Well, it’s official — the new word of 2016, according to Oxford Dictionaries, is “post-truth.”
In this post-truth universe, where established facts often don’t matter as much as appeals to emotion and partisan ideology, we also hear another word a lot: “normalize.”
The question behind the word is this: In covering President-elect Donald Trump and his presidency, should the traditional news media treat this like any other transition, and like any other run-of-the-mill administration?
People magazine embraced normalizing when it quickly put a glamorous, backlighted shot of Trump on its cover last week. There was no reference, anywhere, to the fact that a People reporter had been one of the women who came forward in recent weeks to describe how Trump had sexually assaulted her years ago.
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On the other side are those such as media consultant Ken Doctor, who wrote: “Given the vast lying, misogyny, racism and anti-Semitism that have been hallmarks of this campaign, the press’ response must be one of memory and of mission.”
Given journalistic failures during the campaign — smugness and willful blindness, among others — how should the traditional press go forward now?
I’ll offer three suggestions:
1. Emphasize the watchdog role. More than ever, journalists must hold politicians — of all stripes — accountable.
“Do your job,” urges Tom Rosenstiel, author and executive director of American Press Institute. “That means catch the bad guys, watch the cookie jar, ferret out chicanery.”
The public may be fed up with the media’s endless analyzing, opining and punditry, but people do appreciate the investigating that the best reporters can do. And we can be sure that the Breitbarts of the world — the fringe-right media company that is closely tied to the Trump administration — won’t do it.
This is an equal-opportunity, nonpartisan mission. (Just a reminder: It was the New York Times that broke the Hillary Clinton private-email story and dug into it. It was The Washington Post that dived deep into the “Bill Clinton Inc.” story about the former president benefiting financially from Clinton Foundation ties.)
“The average person cannot ‘follow the money,’ ” Rosenstiel noted. That’s why journalists must do so better than ever.
2. Represent the interests of all citizens. Chris Arnade, an independent photographer who spent the campaign in pro-Trump country, developed deep empathy for his subjects but fears they will not be well served. “I feel bad for the people — broadly, the poor, frustrated whites — who voted for him because he’s not going to deliver what they think he’s going to deliver,” he told the Columbia Journalism Review.
Part of the new journalistic imperative is recognizing that those Trump voters who felt angry, humiliated or invisible may need our advocacy most.
Toward that end, journalists should stop licking their wounds, and do something with the lessons they’ve learned.
“Let’s put our boots back on and understand that this is a job that has a mission attached to it,” said Tim O’Brien, the Trump biographer and executive editor of Bloomberg View. The collective lapse in judgment “doesn’t mean everything we did was a failure.”
3. Be scrupulously fair and relentlessly tough.
If fairness is the idea, how do we go about it now?
“Legacy media can distinguish itself through factual authority,” O’Brien said. Just so. And that means accurately describing what’s going on, and using the right words to do so.
Should, for example, the label “alt-right” be applied over and over again to Steve Bannon, Trump’s new strategic adviser? That’s the kind of normalizing that ought to be abandoned because it’s close to meaningless, even misleading. (It’s kind of like “alt-country,” right? No, actually, it’s an extremist movement associated with white supremacists.)
At the same time, know that campaign rhetoric and presidential governing aren’t the same thing. We don’t know yet how Trump will govern, although we’re beginning to get a sense of it, based on his troubling first week.
One formulation I’ve been hearing recently, from many quarters, is “scrutinize, don’t normalize.” That’s definitively the right direction in navigating this post-truth world.
An open mind is a fine idea for journalists. Amnesia isn’t.