What the news means and how it is constructed has changed considerably in just a few decades. Not too many years ago, when print, radio, and television provided the news, we could determine how and when particular news stories were formed and reported (see Herbert J. Gans, Deciding What’s News: A study of CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek, and Time [New York: Vintage, 1979]). Today, news also comes to us from numerous cable news networks, Web sites, and listservs. Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish “news” from gossip and conspiracy theories – indeed, some argue that you can deem it to be anything you want it to be. Sometimes it is also difficult to determine real journalists from anyone with no real background as a journalist who has set up a Website with an ax to grind. When we do watch or listen to news we often get less news and more just people arguing with each other in often uncivil and even confusing fashion. It is not surprising that “fact checking” has become a preeminent part of what passes as news. Some, including President Trump and many of his advisers and staff even state that a fact can have many different versions and definitions.
News and its outlets are under intense attack. Although President Trump is not the only politician or individual to question news and its providers, he is certainly the leader of its critics. In his mind, news is fake and an enemy of the state when it criticizes or disagrees with him. This is not how the Founders of this nation viewed the press. The first amendment to the Constitution declares “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” Now, our President hammers away at news, particularly cable news, as the leading enemy of the state. Apparently obsessed with watching the news, the President fires back at every opportunity, especially via Twitter messages that often become the leading focus of news coverage. And his messages are often bitter, angry, and hateful (adding credence to the idea that he has not read or, if he has, does not understand the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence).
It is difficult now to watch the news, but, if we do, we need to understand what it is and how it is made. While President Trump attacks it from every pulpit made available to him, sometimes even when inappropriate, as not truthful (the basis of this being whether it is supportive of or loyal to him), the consensus of studies about news seems to be that its aim is to arrive at truthful representations of what is going on. Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert Kaiser state, “Good journalism holds communities together in times of crises, providing the information and the images that constitute shared experiences. When disaster strikes, the news media give readers and viewers something to hold on to – facts” (The News About the News [New York: Vintage, 2003], p. 4). Jack Fuller argues that news offers a “provisional kind of truth, the best that can be said quickly” (News Values: Ideas for An Information Age [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996], p. 5). Fuller also sees the pursuit of truth as essential to an open society and as the primary objective of the journalist. Alex S. Jones likewise states that “journalistic objectivity is an effort to discern a practical truth, not an abstract, partial truth” (Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy [New York Oxford University Press, 2009], p. 88).
The nature of news is that it is constantly evolving. The nature of the attacks on news today by political figures is nothing new, although President Trump’s campaign against it while fabricating lies, exaggerations, and conspiracies may be. This is especially evident in Trump’s use of Twitter. At times, I think, as do others, that we should just ignore the Trump tweets. Perhaps, one may argue, that if we do so, Trump would stop tweeting. However, Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson makes the more important point: “It is sometimes argued that the media should spend less time on President Trump’s transgressive tweets in order to devote more attention to real issues, such as North Korea. In fact, it is necessary to focus on Trump’s tweets precisely because they shed light on the mind that is doing the deciding on North Korea. It is a distasteful exercise. But we cannot look away. We need to know the state of mind we’re dealing with.” Gerson then adds this jab: “Trump’s tweets reveal a leader who is compulsive, abusive and easily triggered. Trump describes all this as “modern day presidential.” Lincoln had his Gettysburg Address. Franklin Roosevelt had his Four Freedoms. But modern schoolchildren will learn the Mika bloody face-lift tweet.” [Gerson, “How to Handle an Unhinged President,” Washington Post, July 7, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/how-to-handle-an-unhinged-president/2017/07/06/88b2ec38-628b-11e7-8adc-fea80e32bf47_story.html?utm_term=.6899f5a9def4&wpisrc=nl_headlines&wpmm=1.
At one time, we could discuss the power of news (Michael Schudson, The Power of News [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995]}. Now we have to understand that it is this power, to hold leaders accountable and to inform citizens, that generates its critics. President Trump constantly berates the “fake” news, while demonstrating he is the source of much that is fake. Perhaps we need to understand that there is a major difference between a “fact” and a “tweet.” Perhaps we have to let the archivists and historians sort it all out.