurring: was it a “mob,” a “coup,” “terrorists,” a “riot,” a “protest,” or even an “insurrection”?3 Reporters intent on covering ceremonial congressional proceedings suddenly became war correspondents risking their personal safety to report on the melee around them. This was more than an idle threat. Attackers carved “Murder the Media” into a Capitol door, and many reporters were accosted.4 Outside the building, a group of reporters had to abandon their equipment and flee as the crowd turned on them. Someone tied a camera cable into a noose.

The political violence incited by Trump—and the targeting of reporters during the attack—show in starkest terms the consequences of his language. His unwillingness to accept electoral defeat manifested itself as the creation of an alternative reality filled with fraud and conspiracies that had no evidence. His contempt toward the press paved the way not only for his supporters to disbelieve accurate reporting, but to take a hostile position toward most of the profession, outside a few right-wing news organizations. His constant berating of news as fake and journalists as biased had built a wall in their minds, and no well-reported news story was going to break through and convince them otherwise. To storm the Capitol is to be a true believer in Trump and to discount all other voices. After the attack, Trump’s speech (p.3) fomenting violence would result in his impeachment and sharp rebukes even from those inside the Republican Party who had previously been reluctant to criticize the president.5

As we look back at this incident, perhaps the question that lingers above all others is, How did we get here? And what do we do about it? These questions are bigger than any single book can tackle, and our part is to ask how the state of journalism has arrived at this point. Trump’s four years in office and two presidential campaigns provide ample cases of attacks on journalists, many of which appear in the chapters to come. However, our starting point is not to provide a retrospective of Trump’s antics during his time as president, but instead to pose a more basic question: How is the relevance of journalism being challenged in the contemporary media culture? Trump’s constant attacks on journalists coupled with his penchant for lying revealed that journalism’s model of serving the public is broken in ways that go well beyond the consequence of any single politician. It’s broken in ways that may be difficult to recognize in the day-to-day crush of news, and in ways that cannot be easily fixed by tweaking news practices. Of course, journalists still engage in watchdog reporting, churning out resource-intensive, in-depth investigations and challenging dubious official claims on a regular basis. Many people have been outraged by the lies, malfeasance, and incompetence that have been reported. But these accounts also get lost in the crush of news stories and media content that compete for our fragmented attention. They reach an audience numbed by the volume of breaking news stories that never seem to shift the status quo, or are met by jaded readers and viewers who have joined Trump and other conservative critics in judging the “mainstream” news media to be hopelessly tainted by leftist elitism. When journalism can no longer serve the public according to its mandate, when it can no longer muster broad, sustained attention and collective indignation, then we find ourselves in a moment of epistemic crisis and in need of fresh perspectives.

Trump’s removal from office did not wipe away the political currents that enabled it. His removal from social media platforms did not reset the media culture that has arisen. And his relative silence since leaving office did not restore trust in news or lessen the populist backlash against pluralism. What we need is an appraisal of Trump’s assault on the press and the responses from journalists—an autopsy of what went awry and what might be fixed that is forward-looking in challenging journalism to do better. This book is a reimagining of news after Trump.

(p.4) Confronting Journalism’s Relevance in a Changing Media Culture

When we call journalism’s relevance into question, what we mean is that we refuse to take journalism’s relevance for granted. Much of the research about journalism shares an unspoken assumption that news is always at the center of social and political processes. Even when journalism is made an object of critique, its social centrality is rarely questioned.6 Rather than automatically place journalism at the center, we instead treat journalism as one knowledge-producing symbolic system within the more expansive context of contemporary media. We use “media” in its broad sense to include all manner of mediated communication. This pluralistic view acknowledges how our lives are saturated with mediated experience.7 News is only ever a part of this experience.

We advocate for a broad perspective that locates journalism within what we label the “media culture.” While intentionally inclusive of a variety of media phenomena, media culture encapsulates three interrelated aspects. First, it includes the changing technologies, infrastructures, and institutions of media.8 The materiality of media technology cannot be overlooked, but it must also be understood as embedded within various institutional forms that shape what media “things”—computers, mobile phones, satellites, websites, and so on—look like and how they are used. This aspect of media culture also pertains to the structures that arise, including organizational and economic forms such as social media platforms. The second aspect involves the communicative practices taking place though these various media channels. People use media in myriad ways, and these practices should be understood as both dependent on the materiality of media technology and institutions and as adaptations to these structures. The final aspect is the realm of interpretation about these practices and structures. Media allow us to create particular symbolic forms that are collectively meaningful. The “culture” side of media culture in this sense resembles Raymond Williams’s idea of culture as the “structure of feeling” in a time and place.9 By emphasizing interactions across material forms, practices, and beliefs, the concept of media culture avoids either being technologically determinist or granting undue power to individuals. The media culture is an expansive space of actors and actions, of which journalism is only one part. Even journalism contains its own subcultures, including conservative news cultures.10 And while news remains a focus in the book, it is (p.5) always embedded among other types of media content with fuzzy, shifting boundaries between them.

The changing media culture is most notable for facilitating a panoply of mediated voices. Given how this process has unfolded over the past decades, it is easy to lose sight of the transformations that have occurred. From the expansion of mass communication forms such as cable television and talk radio to emergent digital channels and social media platforms, the overall shift has been the same: more communicators are engaging in a growing variety of practices through expanding networks of communicative flows. All of this decenters journalism and thus requires a broader conceptual framework attuned to positioning news discourse as just one form among many.11 Even if journalistic practices are thought to have remained constant, the changing media culture around journalism affects how journalism functions and how it is understood. Journalistic content circulates within (but is clearly not exclusive to) a variety of media channels—from television networks and social media platforms to radio stations and mobile apps. Plus, the existence of so many mediated voices alters how journalism is understood through the increasing numbers of alternative formats for conveying information, which in turn provide more spaces for media criticism to flourish.

Invoking the idea of “relevance” is about considering journalism’s place within this media culture as well as its broader social influence.12 In an earlier era, journalism’s centrality was at least partly an artifact of the constraints of a mass communication structure that limited the number of mediated voices. These limits concentrated attention on a small number of channels, which had the effect of producing a consensus-based news environment fed by lucrative revenues from advertisers needing to reach consumers. In what Daniel Hallin called the “high-modernist” moment for news, this was

an era when the historically troubled role of the journalist seemed fully rationalized, when it seemed possible for the journalist to be powerful and prosperous and at the same time independent, disinterested, public-spirited, and trusted and beloved by everyone, from the corridors of power around the world to the ordinary citizen and consumer.13

Hallin was already writing in 1992 about the dissolution of this moment for a variety of reasons that remain quite familiar: the collapse of the Cold War consensus ushered in stark political differences; distrust of institutions was rising; news reporting was becoming more adversarial; and the profit motive (p.6) was overtaking journalistic decision-making. While Hallin was writing about change, his formulation is also telling for how it articulated the resilience with which journalists would see themselves and their social role. A generation later, we can see how this normative imagination of journalism still retains its modernist thinking even as the political, technological, and cultural conditions have continued to shift around it.

The defining characteristic of this modernist model of journalistic relevance is how journalists have staked out a paradoxical social position in which they situate themselves as being culturally central while they simultaneously distance themselves from power. This is most clearly visible when journalists’ allegiance to objectivity is rendered in practice as neutrality and detachment, carefully situated “above the fray” of political battles waged by “both sides.”14 Thus, they position themselves as present among the powerful, but not involved in the administration of power. Normatively, this position allows journalists to gain access to power and to place themselves within democratic practices as central actors for the proper functioning of democracy—but this works only so far as journalists also accentuate their autonomy from power.15 This mixture of centrality and distance has always contained a contradiction that makes it problematic—particularly when journalists try to dismiss their impact or their role in constructing news accounts. But, in years of journalism research, the distance side of the equation has received far more attention than the centrality side. So, while questions have long been asked about whether journalism is truly independent from power, or whether objectivity and neutrality are possible or even desirable, questions of journalism’s importance—of its relative centrality in public life—often go unexamined.

Invoking relevance brings the question of journalism’s centrality into the spotlight. However, we need to avoid dichotomous thinking that reduces relevance to its presence or absence—the notion that news is either relevant or irrelevant—or reduces it to some sort of measurement. Instead, a beginning point is to ask how a newfound focus on journalistic relevance brings into the open contemporary journalism’s contradictions. On the one hand, journalism remains a powerful institution in democratic life and one that supports other powerful institutions. As an institution charged with representing social reality to mass audiences, it shapes collective understandings of the world we share. As an institution with a set of practices, it influences how political candidates act and eventually govern.16 In short, the power of news to make certain issues salient and meaningful in our collective life still (p.7) matters a great deal.17 The endurance of this vision of journalism is evident in the assumptions that appear in critiques of news. Much of the criticism directed at journalists for their political coverage is predicated on the belief that journalists often wield this power rather poorly. Familiar complaints focus on journalists’ tendencies to emphasize horse-race coverage over policy substance,18 overly defer to official sources,19 reduce controversy to false equivalences about “both sides,”20 ignore or stereotype marginalized populations,21 and play up conflict rather than address deeper structural factors.22 These issues only matter to the extent that journalism maintains significant authority within society through its institutionalized production of symbolic forms. At the core of their jobs, journalists still decide what counts as news and tell us why events matter. By relevance, therefore, we refer to the collective capacity of the American press to fulfill these instrumental, informational, symbolic, and democratic roles of consequence.

To question journalism’s relevance is to look broadly at the media culture and ask how shifts taking place at all levels of media consumption and production affect the institutional practices of news. To the factors identified by Hallin we need to add a host of others that have become especially influential in the twenty-first century: the decline of the agenda-setting power of traditional journalism,23 the scale of partisan news and its outsized impact (exemplified by Fox News—both its unique role in political discourse and in how it set the stage for Trump’s rise and accelerated his takeover of the Republican Party),24 the fracturing of media audiences,25 the withering of business models for news,26 and the maturing of digital platforms not produced or controlled by journalists as central sites for information circulation and public commentary.27 As a result of these changes, journalists’ jobs have become more arduous and complicated,28 journalism in local communities has suffered,29 coverage of key institutions has waned,30 some aspects of political engagement have declined,31 media have become fragmented and polarized,32 news consumption has been de-ritualized,33 and once-familiar patterns of mass communication have given way to something more difficult to describe. In the next chapter, we discuss these emergent conditions in more detail, but, suffice to say, they all raise questions about journalism’s relevance.

That journalism can be both relevant and irrelevant—that it is both fundamentally broken and yet a considerable force to be reckoned with—reflects the complicated media culture that has emerged. These opposing positions provide indices of the complex social relationships that define contemporary (p.8) journalism. Discussing one side without the other misrepresents the state of journalism. Speaking only of journalistic relevance as precarious downplays the still rather considerable power of news to mediate events to the public,34 and denies journalism’s role to either amplify or ameliorate the intense polarization of US politics or its role in challenging the words and actions of powerful actors. Conversely, treating journalism as unchanged by seismic shifts in the media culture uncouples news from its very real struggles. Taken together, these positions on journalistic relevance suggest a time of confusion and fragility, but also a period of readjustment.

Ultimately, what we gain from foregrounding journalistic relevance is greater recognition that journalists do not control the conditions in which they operate. They do not create new technologies, or govern media economics, or dictate that they be listened to. Instead they must respond to the swirling conditions in which they find themselves, beset by fundamental challenges while also reckoning with journalism’s own problematic patterns—including its multitude of mistakes. Digital networks alter communication flows, allowing for new forms of interactivity that compete with news (think of the ocean of time spent online—on YouTube, Instagram, Netflix, TikTok, and so on—and how only a tiny fraction of it is spent on anything resembling journalism);35 shifts in advertising models result in financial woes for news organizations; the rise of polarization and changing news audience habits give rise to news fatigue and consequently news avoidance; and sustained, orchestrated attempts at undermining journalism abound all around the world. These transformations, which we will delve into throughout this book, are tense, conflicted, and ongoing. They are not uniform or consensual. They have deep roots, and their consequences range from shifts in the everyday experience of how news gets made and consumed to debates over what kind of normative footing journalism should have in this political and media environment.

How Does the News Know? Epistemic Contests Surrounding Journalism

We have argued that focusing on relevance as a conceptual lens for thinking about journalism decenters journalism by placing it as one communicative practice among others within a larger media culture.36 But the question that hasn’t been asked is why we should care about journalism’s (p.9) relevance. Certainly many have a vested interest in the continued relevance of journalists, from working journalists to journalism educators to scholars of journalism like us. But our chief concern is not the well-being of journalists or the perpetuation of the news industry for its own sake. Rather, our interest lies in the status of news as a form of collective knowledge and how this knowledge has power to shape collective thinking about the world we inhabit.

News has long been recognized as distinct from other domains of knowledge that tend toward the systematic and the esoteric.37 It is closer to an everyday form of knowing; news texts offer contextualized information through plain language and/or images with the aim of reaching broad, nonexpert audiences. This divergence from other, more formalized forms of knowledge generation (such as science and medicine) should not minimize the importance of journalism as a way of knowing, but instead direct our attention to the interpretive structures of news narratives. How journalists produce knowledge can be examined through Mats Ekström’s definition of the epistemology of news as the “rules, routines and institutionalized procedures that operate within a social setting and decide the form of the knowledge produced and the knowledge claims expressed (or implied).”38 This decidedly pragmatic conceptualization of news-as-knowledge accentuates issues of practice and context over philosophical understandings of truth. It directs attention to how news is assembled as a knowledge form39 while also positioning these forms within the where of their social settings. News cannot be understood apart from this cultural context; it makes no sense without it. Journalists cannot force anyone to accept their stories as valid and true. Instead, they rely on what Thomas Gieryn calls “epistemic authority” or “the legitimate power to define, describe, and explain bounded domains of reality.”40 And this authority is not guaranteed. It is the product of ongoing legitimation strategies meant to establish, maintain, or repair the status of journalism in the face of contestation. Understanding, then, how journalists come to be acknowledged as authoritative storytellers in society (or not) is an essential element in investigating how journalism and its knowledge claims gain or lose relevance in a media culture in transition.

Our interest is not in any single news story, journalist, or incident, but rather how they amalgamate into a larger struggle over systems of public knowledge. Ultimately, these epistemic contests are conflicts over what truthful accounts ought to look like and who ought to create them. What journalism is becomes the object of these contests. This focus on epistemic (p.10) contests eschews more abstract philosophical questions about the status of truth and whether we exist in a “post-truth” age to instead examine the conditions that surround the production of news. Put another way, our interest is in how journalists justify and defend their reporting as what we might call “truthful accounts” that are broadly accepted as a viable representation of reality. This focus sidesteps questions of truth to instead emphasize news as a type of epistemic accomplishment occurring within a social space.

When we speak of relevance within the framework offered by the epistemology of news, what we are concerned about is the status of news as an institutional form of knowledge production.41 The institutional level of analysis comprises a focus both on the “occupational ideology” of journalists, as Mark Deuze discusses it,42 and on the organizational and material aspects of the news industry. The view encompasses both what journalists do (their practices) and what journalists value (their norms), and it suggests an interorganizational perspective, encompassing journalism’s orientation beyond any single newsroom. It directs attention to journalism as an idea—a way of thinking about how to communicate accurately, systematically, widely, and legitimately about events in the world. In this way, an epistemic view of journalism helps dispel any notion that news is simply a recitation of facts devoid of normative assumptions. Rather, clearly in its representational practices, the news always communicates values about the world in how it identifies what is good or bad, worthy of inclusion or able to be ignored.

The focus on epistemic contests also helps us connect discussion of journalism with larger issues of power. In a society in which the public relies on the mediation of current events through media channels—we all can’t be there, so we rely on media to take us there vicariously—questions of what forms these accounts take and who ought to produce them are intertwined with larger political questions about what liberal democracy ought to look like and how information about public life should be produced and circulated.

Foregrounding questions of relevance also speaks to the difficulty of using “journalism” as a collective noun.43 To speak of “journalism” as an entity is to conjure up something more cohesive and bounded than what actually exists.44 This is not a new problem. “Journalism” has always been a slightly messy term and a problematic signifier; what would be considered typical of journalism has varied in both time and place. When objective news emerged as the symbolic core of US journalism in the past century, it coexisted with partisan and alternative news formats (from tabloid newspapers to political (p.11) blogs) that defined themselves against this core whether by engaging in advocacy-based journalism or in alternative storytelling practices deliberately contrasted with staid news discourse. Because “journalism” covers such a diverse range of outlets, actors, expectations, and normative commitments, its use to denote something exact is always only partial. Moreover, the experiences of news organizations vary widely; at a time when the New York Times and Washington Post pursue aggressive, nationally based digital growth strategies, many local news outlets struggle with declining audiences and lost revenues. Digital news startups rise and fall with promises of improvements and innovation,45 while local television news wedded to familiar formulas continues to reach millions of daily viewers. The nightly network newscasts continue to sum up the day with their anchor-led gravity, while MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News carve out their pundit-led, partisan niches in their competition for eyeballs.

Although the boundaries of journalism are no doubt fuzzier than ever, it’s also hard to argue that professional journalism no longer exists in any recognizable form.46 Indeed, there are still routines, patterns, norms, ideals, and other signals of occupational orientation that are recognized (by journalists and by most everyone else) as being distinctly associated with this thing people call journalism.47 Does this mean that journalism is only done by professionals at traditional news organizations? Absolutely not, and in the book we talk about both the multifaceted nature of journalism as it exists now and, importantly, the broader conceptions of journalists and journalism that might emerge in the future. But it does mean that it’s fair to acknowledge that certain commitments and impulses—such as accuracy, fairness, independence, timeliness, and ethics48—have been and still are associated with capturing an essential characteristic of journalism as a meaningful “thing” in the world.

In this book, we refer to the well-established vision of journalism as fact-based, neutral, and autonomous as “the standard model” because of its prominence within the collective imagination of what journalism is. This is the model of journalism taught in introductory news writing courses or conjured when one is asked to think about news. That its symbolic value is disproportionate to its actual existence speaks to both its resilience and its weakness. How this normative understanding shapes the ways in which journalists approach questions of who, what, when, where, why, and how reveals visions of how democracy ought to operate. Ultimately it is the struggle over journalism—the fight to define it, defend it, and demean it—that (p.12) forms the heart of this book, and so how different actors portray journalism differently is more important than any particular definition that we ourselves might try to impose on “journalism” as a collective concept. The stakes of this struggle are not just what happens to journalism, but what happens to our communities—politically and logistically, but also socially, culturally, and morally.

What the Presidency of Donald Trump Meant for Journalism

The seemingly improbable rise of Donald Trump as a viable candidate for president, his eventual surprise electoral victory in 2016, his tumultuous, scandal-filled four years as president, and his loss to Joe Biden in 2020, provide a prism through which to examine issues of journalistic relevance and epistemic contests around journalism. Even if Trump did not create the conditions that made all of his actions possible, how he exploited them reveals fissures within the present media culture. Trump, with his knee-jerk antagonism toward journalists and his flagrant departure from the behavioral norms of the presidency, allows us to see more clearly how the forces of fragmentation, polarization, illiberalism, and demagogic populism have planted themselves in this media culture, while simultaneously serving as a warning sign of their consequences. His presence continuously amplified public discussions around the role of journalism, which led to a moment for reflection and reform.

This book is not a history of the Trump presidency as a whole, but it goes where other history books might not: developing a close examination of Trump’s relations with journalists, his use of social media to promulgate his own messages outside of news channels, and reactions to him and his attacks from across journalism. Trump’s attention to journalists waxed and waned over his time in the political spotlight, sometimes drawing his full wrath and other times taking a back seat as Trump attacked his many other foes, including Democratic politicians and candidates, government officials investigating him, two impeachment inquiries, and so on. But even as this book reveals the character and consequences of Trump’s assault on the press, it also does not pretend to be a comprehensive account of every Trump tirade against the news media—there are far too many such moments to fit into a single book. Instead, we identify key points that define Trump’s relations with (p.13) journalists, ones that provide insight into larger shifts taking place within the media culture and how journalists are debating their future.

As a result, this book devotes much attention to how Trump continually attacked journalists and why such efforts could be so politically effective. In one sense, there is nothing sophisticated about Trump’s offensive against the news media. He did not craft arguments, assemble evidence, or offer prolonged diatribes. Instead, his attacks on the news media were shallow and repetitive. Yet while Trump’s tweets, taunts, and rally slogans may have appeared spontaneous and unrefined, they represent in aggregate an orchestrated effort to undercut the power of the Fourth Estate, as Trump himself has admitted. As the chapters in this book document, Trump took advantage of journalistic conventions to increase his presence in the news; he used press-bashing as a type of political performance commensurate with his populist rhetoric; he demonstrated the expansiveness of the contemporary media culture through his use of social media, political rallies, and right-wing media to reach the public; he boldly invented or misrepresented facts in ways that strained reporting norms; and, in doing all of this, he challenged the institutional character of journalism.

While all politicians spin facts and pander to their bases, Trump’s penchant for polarizing rhetoric intent on inflaming emotional appeals while showing disdain for facticity or comity crossed over to demagoguery. Demagogues exhibit paranoia, engage in scapegoating, and base their authority on a unique ability to lead—all characteristics of Trump’s discourse and his actions.49 Traditional journalistic modes—the neutral, objective style of the standard model of news that dominates the journalistic imaginary—are not well equipped to confront the excesses of demagoguery. The epistemic nucleus of news reporting is a quotation from an official source; it may be presented with some context, but that quotation is accorded a certain legitimacy as a factual statement, even if it is a self-serving one. Trump’s fiery rhetoric, preying on prejudice and divisiveness, clashed with these working assumptions, forcing journalists into a position of uncertainty over whether they are irresponsible in amplifying such claims through the simple act of reporting what was said or whether they are irresponsible if they ignore them.50 But demagoguery is also difficult to ignore. When such rhetoric violates expectations and breaks unwritten rules of political conduct, it generates compelling stories. Trump’s propensity for lying, his over-the-top personal attacks on anyone who crossed him (including journalists), and his unwillingness to concede any mistakes were simultaneously repulsive and (p.14) irresistible to the journalists covering him up until his final days in office in January 2021.

Trump’s effectiveness as a demagogue can be recognized in his ability to turn all eyes to him as the center of the story. Years before taking office, Trump had already cultivated a substantial public image and celebrity status, including as a reality-television star. He was often characterized as exceptional, in-charge, and independent. Trump’s ego and braggadocio were well known, as he often took credit for ideas that weren’t his own.51 Moreover, Trump’s habits of communicating independently of his aides through social media, giving off-the-cuff answers to journalists’ questions, and offering extemporaneous ad-libs during prepared speeches altogether supported the perception of Trump as a stand-alone force. The resulting focus on day-to-day skirmishes and absurdities pulled attention away from the larger policy changes that benefitted the wealthy at the expense of the working class, the environment, and democracy itself. He kept himself planted in the center of public consciousness through a combination of bluster and theatrics, and it would be tempting to focus on him as an individual with singular actions, thus allowing us to relegate him to the past at the end of his presidency.

Trump may have lost the 2020 election, but he still received nearly seventy-five million votes. While a portion of the electorate surely supported Trump as a preferable choice for specific policy reasons (like self-interest in preserving tax cuts or limiting regulations), for many who voted for Trump a second time in 2020 it was a matter of social identity. Trump represented a valuable and rare authenticity, an emotive yearning for things to be better for them, and a different kind of moral code. Despite all that transpired over his first term, many millions saw themselves as a loyal part of Trump’s “us” in the us-versus-them dynamic that so defined his discourse. In saluting Trump for speaking up for the individual American, they were rewarded with a feeling of connection over their shared anger and frustration, resentment and fear.

Such intense feelings and the cult of personality associated with them will not simply vanish, just as Trump himself resisted exiting the White House—continuing to argue, even long after the Electoral College vote was confirmed, that the election was stolen from him. What Trump harnessed was a right-wing populist vein in American politics, one particularly skeptical of journalists and other elites, that predated him and will persist after him. As such, any narrative that individualizes Trump’s actions, successes, and failures—that acts as if he and he alone were responsible for everything described in this book—is shortsighted. To fully recognize the implications (p.15) of Trump for the news media requires situating him within networks of actors that propped him up, spoke for him, shaped his image, challenged news reporting critical of him, and carried out his policy changes.52 This includes institutionalized actors such as the White House communications team, his press secretaries, advisers like Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, and Kellyanne Conway, and other appointed officials called upon to toe the Trump line. But it especially includes vocally supportive pundits on the Fox News Channel as well.53 As we explain further in Chapter 3, Trump’s attacks on perceived enemies—including the press as the “enemy of the people”—often were instigated by things he first watched on morning programs such as Fox & Friends and evening shows hosted by the likes of Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham. In turn, the same cadre of Fox News anchors, personalities, and guests—and, later into his presidency, the pro-Trump sycophants on the far-right Newsmax and One America News networks—served to echo Trump’s talking points. All of this gave the president a continuous circle of reinforcement: a prepackaged set of grievances ready to “publish” against his enemies, and a preestablished network of supporters ready to “spread” those messages far beyond Trump himself. Even more broadly, Trump rode a wave of global populist politics upending democratic norms and conventions in numerous countries.54 Trump is not responsible for Trump alone.

We argue that Trump remains a symbol of a larger phenomenon characterized by identity-driven politics, political polarization, and a news industry struggling to adapt to a changing media culture. We are concerned less with Trump the man than a broader set of transitions happening not only politically but also culturally, economically, symbolically, and technologically—all shifts that have been long-standing and yet exacerbated, accelerated, and made abundantly visible in our present moment. Evaluating how these deeper shifts affect the information environment and, ultimately, democratic functioning needs to take precedence over any single barbed tweet or personal jab. We do not excuse Trump or downplay the damage that his rhetoric caused during his presidency. But nor do we see him as the chief agent of his success, or accord him generative power for shaping the conditions that allowed him to succeed.

There is also much to criticize about news reporting in the Trump era. As we review in the chapters of this book, early news reporting failed to put Trump in an appropriately critical and contextual light. Too often, news reporters focused on the latest, loudest comment instead of explaining the larger picture (p.16) of Trump’s claims or evaluating the impact of his administration’s policies. Journalists simply regurgitating Trump’s specious claims ended up normalizing them. Journalists have been accused of playing stenographer to an administration prone to lying, or of failing to call out racist language directly. A consistent theme is the lack of attention to deeper trends that would position Trump to be less of an aberration and more of a culmination of forces that are not so easy to dismiss.

We also recognize that there was no shortage of well-reported, hard-hitting investigative stories about Trump. Just before the inauguration, Politico media critic Jack Shafer called the Trump administration “journalistic spring” for the abundance of news stories waiting to be unearthed.55 Journalists covering the Trump administration responded with a flood of news stories critical of the Trump administration, including Pulitzer Prize–winning investigations regarding Trump’s charitable giving (by the Washington Post in 2017), Russian electoral interference (by the Post and the New York Times in 2018), and Trump’s payoffs to women to hush up affair allegations (by the Wall Street Journal in 2019). But, of course, Pulitzer Prizes are given to journalists by other journalists. The ability of investigations to exact change relies on other mechanisms, and the failure of any reported controversy to sway public opinion or spark bipartisan outrage speaks to the array of forces that have come together in this particular moment.

Consider, for example, when in the weeks before the 2020 election the New York Times obtained and published Trump’s income tax documents after years of his deflections and stonewalling. Through careful, long-form reporting augmented with cutting-edge data visualization, the Times exposed Trump’s gigantic personal losses, the extraordinarily small amount of federal taxes he paid, and looming enormous debt obligations to unknown entities.56 Yet the story did not move the political needle and was swiftly overshadowed as the campaign wore on. What does it mean for journalism when such a story—perhaps the most sought-after story involving Trump—seemed not to matter at all?

News after Trump: Developing a Moral Voice for Journalism

The Trump presidency has since ended, but the reckoning for journalists remains. Caught between outmoded reporting routines and their need to (p.17) innovate and survive, journalists waffled in their response to Trump between 2015 and 2021, sometimes adhering to institutional norms and other times experimenting with collective efforts to call out lies and racist statements—but all the time trapped in a vortex of volatility, struggling to translate their professional sense of purpose into a social and cultural sense of permanence. This public anguish within the journalistic community reveals deep fissures in what had been a more cohesive, shared set of norms and protocols during the stabler times of the mass communication era. Journalists confront fundamentally altered functions and identities, as people clamor for them to be democratic activists, righteous moralists, civic therapists, and political strategists in response to this environment of dark money, demagoguery, foreign infiltration, and an altogether intensifying fear that democracy is dying on our watch. Amid such scrambling, the news media enterprise is seeking not only to find a sustainable business model in the digital era, but, as this book explores in detail, journalists are questioning how they should operate in a world where they have such incredible tools for reaching broad audiences with quality news and where they are simultaneously distrusted and dismissed as never before in modern times.

In contemplating news after Trump, this book offers both an empirical investigation of what happened and a normative intervention for a way forward. We argue that modes of journalistic objectivity that have been crafted to support journalism as both central and detached no longer work effectively. When Trump would single out journalists, such as in the January 2021 speech recounted at the beginning of this chapter, his intention was to make journalists part of the news story that they were covering. Trump’s constant critiques pulled journalists into the spotlight, resulting in a dance between Trump’s attacks on the press’s trustworthiness and journalists’ corresponding defenses of their credibility and utility. Yet this mode of centralized detachment is so ingrained in how journalism imagines its legitimacy that it is difficult for journalists to rewire their normative underpinnings.

In laying out a normative vision, we offer no nostalgic vision of journalism. This is not a rear-facing book. We are not offering a paean for a nonexistent golden age of journalism, nor are we blindly espousing classic journalism norms. Journalism has always been caught between moments of delivering on its promise of holding power to account and moments of failing its audiences. Historically, newsrooms have been too white, too male, and too beholden to the powerful.57 We do not call for a restoration of this environment, even if such a thing were possible. Nor do we take the approach (p.18) of blowing it all up and starting over again. We agree that the uncertainty and the unpredictability of the present moment provide an opportunity for voices that have traditionally been left out of power to take advantage of digital media and a weakened institutional identity for journalism. The problem is that these voices are not only marginalized groups that deserve to be amplified, but also those who perpetuate extremism, divisiveness, and xenophobia—people who seek to subvert and ultimately smash the old media regime and delegitimize the mainstream press out of a desire to promote their own self-serving, exclusionary narratives.58 Just as we cannot turn the clock back, we cannot wipe the slate clean and hope that the wisdom of the crowd prevails.

We also do not assume that journalism alone can and should be the dominant voice in the contemporary media culture. Reconstructing the relevancy of journalism starts by recognizing journalism as decentered within the present media culture. As “journalism” becomes more complex and encompasses more variety and a less unified voice, so too are journalists existing in a communicative landscape in which they compete with other public voices ranging from elite officials to anonymous commenters. Social media platforms usurp the role of news gatekeeper and, thus, alter the flow of information, reinscribing news stories in myriad ways.59 All of this complicates the circulation and reception of news while also expanding the range of participants in creating public affairs content.

But we are also not willing to let go of journalism as an important institution. We advocate, then, for overhauling journalism’s foundational value system and especially its norms and routines that have contributed to the problematic political situation in the first place. Stripping away entrenched, unhelpful norms and routines gets back to foundational aspirations of journalists producing truthful accounts, but ones built around the amplification of diverse voices, a commitment to democratic processes and their preservation, and the facilitation of community discourse. In other words, we suggest opportunities for journalism to develop a more explicitly moral orientation to its work, grounded in broadly shared values such as democracy, decency, civic participation, and a pluralistic society. Journalism must be at once more assertive in speaking in a moral voice on behalf of communities, more comfortable in rendering judgments, and more self-aware of its shortcomings. This does not mean giving up facticity. Rather, it recognizes that an overwhelming focus on the production of isolated facts alone is neither adequate nor particularly useful on its own—in part because such (p.19) antiseptic procedures may isolate journalists from a fuller understanding of the communities they are supposed to help.

Our vision is informed by an argument that James W. Carey offered nearly a half-century ago.60 Writing in the heyday of mass communication, Carey looked critically at a media culture in which news organizations were able to “centralize and monopolize civic knowledge and as importantly the techniques of knowing” while reducing the audience to a passive client.61 Carey warned that as journalists encased themselves in the mantle of professional distance and privileged autonomy over communal attachment, they were losing connection with the people they were meant to serve. Today, we find echoes of Carey’s critique: professionalism has rendered news paternalistic and morally distant within a media culture that prizes authenticity, and the populist critique sees the press as an elite interest group favoring self-protection above public service.62

Carey argues for an alternative vision of journalism that trades the protection of professionalism as paramount for a normative footing situated within a sense of the larger communal good: “We would, in short, all be better served if professionals, including journalists, were to see themselves less as subject to the demands of their profession and more to the demands of the general moral and intellectual point of view.”63 We take from Carey’s arguments the need for a healthy communicative environment that can present the diversity of viewpoints that exist in a pluralistic society. This viewpoint is not incommensurate with a longing for shared facts, but it recognizes that facts are not a simple output coming off the journalistic assembly line like a bunch of toasters. Rather, they are cultural artifacts shaped by relations among various actors: reporters, sources, and the news audience as well as our organizations, institutions, and systems.64 And, as such, the profession is subject to the same power dynamics, hierarchies, and biases. Reconsidering journalism’s claims to relevancy also requires confronting the representational power of news and how it positions certain actors as “authorized knowers”65 or “primary definers”66 while rendering the less socially powerful as victims, perpetrators of violence, or invisible. The ethos of detachment has staved off vital questions about how journalism connects to its audiences, how it creates enduring value in people’s lives (or not), and how diversity needs to be understood holistically at the level of production, text, and audience to rebuild trust.

To be clear, even as we critique journalism’s shortcomings, we are not letting off the hook those who would denigrate the press out of cynical (p.20) self-interest. Our normative focus supports our contention that calling a news organization an enemy of the people is abhorrent and dangerous, and Trump’s actions will find no endorsement in these pages. His attacks will be called out for the nakedly self-serving utterances that they are. Journalists deserve to work without fear of physical endangerment, particularly at a time when the press faces growing hostility in the United States67 and around the world.68 But many journalists also like to believe they can remain above the fray, particularly in the space of politics. They may favor an externalist perspective about their social role in which they stand on the sidelines of political happenings to observe and report back. But this view ignores the role that journalists play in deciding who gets in the news and how they are covered.

When embracing their role as moral agents, journalists occupy a space that allows them to tackle fundamental issues of right and wrong while eschewing political statements. We are not advocating for reporters to dictate and judge differing partisan viewpoints. Rather, we wish to enable them to call out violations of widely held moral standards such as telling brazen lies, using power to harm people, and engaging in racist discourse and actions. Philosopher and ethicist Stephen Ward might call this “democratically engaged journalism” because it adopts a moral code around human rights, poverty reduction, social justice, tolerance for difference, and other grand virtues.69 We recognize that such broad transformation is difficult and even unlikely, but it remains necessary to imagine how journalistic relevance could be rethought and what might be done to achieve such change. At the same time, this is not just an academic exercise of romanticizing what might be; newsrooms across the country already are having uncomfortable conversations about what they should be doing differently.70 We underscore the need for journalists to connect with the stories, contexts, histories, and facts for millions who have turned away from news and tuned into falsehoods that mesh with their ideologies. Journalism, like any other social institution, must be held to account and asked to do better, particularly in this opportune moment of reckoning.

Plan of the Book

This is not a book about the few years that Trump dominated political discourse. Rather, it is about how overlapping forces resulted in a period of news (p.21) media turmoil, the end result of which—in the years and decades to come—may mean an entirely reconfigured information landscape for public affairs. The chapters that follow explain for media watchers, scholars, and citizens alike what this dynamic landscape looks like, illustrating the most salient shifts and why they matter as well as how we might move forward toward more collective truths.

A challenge is the familiar problem of writing about events without the comforting distance of time to understand their lasting implications. Writing a history of the present, as it were, is difficult. The legacy of Trump, both for politics generally and for government-press relations more narrowly, will take years to sort out. It could be that his presidency was a blip resulting from an alignment of various factors unlikely to so perfectly come together again. Had 79,646 people in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania—0.025% of the total US population—voted differently in November 2016, this book may not exist at all.71 Nevertheless, the election of Trump made visible a media politics fueled by ideological fervor, partisan identity, and distrust of institutions, chief among them the press. It seems certain that the political news environment of the future will not look like the past. Instead, journalism, long disrupted and challenged in various ways, has encountered a confluence of forces that together are more destabilizing to the institution than what has come before. The gravity of this moment makes it all the more important to jump in and begin unraveling these forces to propose a way forward.

This book draws on a range of sources of evidence, with an emphasis on public discourse about Trump and the news as primary sources. Trump’s social media output and utterances during interviews, speeches, and rallies provide a record of what has been said. But this record also extends to others in Trump’s orbit of formal and informal supporters. For the news media, we examine the many places where journalists speak about themselves, including within news content or commentary, books, speeches, and the journalism trade press. We analyze more than six hundred editorials in which news organizations across the country formally responded to Trump’s attacks and the environment that enabled such accusations to gain momentum. We also draw on research about the political and media landscapes, including trends in public opinion surveys as well as data from surveys and in-depth interviews with journalists across the country. These data help identify the short-term consequences of the moment as well as connect to longer-lasting patterns.

(p.22) The chapters in this book examine the struggle over who gets to provide truthful accounts and what these accounts should look like. Chapter 1, “Where We Are: The Media and Political Context,” sets the stage by looking at how a host of factors have come together to give rise to the conditions that facilitated Trump’s political ascendency. It provides an overview of the key issues confronting contemporary journalism in the present media culture, many of which have been decades in the making. It then turns to the global rise of populist anti-institutional movements and their implications for journalism theory and practice. Trump’s demagogic tendencies are unpacked to help make sense of why he went after the press as often as he did.

The next two chapters focus on what Trump’s attacks on journalism looked like. Chapter 2, “The Trump Campaign: Outsized Coverage from the Press, Outsized Attacks on the Press,” examines how the institutional trappings of political journalism allowed Trump to benefit from disproportionate news coverage, particularly in the primary stages of the 2016 presidential contest. As the campaign progressed, press-bashing became a political performance that was an indelible part of Trump’s electoral success. In these ways, a confluence of long-simmering cultural factors came to demand newfound attention to the symbolic decentralization of journalism in contemporary life. More broadly, Trump’s success lays bare the disconnects between institutions, communities and citizens, ubiquitous polarization, and intense animosity for any “other,” all of which leads to questions about the relevance of mainstream journalism. Chapter 3, “The Trump Presidency: Four Years of Battling and Belittling the Press,” shifts the focus to the period of Trump’s presidency, when his attacks on the press became even more extreme, and more central to his own maintenance of power. By calling journalists the “enemy of the people,” he simultaneously amplified the power of the press and undermined its authority. For Trump, “the media” became one of many established elite institutions hostile to the experience of everyday Americans. This message became a fixture of his rhetoric as he turned to communication channels outside of traditional journalism, such as social media, political rallies, and conservative media outlets. In this chapter, we explore how the far-right media ecosystem became a propaganda machine churning out lies that helped Trump and others not only achieve power but formulate a dichotomous and competing alternate universe of facts.

Journalists did not ignore Trump’s constant badgering. Chapter 4, “The Press Fights Back: Reclaiming a Story of Relevance for the Press,” looks at (p.23) how a coordinated, collective effort in August 2018 to produce newspaper editorials defending journalism provided a rare public moment of focused attention on the press’s roles and identities. In this response, journalists fell back to the grand—yet flailing—narrative placing journalism at the heart of democracy. Behind their facade of unity, we find a fracturing of this narrative—reflective of a broader change that has been occurring for quite some time. We argue that journalists’ efforts to bolster their relevance must downplay their institutional ties and focus on community relationships to build trust with groups they have long ignored. Such actions demand rethinking what a relevant press is for. This is taken up in Chapter 5, “Journalistic Moralities: Confronting Trump’s Lies and Racism.” As their professionalized practices were challenged by Trump’s frequent lies and his racist statements, journalists debated how to respond. Some prominent journalists advocated for the traditional values that have propped up journalism for the past century, while others argued that journalists needed to be more willing to render judgments explicitly to avoid being the handmaidens of Trump. In all of this, we refocus the news media toward a pro-democracy, pro-connection stance.

The conclusion, “What Relevant Journalism Looks Like: Developing a Moral Voice,” draws from across the book to make a case for how journalism can move forward after Trump. To rebuild its relevance, the journalistic community needs to adapt to a changed media culture in which its centrality is no longer guaranteed. When journalism becomes just one voice among others, it becomes necessary to question whether long-standing objectivity norms hamper its ability to make judgments and act morally. Journalists must turn toward relationship-building to establish the necessary trust and legitimacy to pursue the institutional production of news knowledge. However, fixing journalism cannot be done merely from within journalism; media consumers must support their news outlets (financially and otherwise) in a concerted call for fact-based truths. A serious appraisal of the systemic patterns that enabled this moment means looking more constructively at what journalism can become by confronting reporting patterns that turn people away from news. Many of our conclusions might seem unsettling or anathematic to journalists. But we end this book on an optimistic note, showcasing opportunities for journalists to become connected to citizens in more authentic and productive ways. Providing a brighter future starts by looking at these outcomes critically and carefully to envision what could be different and why that matters for public life. (p.24)


(2.) Yahoo! News, “ ‘Let’s Have Trial by Combat’ over Election—Giuliani.”

(5.) Although critique of Trump was far from universal. A majority of the Republicans in the House of Representatives and a handful of Republicans in the Senate still persisted, hours after the Capitol attack, in attempting to overturn the results of the presidential election. And only ten Republicans joined Democratic congressional representatives to vote for Trump’s subsequent impeachment. This continued support underscores our argument that we need to look beyond just Trump to understand the current political moment.

(6.) Adapted from Couldry, Media Rituals.

(8.) These three aspects are similar to how Laura Ahva discusses the aspects of practice theory. Ahva, “Practice Theory for Journalism Studies.”

(10.) See Nadler and Bauer, News on the Right.

(11.) For more on this argument see, Waisbord, “Truth Is What Happens to News.”

(12.) A similar argument is made in Wasserman, “Relevance, Resistance, Resilience.”

(15.) This model extends outward to situate news audiences either as attentive citizens or as public waiting to be mobilized in particular moments. See Zaller, “A New Standard of News Quality”; Schudson, The Good Citizen.

(16.) Esser and Strömbäck, Mediatization of Politics.

(20.) Phillips, “The Oxygen of Amplification.”

(23.) Boynton and Richardson, “Agenda Setting in the Twenty-First Century.”

(24.) Yglesias, “The Case for Fox News Studies”; Peck, Fox Populism.

(26.) Nielsen, “The Business of News”; Pickard, Democracy without Journalism?

(28.) Ekdale et al., “Newswork within a Culture of Job Insecurity”; Örnebring et al., “The Space of Journalistic Work”; Cohen, “Entrepreneurial Journalism and the Precarious State of Media Work.”

(36.) Of course, news practices themselves are quite varied in their multiple forms, depending on the medium of production, the type of media organization, the news genre involved, and so forth.

(38.) Ekström, “Epistemologies of TV Journalism.”

(39.) Tuchman, Making News.

(41.) On institutionalism and journalism, see Reese, The Crisis of the Institutional Press.

(42.) Deuze, “What Is Journalism?”

(46.) For discussion of the social boundaries of journalism, see Carlson and Lewis, Boundaries of Journalism.

(48.) Cf. Deuze, “What is Journalism?”

(50.) See Chapter 5.

(52.) For a detailed journalistic account, see Stelter, Hoax.

(54.) Müller, What Is Populism?

(56.) Buettner et al., “Long-Concealed Records Show Trump’s Chronic Losses and Years of Tax Avoidance.”

(58.) Quandt, “Dark Participation”; Figenschou and Ihlebæk, “Challenging Journalistic Authority.”

(62.) Portrayals of Washington and New York political journalists as insular and elitist institutions can be found in the critiques of the left-leaning organization Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) and the right-leaning organization Media Research Center (MRC).

(66.) Hall et al., Policing the Crisis.

(67.) Lewis et al., “Online Harassment and Its Implications for the Journalist-Audience Relationship”; Waisbord, “Mob Censorship.”

(70.) Smith, “Inside the Revolts Erupting in America’s Big Newsrooms.”

(71.) Bump, “Donald Trump Will Be President Thanks to 80,000 People in Three States.” However, if forty-four thousand people in three states (Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin) had voted differently in 2020, an Electoral College tie would have led to a Trump victory and this book would need a sequel. See Montanaro, “President-Elect Joe Biden Hits 80 Million Votes in Year of Record Turnout.”