Will Donald Trump win or lose in the digital age of journalism?: Collenette [Toronto Sar]

January 21, 2018 at 12:00 am  •  Posted in Penny's Pen by

Donald Trump is following Richard Nixon in going to war with the so-called mainstream media. But it’s far from clear that he can win.

Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham in 'The Post.'Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham in ‘The Post.’  (Niko Tavernise / AP)  

The silence was deafening in the small cinema on Sanibel Island, Fla., as Americans and tourists sat side by side, watching the new movie, The Post. The audience was thrown back in time to 1971 when the disclosure of the Pentagon Papers (a long-term military study) shocked Americans to their core.

They discovered that they had been lied to about the chances of success during the terrible Vietnam War years, not once, not twice, not three times, but over four successive administrations. Richard Nixon was president at the time of the leak.

As the film ended, the somber moviegoers exited into a stunning sunset. The beauty, however, could not mask an uncomfortable foreboding that the past may have sadly foretold the present in one specific issue. Donald Trump, like Nixon, sees the media as the enemy, engaging in personal vendettas with individual reporters and legal manoeuvres which arguably threaten the freedom of the press.

In Nixon’s case, he was already playing petty games with the media, especially the Washington Post. When a portion of the Pentagon Papers was published in the New York Times his fury with the media rose.

At first, his administration was successful in court, temporarily preventing the Times from further publication. However, in a highly risky but very gutsy legal and financial move, Post publisher Katherine Graham decided to print the rest of the study. Other papers followed her leadership. After a few tense days, the Supreme Court sided with the media and against the government.

Strong constitutional law, intense and diligent investigative reporting, individual courage and trust in the media overcame Nixon’s intransigence in 1971. His troubles deepened as the Watergate saga unfolded. At the end of the day, Nixon lost everything – his presidency, his reputation and his legacy.

The world is different today. Print journalism is under attack as revenues and subscriptions decline. The once-mighty “mainstream media” (MSM) is fractured into many moving parts as technology has moved us into the digital age.

More worrying is the erosion of trust by Americans in their media. A recent and extensive report by the Knight Foundation demonstrates that, among other issues, Americans believe it is harder to be well-informed and decide which news is accurate. Freedom of the press has potentially expanded into freedom for multiple media forms.

The stage was set for President Trump, only one year into his chaotic presidency, to deliberately divide and even conquer the MSM with competitors more to his liking. Escalating the battle beyond Nixon’s dreams, Trump famously baits individual reporters by threatening lawsuits or attacking them in provocative tweets.

Senator John McCain is scathing about Trump’s attitude. McCain’s concern is that Trump’s disdainful attitude towards mainstream media “is being watched by foreign leaders who are already using his words as cover as they silence and shutter one of the key pillars of democracy.”

Trump’s actions are possibly even more sinister than encouraging copycat leaders to follow his lead.

He has not only divided the media. He has undermined, if not subverted, them. He has become both the news and the journalist. It’s quite a feat.

But he has not yet won the battle. Like Nixon, Trump may have to contend with well-connected whistleblowers. Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers, noted in a recent Guardian interview that “there are thousands of people in the Pentagon and the White House who know an attack on North Korea would be disastrous” because they have studies showing that even a limited attack would lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths.

If so, the click of a finger supported by sophisticated consortiums of global investigative journalists could, at the very least, halt any of Trump’s more outlandish plans.

Phil Graham, the brilliant and tragic husband of Katherine Graham, noted that “journalism is but a rough draft of history.” Time will tell if Trump can sustain his own draft of history or whether other drafts will come out – one way or another. Only then will we see who wins.

Penny Collenette is an adjunct professor of law at the University of Ottawa and was a senior director of the Prime Minister’s Office for Jean Chrétien.