Over the past four years, I have been in an unenviable position of regularly debating Trump representatives on air. As Vice Chair for Media for Democrats Abroad in Israel, I was the go-to person for the Israeli media looking for a voice to counter their Trump-supporting regulars. Amid the predominantly pro-Trump Israeli media, my team and I were rarely called to speak on our own; the formats were invariably adversarial. It was emotionally exhausting, grueling work. But it taught me some crucial lessons about how journalism needs to rethink some of its core tenets in the post-Trump era.
After 30,000 lies – yes "lies"; not "mistruths" nor "falsehoods" but lies – a lot has changed in the way we consume and produce news. The issue goes deeper than normalizing lies. It's also about normalizing toxic tactics of emotional abuse that have now become part of the everyday media discourse. I believe that certain classic principles of journalism are no longer useful or relevant, and it's time for us to rethink how the media does its job.
The first unhelpful notion that needs to be reconfigured is the idea of balance. Journalists love to look for two sides to the story, but sometimes there is only one. Sometimes there is just a terrible event and someone else trying to pretend it didn't happen. I sat in many studios where the anchor was so uncomfortable with the idea that one person was telling the whole truth and the other was not, that he or she would hound the truth-teller looking for some other angle. I mean, how many times can I say that, no, the impeachment hearings are not fake; yes, innocent children are being permanently separated from their families at the border; no the peaceful protesters outside the White House did not deserve to be tear-gassed by American troops. I often found myself relentlessly defending basic facts simply because journalists like to appear two-sided. But this practice has a terrible effect: it ends up giving equal weight to lies and to truths, making lies look as plausible as truth.
The rules of journalism did not envision this kind of climate, and they need to adjust. Journalists need to place the value of truth above all else, even above the perception of two-sided objectivity. And they must stop haranguing the truth-telling interviewees just to seem "fair" and commit to truth above all else, even above "balance".
A second trap from traditional journalism is the search for the underdog. One of the favorite – and most effective – tactics of Trump's people has been casting him as a victim. On Inauguration Day, I was invited onto a panel on Galei Yisrael, a right-leaning radio program, for what I thought would be a discussion about Biden. Instead, it became an attack on me because, my adversary claimed, liberals just hate Trump and have been mean to him for no reason. I tried to get across various talking points citing Trump's troubling record, but all I did was feed the underdog narrative. "Listening to you, I really feel the pain of the Republicans," the interviewer said to me. As if to say, the problem was not Trump's god-awful actions and policies but how terribly people like me reacted to those things. I tried to say that Trump was the president and not a victim, but the point got completely lost. Yes, it was that bad.
Journalists need to stop fitting stories into cookie-cutter parameters of victimhood.The media's love for underdog stories has made the media easily manipulated by those crying foul when there is no basis to the claims. Trump is the best at turning every situation into an illustration of how the world is against him. We need to inure ourselves against this. Instead of engaging in meaningless and often destructive conversations about who was acting mean to whom, we should stay focused on facts and actual actions. Go back to the art of description – not who is complaining the loudest, but what actually happened.
Third,tweets are not news.
I cannot begin to count how many calls I received about non-stories based on a tweet or a rumor. Trump's outrageous ability to get journalists chasing his every chirp has not only dishonored the profession. It has also given dangerous power to empty fabrications, especially those that aim to unravel us via fiction. Change these habits and rules. Not everything a person says is news – not even if he happens to be president. Actions are news and words are not. And you don't have to report every peep.
After four years in which 75 million Trump supporters have learned to mimic the speech habits of a master manipulator, we need new rules of engagement. The media needs to change some of its practices, principles, and guidelines. We need to be smarter. The media needs to reconfigure its role in propagating destructiveness of lies.
Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is a feminist thought-leader, anthropologist, and writer whose research and ideas help shape a vision for a compassionate society. She has published five books on gender in society, and today helps women amplify their own voices and find their power through Lioness Booksand Media. She coaches women through the writing process, edits, and ghost-writes women's books, and publishes women's writing through Lioness. She also speaks and consults with groups and organizations around the world on gender issues and women's experiences in the world. Would you like to schedule a chat? Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org