FEATURE: Trump’s Fourth Estate

By on November 15, 2016

Why fact-based journalism is now under fire, and what the public needs to know about its endangered future.

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JACKSON HOLE, WY – For many in the Jackson Hole community, the shock and tears that came with Donald J. Trump’s election have now ceded to a creeping realization of how his words may turn into action as president. Among these dour considerations is Trump’s attack on journalism and what it could mean for American democracy.

Trump has called the media “dishonest,” “disgusting,” “corrupt” and “absolute scum.” During his campaign, he spoke of opening up libel laws while revoking press credentials for respected journalists at media outlets ranging from the The Washington Post to Univision to The Des Moines Register.

At his rallies, Trump required that journalists stand in a press pen, where he could single them out and direct boos from his supporters. There were incidents of physical assault and chants of “Jew-S-A” and “Lügenpresse,” a German word meaning “lying press” associated with Hitler’s Nazis and modern-day xenophobic groups on the far right. At a Trump rally on Nov. 6 in Minnesota, a supporter wore a shirt that read, “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required.”

There is no indication Trump’s disdain for journalism will soften when he gets into the White House. So far as president-elect, Trump has broken with White House tradition by forgoing the protective pool of journalists who typically travel with the soon-to-be commander in chief during the transition period. Instead he just appointed a notorious white supremacist, the now former executive chairman of Breitbart News, Stephen Bannon, to be his chief strategist. Breitbart is an alt-right media outlet that promulgates racist, sexist and xenophobic messages and conspiracy theories.

Today, the public’s responsibility to become more critical consumers of media cannot be overstated.

There’s justified media criticism, then there’s Trump

The mainstream media’s role in the 2016 presidential election was complex. It is important to differentiate between the journalists who were verbally abused by Trump for doing their jobs from those at the top who dictated the overall direction and subject matter of coverage.

From a corporate standpoint, mainstream media outlets have received fair criticism for giving Trump oversized coverage in the Republican primaries, for normalizing him as a presidential candidate, and for promoting false equivalency with Hillary Clinton’s politics-as-usual flaws.

There is also lingering criticism from supporters of Bernie Sanders that the mainstream media rushed to anoint Clinton in the Democratic primaries. To top it all off, the media’s prognosticators were almost all wrong in predicting the outcome in the presidential election.

“There seems to be zero pause in the nonsensical punditry, zero pause in the proffering of ill-informed or hypocritical opinions, zero ownership of their piece in this mess, and very little actual journalism,” said Jessica Chambers, who will be focusing on her role as Wyoming’s national committeewoman for the Democratic National Committee (DNC) after coming up short in her bid for Jackson Town Council.

“We clearly have a broken national political system,” said Jackson’s Mayor-elect Pete Muldoon. “Trump lost the popular vote, but still won the election. The media valued ratings and access over the public interest.”

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Despite criticism of the media from all sides in the presidential election, there was important, fact-based journalism done on Trump. Typically, the more revealing the work was, the more the Republican candidate railed against it.

In May, Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold identified that Trump had not paid the $1 million he claimed to have personally donated to veterans groups at a televised fundraiser nearly four months earlier. After Trump finally donated the money to a charity and Fahrenthold suggested that it was only due to media pressure, Trump reportedly said to him, “You know, you’re a nasty guy. You’re really a nasty guy. I gave out millions of dollars that I had no obligation to do.”

A few weeks later, The Washington Post was added to Trump’s media blacklist. Fahrenthold still went on to reveal that the nonprofit Trump Foundation had been used to pay $258,000 in legal bills for Trump’s for-profit business, and he was the first to report on Trump’s lewd “Access Hollywood” tape.

At The New York Times, a four-reporter team published a story in early October that revealed Trump had reported a $916 million loss on his 1995 tax return, and that he could have used the loss to cancel out his federal income taxes for up to 18 years. Trump doesn’t seem to have forgotten, as he took to Twitter this past weekend attacking the newspaper: “Wow, the @nytimes is losing thousands of subscribers because of their very poor and highly inaccurate coverage of the ‘Trump phenomena’.”

The New York Times denied Trump’s accusation.

Even before Trump’s fact-denying presidential campaign, journalism was threatened by the rise of hyperpartisan websites and social media pages that allow the public to continuously validate their own political views. An institution that has been essential to America’s democracy is now met with regular accusations of bias and corruption across the country’s political spectrum. Modern mainstream journalism must contend with whether it is healthy enough to fend off a sustained attack from the leader of the “free” world as well.

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Renovating the Fourth Estate

Journalism has long been referred to as the Fourth Estate, aiming to be a factual counterweight to the three branches of U.S. government. When the media has been repressed or state-controlled in other countries like China, Russia and North Korea, human rights violations have run rampant. Trump aside, the Fourth Estate is currently vulnerable in the United States, with a September Gallup poll finding that only 32 percent of Americans currently trust mass media.

The foundation of the Fourth Estate has weakened in the 21st century as newspapers have consolidated, local investigative journalism has been stripped down, and cable news networks have chased ratings by adding far more opinionated programing.

On Election Day, Teton County voter Irene Griswold, 51, explained her concerns.

“To me, it’s disappointing the way the news industry has gone from having really good investigative reporters as opposed to now just either taking blurbs from other media or being obviously very biased for one side or the other,” she said. “It’s not news—it’s just their belief system they are espousing to.”

The public’s declining trust in the mainstream media has coincided with the rise of what Harvard Law School professor Yochai Benkler called the “networked fourth estate” in his 2011 paper, “A Free Irresponsible Press.” Expanding the Fourth Estate to include decentralized, nontraditional media sources like Wikipedia, WikiLeaks and small news sites, the networked fourth estate is not only defined by its media outlets, but also, how they interact and share information through online networks.

Benkler explained, “The new system will have high quality, effective participants of each type, and low quality rumormongers on either side of the traditional/networked media divide.”

While the networked fourth estate has granted the public access to an unprecedented amount of vital information online, it also enabled a vast spread of misinformation during the presidential campaign.

A revealing example is WikiLeaks’ uncovering of legitimate political news this election. In July, WikiLeaks posted hacked emails from the DNC that revealed instances of internal favoritism for Clinton during the Democratic primary. In the month leading up to the election, the nonprofit organization released an ongoing drip of hacked emails from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. Among the emails was content from Clinton’s private speeches to Wall Street and discussions highlighting potential conflicts of interest involving the Clinton Foundation.

Defending the release of these emails, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange posted the following on the eve of the U.S. presidential election:

“The U.S. public has thoroughly engaged with WikiLeaks’ election related publications which number more than one hundred thousand documents. Millions of Americans have pored over the leaks and passed on their citations to each other and to us. It is an open model of journalism that gatekeepers are uncomfortable with, but which is perfectly harmonious with the First Amendment.”

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But WikiLeaks’ delivery system also stoked the public’s cynicism with vague, open-ended posts and tweets that implied additional Clinton scandals when there were none. The hacked emails found a second life on independent WikiLeaks-focused Twitter accounts that often placed email content out of context, or falsely attributed that content to Clinton’s team.

If journalism is supposed to offer both sides of a story, WikiLeaks could not provide a look behind the scenes of the Trump campaign. And if journalism is supposed to be without agenda, this was a sustained effort that focused solely on one candidate in one U.S. party.

Assange’s statement also asserts that journalism—a profession that requires extensive training and experience—can simply be left to the general public. If today’s Facebook feeds are any indication, Americans should probably stick to their day jobs.

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Fact-averse on Facebook

In September, BuzzFeed News analyzed more than one thousand political posts from six hyper-partisan Facebook pages, looking at three left-wing pages, such as Occupy Democrats, and three right-wing sites, such as Freedom Daily. The analysis showed that 30 percent of all posts contained false or misleading information. Even worse, the pages with the shakiest facts tended to have the most shares, reactions and comments from the public.

In contrast, the three mainstream sites chosen by BuzzFeed for comparison—ABC News Politics, CNN Politics and Politico—posted a mix of true and false information less than 1 percent of the time, with zero posts labeled as mostly false.

The impatience with facts on social media can help explain how Americans elected a president whose statements were rated mostly false or worse 70 percent of the time by the fact-checking site PolitiFact. Far-right Facebook pages supporting Trump were the worst offenders in the BuzzFeed analysis, with 38 percent of their posts containing false or misleading information.

Speaking to Business Insider in August, popular conservative talk radio host Charlie Sykes explained how conservative media has “basically eliminated any of the referees, the gatekeepers” when it comes to facts.

“There’s nobody. Let’s say that Donald Trump basically makes whatever you want to say, whatever claim he wants to make. And everybody knows it’s a falsehood. The big question of my audience, it is impossible for me to say that, ‘By the way, you know it’s false.’ And they’ll say, ‘Why? I saw it on Allen B. West.’ Or they’ll say, ‘I saw it on a Facebook page.’ And I’ll say, ‘The New York Times did a fact check.’ And they’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s The New York Times. That’s bullshit.’ There’s nobody—you can’t go to anybody and say, ‘Look, here are the facts.’”

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Sykes’ radio show airs in Wisconsin, a reliably blue state that turned red for Trump this year. With other surprising wins for Trump in Michigan and Pennsylvania, the country elected a president who has fully embraced—and been empowered by—anti-empiricism and conspiracy theories.

Jay Rosen, a media critic and journalism professor at New York University, struck an ominous tone in a blog post addressing journalism’s struggle to cover Trump two days before the election.

“We who care about news, truth, factuality, and democracy. We don’t know where we are with Trump and the depiction of reality in an election contested this way. We have lost the plot,” Rosen wrote.

He concluded his post by writing the following:

“’When we act, we create our own reality’ was a boast in the Bush White House, a bit of outrageousness intended to shock the reporter. Now we have Trump’s attempt to substitute his reality for news of the world. Covering Trump was a massive challenge. Recovering from him may be all but impossible for the political press.”

If the political press is to regain its health, the recovery may need to start with a greater urgency to report or clarify facts at conservative news outlets like Fox News or The Wall Street Journal. After all, a significant portion of Americans—perhaps enough to swing an election—is now fully dismissive of any story reported by the likes of The New York Times or The Washington Post.

A factual future in Teton County

While the national media landscape paints a grim picture, 68 percent of Teton County voters rejected Trump’s alternate reality with a vote for Clinton, Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, Green Party candidate Jill Stein or a write-in.

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During Planet Jackson Hole’s conversations with local officeholders, candidates and voters leading up to and on Election Day, there seemed to be a larger appetite for facts and an elevated awareness of implicit media bias, even if many interviewees gravitated toward mainstream publications that tend to align with their political beliefs.

Teton County voter Michael Azevedo, 26, noted the diversity of views between the Facebook posts of his friends from his six years in the military and those of his Jackson friends.

“As [the election] got closer, I was kind of frantically searching around,” said Azevedo, who eventually decided to vote for Johnson. “I’m always curious what other people are saying. Sometimes it would end up in Google searches of what I was interested in.”

Though her paid online subscription to The New York Times acts as her primary source for national political news, Jackson Town Councilor and Democrat Hailey Morton Levinson also uses a quick Google search or a peek at her more conservative friends’ posts to get another take on the same story.

“I try to see what the other side is getting—more so that I can know what info they are going off of and how they arrive at the conclusions that they are arriving at,” explained Morton Levinson.

Teton County Commissioner Mark Newcomb, a Democrat, counts The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Economist among his go-tos for what he describes as a “reasonable balance of left to right views.”

On the other hand, Republican Teton County Commissioner Barbara Allen, who voted for Johnson, said she mainly reads The Wall Street Journal online before bed.

“If I see posted articles on social media that look rational, I’ll read them. I’ll read The New York Times as well, but not as often,” Allen said.

Along with push notifications on his phone from mainstream outlets like the NYT, NPR and the BBC, Teton County Commissioner-elect and cable chord-cutter Greg Epstein gets most of his news from his curated Facebook feed, which includes posts from progressive pages like the online news show The Young Turks and political commentator Robert Reich.

“A lot of times I’ll actually go and find who the source is, who owns the website,” explained Epstein, a Democrat. “I’ll go in and do research and say, ‘OK, who’s funding this website,’ because that’s a big way to know what their angle is.”

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Jackson Mayor Sara Flitner, an Independent, reads The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, NPR and theSkimm e-mail newsletter while avoiding cable news altogether.

“While I know all media has a bias, just like I do, my time is too limited to spend a lot of it on days of speculation and opinion by talking heads,” Flitner said. “I want to know what happened, when, why and how. I will form my own opinion based on that.”

Local Clinton voter Cheryl Davison, 28, used the Flipboard news app along with CNN and The New York Times to get most of her news during the election. “I use my own intuition with whether or not I feel like it’s crap or whether I think that it’s actually good information,” she said.

Asked how she knows what is “crap,” Davison responded, “Anything that Fox News posts.”

By comparison, Teton County Republican Party Interim Chairman and Trump voter John “Tote” Turner cited Fox News as his sole source for national news. “I have not diversified the way I should have,” Turner admitted. “If I made more time, I would probably expand that to The New York Times.”

Nearly every Teton County voter interviewed also mentioned that they turn to one, or both, of the two local newspapers frequently. As community newspapers continue to shutter or cut staff across the country, the popularity of Jackson’s papers is a hopeful sign of this area’s appetite for healthy civic discourse.

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Accepting bias, rejecting untruths

In Jackson Hole at least, media bias is becoming common knowledge, and it does not necessarily have to be damaging to democracy. It is The Planet’s belief, and that of many reputable media outlets, that reporters should admit their biases. What should never be accepted, however, are lies or an absence of facts in expressing an opinion publicly. President Theodore Roosevelt conveyed this message when he spoke of exposing the evils of politics, business and social life in 1906.

“I hail as a benefactor every writer or speaker, every man who, on the platform or in a book, magazine, or newspaper, with merciless severity makes such attack, provided always that he in his turn remembers that the attack is of use only if it is absolutely truthful.”

In his 2011 paper, Benkler predicted that the networked fourth estate would improve its watchdog function by reaching a sort of happy medium between “traditional representatives of the fourth estate, like The New York Times, and the more edgy, muckraking elements of the networked environment.”

Although many elements of the networked fourth estate are still rife with misinformation, Google and Facebook are taking steps to implement fact-checking mechanisms in this environment.

Last month, Google introduced a “Fact check” tag that enables articles that perform fact checking on major stories to be labeled as such in Google News results. Meanwhile, a Facebook spokesperson recently told The Atlantic that the company is already using machine learning to identify when the veracity of a link in a user’s post is hotly contested by other users. For example, if multiple Facebook users respond to the post with links to fact-checking sites, like Snopes.com and PolitiFact, Facebook may flag the original link as fake. Ultimately the post may then be less likely to appear in users’ news feeds, regardless of who posts it.

There will be a fine line to walk as these information-sharing platforms try to encourage factual discourse while maintaining their original intent as unfiltered tools. But, with a president-elect who rejected facts full stop in his campaign, these efforts and those similar could be crucial for America’s democracy going forward.

Looking inward

As media consumers who have leaned to the left in recent presidential elections and are, in many cases, overeducated for the jobs they fill, Teton County residents might contribute to a more factual online environment by taking a closer look at the news sites that they and their friends frequent.

In his pre-election blog post, Rosen notes that the movement away from facts and empiricism during the past decade or so has not been confined to the right. He points out that the far left has spread misinformation about the side effects of vaccines and genetically modified foods, as well as the conspiracy that 9/11 was an inside job.

“They just never had the influence among office-holders and opinion leaders that, say, climate change denialists and the birther movement had within the Republican coalition,” Rosen writes.

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One of the most popular news sites and Facebook pages on the left this election season was US Uncut. Now boasting 1.5 million Facebook followers, about a half million less than CNN Politics, US Uncut rose to prominence on the social networking site with a mix of political memes and news stories. But, the organization has played fast and loose with the truth along the way.

During the Democratic primaries, Snopes.com rated US Uncut with a “false” for its article titled, “Did Hillary Clinton Just Admit on LIVE TV That Her Iraq War Vote Was a Bribe?” Prior to the first presidential debate, the site framed a satirical article from Raw Story that said the Attorney General had warned the public against drinking every time Trump lied as a real story.

US Uncut has the look of a media company, but it is described as a “direct action group” that is designed to mobilize against corporate tax avoidance and austerity. This speaks to the challenge for the public to comprehend the agendas of news sites on both the left and the right—sites that are designed to thrive in their Facebook feeds.

Still, when they get their facts straight, sites like US Uncut have proven instrumental in capturing under-represented voices and spreading public knowledge of legitimate stories that have been under-covered by the mainstream media, or, at the very least, overshadowed by the election. Take, for example, the ongoing protests and militarized police presence at the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota.

According to BuzzSumo, three of the four most shared Dakota Access Pipeline stories have come from alternative sources, including Counter Current News, Reverb Press, and White Wolf Pack. The three stories combined were shared nearly 1.3 million times across social media. Meanwhile, the alternative weekly newspaper, High Plains Reader, based in Fargo, ND, has provided continuous coverage on the Dakota Access Pipeline protests often while mainstream media remained silent.

“[North Dakota] has always been pretty conservative and our role is to balance that out and give a voice to people who are not often heard,” said Raul Gomez, publisher of High Plains Reader. “The protesters were not getting their fair share of coverage … they were not getting their voices and positions heard correctly and our role was to clarify their reasoning for protesting, especially when national media came in, we wanted to give our local view.” 

As the public struggles to discern the corporate sires holding the strings of mainstream media outlets and what that means for these outlets’ coverage, alternative newspapers, like High Planes Reader and The Planet, find themselves assuming more important roles. Indepedent media outlets, beholden to no one, are increasingly carrying the torch and filling a void to present clear, truthful information to the public and  place continuous pressure on power.

Future of misinformation

It would be disingenuous to suggest that the explosion of political misinformation this election was the main reason for Trump’s victory. There is a growing consensus that the Democratic Party and its presidential candidate failed to strike a resonant message with the white working class. In states like Pennsylvania and Iowa, there were massive swings toward Trump in working-class areas that had twice voted for President Obama.

“The two big factors for me are first, that America is obviously still a very racist country, and secondly, that the establishment is completely out of touch and has been ignoring the working class for far too long,” Muldoon said. “A large number of people finally decided that they’d had enough.”

The willingness to ignore facts this election might be better described as a symptom of this populist anger. If the left heads in a similarly populist direction as it looks to win back white working-class voters, it will need to place a greater priority on framing its arguments within a factual realm. Otherwise, it could end up with its own fact-free version of the Tea Party or an inverse copy of Trump.

During the Trump presidency, the health of the Fourth Estate and its networked elements will be just as dependent on those who consume their news as those who dictate and write the stories. If the more sensational, less factual content continues to receive the most shares and reactions online, then it will be churned out at an even greater rate.

In a 2010 interview with Truthdig, political philosopher Noam Chomsky offered advice for Americans living in what he considered to be a democracy in grave danger.

“There is plenty of information,” Chomsky said. “You have got to learn how to judge, evaluate and compare it with other things. You have to take some things on trust or you can’t survive. But if there is something significant and important, don’t take it on trust.”

Whether it is applied to mainstream outlets, a political Facebook meme or the site where that quote was found, Chomsky’s advice may be more important than ever under a Trump presidency.  PJH

A lover of sad songs in our happy valley, Patrick Chadwick is a singer-songwriter, guitarist and a content writer for local businesses. He studied communications at Boston College.

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