Ever since Donald Trump won the election, and especially since his inauguration, journalists have been grappling with questions both practical and existential over how to cover a president who spent his first days in office berating and lying to the press.
On Wednesday night, near the crowd gathered in Washington Square Park to protest President Trump’s proposed immigration policy, a group of top editors convened at New York University’s Skirball Center for a panel with the instructive title “Not the New Normal: How the Media Should Cover the Trump Presidency.”
“We have a president with authoritarian tendencies of a kind I don’t think we have ever seen before,” Slate publisher Jacob Weisberg said. As a sign of just how abnormal it is, even the notably counterintuitive Slate hasn’t been able to put the outlet’s signature spin — jokingly known as a “Slate Pitch” — on a story in favor of Trump.
Rare for a media panel but indicative of the tumult felt by many New Yorkers over the past week, the 850-person theater was filled to capacity. (Proceeds from ticket sales went to benefit the Committee to Protect Journalism.) CNN “Reliable Sources” host Brian Stelter served as moderator for the discussion between Slate’s Weisberg, The New Yorker editor in chief David Remnick, Univision Digital editor in chief Borja Echevarría and Huffington Post’s newly named editor in chief Lydia Polgreen. All the panelists, save Echevarría, who wore a black Comme des Garçons sweater, were somber in dark suits, although colorful socks provided a splash of optimism.
“I’ve never felt a sense of mission in quite the same, stark way,” Remnick said. “No, I don’t think this is a normal presidency. I think it’s a matter of record and even self-confession that Donald Trump is a flim-flam man.”
Although Remnick labeled the situation “an emergency,” he argued that the actual job of journalism, “putting pressure on power,” hasn’t changed.
The editor acted as a sort of motivational coach, albeit with a professorial style, at several points during the discussion.
“I think we need to buck up,” he said, to applause. “We need to buck up and do our work and do it ferociously and fearlessly and not be freaked out by a press secretary’s performance at the podium on Saturday. Stop it!”
He said at another point: “Somebody with an assertive, authoritarian, demagogic style has come to power. And if you aren’t energized by that prospect as a journalist, you should become a certified public accountant.”
“There are going to be some writers who say that this is a bunch of liberal media elites talking to each other,” Stelter said. Nobody exactly disagreed with this assessment. The past year has proven that media consumption is more stratified than ever.”
“We are living in a media environment characterized by filter bubbles,” Weisberg said. “There’s a Fox tribe and a CNN tribe and Slate tribe and a New Yorker tribe, and there’s overlap between them and among them, but fundamentally, people have gotten better at hearing what they want to hear.”
The conversation inevitably turned to Fox News, which Weisberg described as heading toward “state TV.” (Later in the evening, ABC showed an interview with the president where he suggested viewers watch Fox News to see positive Trump coverage.)
Still, Fox News wasn’t the only target of criticism. Remnick criticized CNN for its continuous coverage of Trump rallies early in the campaign.
“Hours and hours of this stuff. And it had enormous effect,” he said, although he noted that the cable channel has gotten better about calling out lies. On Saturday, CNN took a stand by deciding not to air White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s first press conference (although CNN did air later press briefings).
Polgreen’s suggestion that journalists refuse to attend White House press briefings drew cheers and applause, as did Weisberg’s argument in favor of boycotting the White House Correspondent’s Dinner.
“The idea that faced with these attacks on doing our job, we are going to invite this guy to come mock us in person? It’s just abhorrent,” he said, to even loud cheers.
Remnick continued to provide a note of tempered optimism. “Freedom is still here,” he said. “I just want to be able to look back and be proud that I used it to its maximum.”
That same evening, top Trump adviser and former head of the conservative outlet Breitbart News Steve Bannon told The New York Times, that “the media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.”