Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Telling the Truth in a Trump World

Twenty-two hours ago (at the time of this writing), President-Elect Donald Trump tweeted something that has been nagging at me as a journalist with 27 years of experience in both newsrooms and the freelance magazine landscape:

"If the press would cover me accurately & honorably, I would have far less reason to 'tweet.' Sadly, I don't know if that will ever happen!"

Initially, I freely admit, I took offense. My knee-jerk emotional response was, "You are the President-Elect, and critical press coverage is part of the package."

I covered politics for The Associated Press in the Pennsylvania Statehouse from 1995 to early 1999, during the governorship of Tom Ridge, who eventually became known in the aftermath of 9/11 for heading up the Department of Homeland Security. And I should first say this about politicians, and it is meant as a sincere compliment: They have really thick skins. I can remember chasing stories that would have raised the ire of the gentlest of souls, and yet every politician with whom I ever came in contact always treated me with grace and respect. You have to understand that my office was right in the center of the Capitol, too -- right at the top of the sweeping marble staircase of the Rotunda. I was *in* and *among* these politicians, hour by hour, day after day. I saw them at committee meetings, at lunch counters, in hallways, even in my office. Regardless of the political party, regardless of the story I was writing, they were always courteous. Of course the things that I wrote made them angry, when I was revealing something they didn't want revealed. But they never complained about my objectivity and never gave me pause to think that they held personal ill will against me for just doing my job.

Now let's speed up to Trump's tweet yesterday. Given everything I've just told you, you might understand why I would initially feel that he needs to man up and learn his new role as Commander in Chief and how the press corps figures into that relationship.

But as I contemplated it some more, the fairness that dictated my life during those days at the AP also must apply to Trump.

So to be fair to him, you have to look at the history of what has happened in the past 12 months leading up to that tweet:

First of all, Trump needs to not be so disingenuous by ignoring the fact that he was given unprecedented favorable coverage for his rallies during the months leading up to the primaries. Anytime I turned on any news station, they were rolling those rallies in their entirety. I have never seen anything like it. While networks cut away from other candidates mid-speech, Trump commanded the air waves night and day, and many of the rallies were broadcast without interruption.

I also would point out that there were many times when Trump's surrogates were allowed to spew falsehoods -- sometimes unchallenged by the broadcasters who had them on their shows. And one network -- CNN -- even hired Trump's former campaign manager. Tell me that isn't favorable coverage.

However, we saw the tide start to turn when the Access Hollywood tapes emerged. By this time, even those who had been favorable to Trump changed their coverage approach.

What we saw in the few short weeks between the release of that tape and Election Day was definitely an all-out assault on Trump. Every news outlet, with the exception of Fox News, threw everything they had AGAINST him.

Regarding print media, the only outlets I saw that consistently were negative in their coverage were The New York Times, The Washington Post and Newsweek.

I have to approach this topic with two personas: my journalist persona, and my "private American citizen" persona.

As a private American citizen, I was thrilled with the aggressiveness demonstrated by The New York Times, Washington Post and Newsweek. I follow their reporters on Twitter and heavily retweeted their stories, in the hopes that it would be enough to defeat Trump.

As a journalist, however, I have to admit to you that Trump is correct -- currently. In the beginning, he was treated as the golden boy, and now he is definitely being held up for as much public ridicule as the media can throw at him.

Now why should this matter to those of you in the profession? Just this thought: The overwhelming bias for Trump in the beginning of 2016 ... and the overwhelming bias AGAINST Trump at the end of 2016 has severely curtailed the trust the public now has in what you are reporting.

The problem now is ... even when Trump is engaging in terrible conflicts of interests, rocking the boat with China, appointing questionable mentally-balanced individuals to his Cabinet ... you as journalists have lost public trust to believe your stories, based on your performance in 2016.

And you may wonder, "Well where were YOU, Heidi Lynn Russell, in 2016, if you're such a great journalist?"

I was staying away from writing about politics. I knew I had zero objectivity to be able to cover anything fairly. So I stayed with my military stories and my business stories. As an American citizen, I was vocal against Trump. As a journalist, I didn't write one piece about anything he was doing on the campaign circuit. I didn't feel that with the training and experience I'd had, it was morally or ethically right for me to throw my hat into the ring on that front.

Going forward, I really don't know what the future of our profession will be. It seems that Trump is laying the groundwork to go after the First Amendment, and we already see disturbing actions and words concerning the press. However, to re-win the public's trust in your coverage, you're going to have to fairly cover ALL of Trump's actions -- both negative and positive. For example, I did see a couple of Cabinet appointments that aren't all bad. And despite that phone call with Taiwan, as a private citizen, I wondered if it wouldn't be so bad if China knew they couldn't push us around. But I didn't see any news coverage that looked at this angle -- rather, everything I saw bashed Trump. In every story we cover, there is always a nugget of the other side of the story, and in all of the coverage, I didn't see that "other side" reflected.

The bottom line here is that if you got into this profession to tell the truth, then tell the truth. Cover every single story as if you're an insect on the wall, observing it impassively. That's what we're paid to do. Let the public draw their own conclusions.

Your job is to solely present the facts.

And if you do that, then Trump will not ever be able to tweet again that you're not playing by the rules.

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