Baer: Trump vs. media - the fight for public trust

Donald-Trump-CIA
President Donald Trump speaks at the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Va., Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017.

So the Trump era starts with a fight over the size of inauguration crowds.

Sigh.

And the new president and national media start off calling each other liars as America faces figuring out who is more worthy of trust.

I'm here to help, with context and reflection.

Perhaps you heard that the media wanted Hillary Clinton or Elizabeth Warren or the late Cesar Chavez to be president instead of Donald Trump.

Maybe you read a report from the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity that said 96 percent of journalists' campaign donations went to Clinton.

(Though why anyone in a profession that's supposed to be referee rather than booster gives any politician anything but severe scrutiny is beyond me.)

And you're likely aware that among the nation's largest newspapers, Trump got fewer endorsements than any previous major-party candidate in history.

Washington newspaper The Hill put the final count at Clinton 57, Trump 2.

This, without question, helped Trump. Trust in media plummeted to an all-time low during the 2016 campaign, according to Gallup. And since the election, negative ratings for national media exceed negative ratings for Trump.

A Bloomberg poll last month found 57 percent of Americans holding unfavorable views of the media; an ABC News/Washington Post poll last week says 54 percent view Trump unfavorably.

So Trump is winning.

His disregard for the media helped get him the White House. And it continues.

At a news conference earlier this month, Trump said, "I have great respect for the news, and great respect for freedom of the press and all that."

But there's evidence to the contrary.

Trump as candidate canceled credentials of critics, vowed to expand libel laws, and routinely called journalists liars and scum.

There's a floated (though maybe deflated) idea of tossing the White House press out of the White House.

Trump largely bypasses journalists, communicating through Twitter.

On Saturday, he called media "among the most dishonest human beings on Earth." And his press secretary, Sean Spicer, at a White House briefing, berated journalists for "deliberately false" reporting, and then took no questions.

I understand the tactic and timing.

It comes as much of the media are financially vulnerable and as overall standards slump.

As a practicing journalist for nearly four decades, I mourn for my profession.

It's fragmented, yes, and too often partisan, but also too attentive to the inconsequential, willing to follow the shiny objects of constantly "breaking news." This can mean short bursts of (sometimes) useful information but short shrift to larger issues with greater impact on peoples' lives.

While diminished resources restrict reporting of, for example, state governments, too much news is Washington-politics oriented, largely ignoring problems in areas home to Trump's base. This made the media miss Trump's ascension.

Also, most 24/7 broadcast news isn't reporting. It's talking heads reading what newspapers write, then saying what they think about what they've read.

And too many media voices live in centers of power, socializing with the very class they should be critically covering.

I'm annually embarrassed by the White House Correspondents' Dinner, a Hollywood-heavy festival of frivolity that trivializes a responsibility crucial to democracy. It should end.

Having said all that, there are efforts to increase serious reporting: The Columbia Journalism Review notes that the Wall Street Journal is expanding attention to "the intersection of business interests and government action"; the Washington Post is doubling, to six, its White House team; the New York Times just announced investing an additional $5 million to cover Trump.

Good. But winning trust means more. It means being more than noise and tweets. It means grabbing and occupying a space - amid the spin and babble of the online world - that offers consistently verifiable views of the real world.

Stakes for the media and democracy are too high to do less.

baerj@phillynews.com

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