Evaluating the Fourth Estate in the era of Trump

It is no secret that since the beginning of Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency, he has enjoyed a combative relationship with the so-called “Fourth Estate,” the corps of reporters and analysts who drive the mainstream news media. In response to unfavorable coverage of himself or his administration, President Trump has often invoked the term “fake news,” in combination with other epithets such as “Clinton News Network” for CNN, “the failing New York Times,” and “Amazon Washington Post,” the latter in reference to the paper’s ownership by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

On the front lines of the conflict between the President and the news media is the White House Press Secretary. The four individuals to hold that position in the Trump administration, from Sean Spicer to the incumbent Kayleigh McEnany, have all had their own battles with reporters who are often exasperated by the stark difference between the cozy relationship the Obama White House had with the press compared to the current set-up. Spicer, in his very first days on the job, often repeated the demonstrably false claim that President Trump’s inauguration had “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe,” something that Spicer would, in his own words, go on to regret. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Spicer’s successor, moved away from the traditional daily press briefing; for several months, Sanders did not speak to the press on the President’s behalf whatsoever, further frustrating reporters.

This conflict became even more energized when Jeffery Goldberg of The Atlantic reported earlier this month that, in reference to a cancelled 2018 visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery in France, President Trump remarked, “Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.” Goldberg claimed, citing four anonymous sources who were present for the remark, that this event is evidence of the President’s disrespect for military service members.

For President Trump’s part, he has vehemently denied saying anything of the sort, claiming at a Pennsylvania campaign rally that “It is a disgraceful situation by a magazine that is a terrible magazine. I don’t read it. I just heard about it, but they made it up.” Deputy White House Press Secretary Judd Deere also called into question Goldberg’s anonymous sources, tweeting: “Not a soul brave enough to put their name on any of these accusations. That’s because they are false… What a disgrace!”

Other current and former White House officials also went on the record to deny the story, including former National Security Advisor John Bolton, who recently penned a book critical of the President. According to the New York Times, Bolton said, “I didn’t hear that…I’m not saying he didn’t say them later in the day or another time, but I was there for that discussion.” Also providing on-the-record denials were Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the press secretary at the time, and the President’s personal aide Jordan Karem.

Goldberg defended his usage of anonymous sources in crafting his report, saying on CNN that his sources “don’t want to be inundated with angry tweets and all the rest…” referring to the President’s penchant for attacking his opponents with acerbic messages on his Twitter account. Some, however, do not believe this is a valid excuse to not attach a source’s name to a bombshell report. As the Spectator’s Cockburn blog wryly observed, “It might reasonably be argued that if you do not wish to see mean tweets, you could simply not go on Twitter. This approach seems unthinkable to Goldberg’s sources; so secrecy it is.”

President Trump has made many statements for which he has been widely criticized; for example, one in February regarding the then-emerging coronavirus: “The outbreak would be temporary: “It’s going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle—it will disappear.” Now, the news media is under pressure from two camps: one that wishes for them to abandon neutrality and speak out more forcefully about the President’s perceived falsehoods and attacks on the press, while the other insists that they cut the administration some slack. An example of the former camp is Washington Post media editor Margaret Sullivan, who suggested during President Trump’s impeachment earlier this year that journalists should “abandon neutrality-at-all-costs journalism” in favor of a “Fairness First approach.”

Sullivan describes this as “the kind of fairness that serves the public by describing the world we report on in honest and direct terms — not the phony kind of fairness that tries to duck out of difficult decisions by giving ‘both sides’ of an argument equal time, regardless of their truth or merit.” She cast the President as a unique threat to American democracy who must be opposed by any means necessary, even if it means doing away with the news media’s vaunted standard of neutrality.

Defenders of the President argue that the press applies an unfair standard to him and his administration when compared to past presidencies. For example, the media’s reporting of the “Russiagate” affair, which embroiled nearly two years of Trump’s presidency in controversy and led to his impeachment earlier this year, has been attacked for its perceived hysterical air. The Spectator labeled the media’s Russia fixation as evidence that “Hillary Clinton and other Trump opponents… are simply unwilling to confront the realities that saw them lose in 2016.” Even historically leftist publications such as the progressive the Nation and the outspokenly socialist Jacobin have criticized the media’s fixation on the Russiagate story. The former argued that the media was promoting a hawkish stance on Russia in opposition to the actual stance of a majority of the American public, while the latter exorciated the actions of the Obama-led Department of Justice and FBI in their attacks on former National Security adviser Michael Flynn, one of the more high-profile individuals to receive an indictment as part of the Mueller probe into alleged Russian collusion.

President Trump’s and the media’s enmity towards each other is showing no signs of abetting anytime soon, especially as the nation hurls towards an election that is certain to have a controversial outcome no matter who wins. Even after President Trump leaves office, debates about the media’s proper role and regarding the cost of neutrality will undoubtedly endure.

Luke Koenigsknecht is a sophomore from Grand Rapids, Michigan studying electrical engineering. In his spare time, he enjoys reading as well as playing games or solving puzzles. He also fancies himself an amateur baker. He can be reached at lkoenigs@nd.edu.