William Sherman remembers the days when writing a breaking story was a race against the printing press schedule and carried the potential for jail time. In the Nixon era, he stood before a judge’s bench for refusing to reveal the sources behind his exposé of Vice President Spiro Agnew’s now-notorious corruption. In 25 minutes, Agnew pleaded “no contest” in exchange for his resignation, and Sherman avoided prison. Sherman left his court appearance victorious and immediately wrote to the world that Agnew was resigning.
In another era, Sara Carter recalls a regular day covering troops in Afghanistan and enjoying a helicopter ride when her team heard an explosion—and had to bring dead bodies onboard. Looking at a lifeless young man by her side, she thought of his mother back home who had no idea that this story—so different from the ones being told in Washington—was about to hit newsstands.
Investigative journalists have been reporting since America’s earliest days, printing often inconvenient truths to keep power in check. From John Peter Zenger’s New York Weekly Journal, to radio broadcasting in World War II, to Twitter in 2016, the platforms for reporting have evolved while the exploits of the elite have not.
When hyper-polarization characterizes national affairs, journalists are often called on to account for their biases in their reporting. The pendulum of partisanship and the media’s entrenchment therein swings back and forth, mused Carter in an interview with The Politic, but print news today is still not as partisan as it was at America’s inception, when political parties printed their own newspapers. Many publications today at least try to be objective in their news reporting, even if they more openly lean “left” or “right” in their opinion sections.
The implications of Donald Trump’s presidential tenure on the production and consumption of news media are ripe for retrospection. The media played an especially prominent role in Trump’s presidency, and asking “why” and “how” this was so generates important considerations. Is it because of the demands that Trump’s rise to power imposed on investigative journalists? Or perhaps the media acted according to a nefarious agenda. Did Trump frustrate news outlets by often breaking his own news on Twitter and staging unbelievable antics in the pressroom? Or perhaps the antagonism between Trump and the media was mutual from the beginning.
When distrust of the media dominates, as it does now, it is necessary to consider whether the media is at fault or being used as a scapegoat.
Veteran writers at the forefront of investigative journalism during the Trump era largely agree about the ideal role of journalism today, despite working for publications perceived as ideologically at odds. Trump’s presidency called for agents of America’s free press to mobilize, and they answered the call. Sherman, a decorated retired journalist, and Ellen Shearer, professor of political journalism, offered both praise and criticism for today’s publications—with a hopeful eye toward the future. They also lamented the economic challenges shuttering local newspapers, which are key to building back public trust in the media.
Journalism is in transition, they contend, and refining best journalistic practices will enable journalists to continue working for democracy.
The Trump era was defined by a non-stop stream of media accusations against the president and the president’s charges against his news adversaries, revealing what happens to journalism in an age of huge information flow and extreme polarization. At many times throughout Trump’s administration, the state of American affairs resembled an open investigation—and while reporters were the main whistleblowers, some regarded them as suspicious sources. But despite fumbling accusations of “fake news” across the partisan aisle and occasionally being singled out for criticism by the president, journalists from across the political spectrum agree that they continue to do what they have always done: Inform the people, give voice to the voiceless, and demand transparency.
“The whole thing was really kind of an entirely new phenomenon,” reflected The New York Times investigative reporter Mike McIntire in an interview with The Politic. Trump’s rise to power “really demanded investigative reporting at a level that hadn’t been done before.”
McIntire, a professor of journalism at New York University and a two-time Pulitzer prize-winner, got his journalistic start reporting for several local Connecticut newspapers, where he covered the corruption of former Governor John Rowland and the 1998 mass shooting at Connecticut Lottery Corp headquarters. He also broke some of the most major investigations into former President Trump, including the reveal of Trump’s recent tax returns.
Journalists watching a toxic political culture ascend with Trump could not turn away.
“You had a wink and a nod to white nationalists, and racists, and conspiracy theorists, and anti-immigrant groups,” McIntire described, “and so all of these things came together to demand increased media attention, because they were worth it.”
Speculation concerning America’s geopolitical adversary Russia also imposed demands on journalism from the time of Trump’s candidacy. McIntire noted that this context precipitated “all these investigations and clouds of suspicion surrounding his entry into the White House.” McIntire won a Pulitzer in 2017 for covering Russian election interference.
He denied that the media’s extensive focus on Trump and the Republican party over the past five years represented a flaw in modern journalism. “This is not a partisan political thing,” he said. “We’re guided by First Amendment principles of freedom of the press, and with that comes a rather solemn responsibility to serve as a check on power.”
Although Trump’s presidency dominated over four years of media coverage, “it was important for the country and for democracy itself, as we painfully learned on January 6, to cover this stuff and investigate how it is that these forces were unleashed on American society,” McIntire stated.
Carter’s perspective on the media during Trump’s presidency, however, is quite different. While she also responded to political circumstances through her reporting, Carter felt compelled to cover aspects of the Trump administration that she felt the media neglected or distorted.
“There was this vile hatred for Trump” among journalists and politicians, she said. “It’s such a deep-seated hatred, that for some people, it was almost blinding.”
The problem for the public is that “you can’t legitimately understand what’s going on if the press as a whole has it out for a candidate,” explained Carter, recounting Washington Christmas parties at which journalists spoke openly of the need to convince the ignorant American public of Trump’s unfitness. “They wanted to remove this man from office.”
Carter considers herself socially liberal and says that the best journalists “are service-oriented.” In Carter’s view, partisanship in journalistic coverage is also about what is omitted or ignored.
Conservative Fox News host Sean Hannity, she said, was one of the few willing to promote her work covering misconduct in the Mueller investigation and FBI misconduct—spying on citizens—based on unreliable information from Christopher Steele’s dossier. It was unpopular to criticize Trump’s adversaries, Carter explained, at a time when Washington reporters believed their job was to “[save] people from Trump.”
To Carter’s surprise, mainstream print publications never took her investigations any further. Carter believed that “with all of the resources and all of the great journalists” at publications such as the Washington Post and The New York Times, the stories she brought to light would explode in the media.
“And then there were ‘crickets.’”
Carter made the decision to transition from investigative journalism to being an investigative columnist, a switch she feels allows her to react transparently and responsibly to media bias.
“I talk more about my politics now, and I want the audience to be aware of that,” Carter explained. Carter’s personal distinction between commentary and news is one that many believe is missing from the media at large.
“It wasn’t that I was supporting Trump,” she said. “If I had found out that President Trump was having secret meetings with Vladimir Putin, guess what? I would be the first reporter, and I would say it on Sean Hannity’s show, without hesitation.”
Professor Shearer of Northwestern University has made a career out of teaching best practices for American political reporting. Her expertise includes being co-Director of Northwestern University’s Medill National Security Journalism Initiative, a professor of political journalism, Washington bureau chief at Medill News Service, and the former president of the Washington Press Club.
“I think what you’re seeing more on either ends of the political spectrum is really a throwback to a much earlier time in journalism,” she said, “when the press was more partisan in the early days of the Republic.”
“It doesn’t mean their articles aren’t accurate,” Shearer clarified, “but they have a point of view.” She offered great praise for the many journalists who have endured Trump’s personal attacks and still continued doing good reporting.
Sherman believed letting Trump’s words speak for themselves was often most powerful. These past four years were “a Trump daily reality show,” said Sherman. “So all you had to do was…let him talk.”
One example of where the media may have gone wrong, despite good intentions, Shearer suggested, is in their increasing utilization of anonymous sources close to the government. Yet this was not the biggest cause for concern, nor was reporters’ tendency to offer commentary as news. Most dangerous were journalists who offered factually inaccurate information as either commentary or news. “Op-ed writers have a point of view, but they usually use facts to support them,” she reasoned.
Despite difficult circumstances and instances of bias, “I think you’ve seen some of the best journalism being practiced,” Shearer maintained. She noted that the media had to familiarize itself with many fields of knowledge in order to inform the struggling public, including politics, public health, climate change, and race.
For Sherman, higher powers antagonizing the press is nothing new. On his way to collecting Pulitzers, an Emmy, and a Peabody, Sherman posed as a poor New Yorker to uncover Medicaid abuses, met with Cambodian Dictator Pol Pot, and was jailed in Iran.
But “all through the ’60s, and then the ’70s of Watergate hearings, all the different events, reporters did not opine,” he said. “They just reported.”
Sherman believes papers should strive for the kind of separation between opinion and news he saw in his experience at The New York Daily News.
“The same day I would have a news story about Agnew taking bribes for sewer contracts, the editorial page would have this long editorial about Agnew: What a great guy he was, ‘unfounded allegations,’ et cetera,” he recalled.
Technological developments have brought readers closer to stories. Sherman explained that journalists began to take advantage of multimedia technology in the Vietnam War, galvanizing anti-war movements just by allowing people to see what was happening.
“[Reporters] would film battles, soldiers walking through the jungle, and guys getting shot and dying. You can hear the gunfire and the warplanes, the horror of this war,” Sherman recalled.
While American reporting has evolved with new technology, however, journalists have long sought to immerse readers in their reporting. Sherman gave The New York Times reporter Bill Laurence as the example.
“They let him fly on the plane to drop the atomic bomb. And he wrote a first person account of that,” said Sherman.
From fighter planes to Twitter feeds, journalists have a responsibility to separate news reporting from opinion. This is possible if their goal is seeking the truth.
Professor Shearer hopes journalists will reflect on bad practices cultivated during the Trump era and implores them to limit their skepticism and editorializing. “I think we have to be very careful…that we draw a line and make sure we’re sticking to the facts and not taking the difficulties we had in covering President Trump and overlaying them on to other other areas,” warned Shearer.
A central challenge for the media during the past four years was the public’s distrust, prompted by the normalization of the term “fake news” by Trump and his administration. The term became “a way to dismiss and criticize any particular story that was inconvenient for them, or that they just didn’t like,” said McIntire.
While “that’s not a new phenomenon,” McIntire admitted, Trump was “especially adept” at it.
“The whole problem of people…deciding which facts they will accept…is something that’s going to take a long time to get past,” added Shearer, and is “a really unfortunate result of some of President Trump’s rhetoric.”
“I think certainly one of the things we’ve seen is that there’s a big market out there amongst people to want to hear what they already believe…. And that’s a problem,” said McIntire, because “all you get there are self-reinforcing biases, that may not reflect reality.”
Genuine belief in election fraud, McIntire noted, resulted in the January 6 insurrection and highlighted a challenge journalists had “in terms of just making sure that by covering [Trump], you’re not merely parroting false things that he said.”
At the same time, McIntire and Shearer agree that some organizations distort news through media personalities who push profitable agendas.
“I think commentary is important. But I think it’s got to be labeled and should be separate,” said Sherman. He considers CBS to be the classic example of an organization that distinguished commentary from news reporting on the viewer’s behalf.
To Carter, the real issue is with publications that purport to be objective and trustworthy while harboring a hidden agenda.
“I, for the most part, believe that humans are smart and can make their own decisions,” said Carter. To her, that would mean realizing that television pundits such as Sean Hannity of Fox news and Rachel Maddow of MSNBC are giving their opinions, and not just news—which she says that they make quite apparent.
Though CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite was once considered “the most trusted man in America,” Sherman said that “it’s swung back the other way now,” and print media has become more trustworthy than radio or television. Unfortunately,“CBS television is a more powerful medium than newspapers,” he said.
Trump’s accusations against reporters went further than “fake news.” Shearer quoted Washington Post reporter Marty Baron’s response to the president’s allegations that journalists were unpatriotic: “We’re not at war with the administration; we’re at work.”
“The news media did not create partisanship,” said Shearer. Violence against journalists because of such accusations pressured reporters “to keep their heads down and get the story, while worrying about their safety.”
While Americans typically associate violence against journalists with foreign regimes, escalating hostility toward the media has brought those risks closer to home. In the outrage that followed the 2018 shooting at the Capital Gazette’s newsroom in Maryland, which killed five employees, many journalists reckoned with safety they had taken for granted.
Carter also reflected on the flow of partisanship between the people, the government, and the media at the national level.
“I think [partisanship] is exacerbated by the media, and it’s frightening,” said Carter, “because the media is a tool, and information is, to me, the greatest weapon of all.”
It is not that people are not allowed to have agendas. “Everybody has an agenda,” said Carter. “That’s why when you have a newspaper, you’re supposed to have people with varying viewpoints, keeping a checklist, kind of like our government. But the only way for people to understand right and wrong is if you tell them everything.”
Before 2016, veteran journalists said that the field was dying. For many reasons, Trump at America’s helm revived it.
“One of the big legacies of the Trump era is the importance of investigative journalism,” said McIntire.
However, Sherman thinks that ratings will drop under the Biden administration.
News consumers “salivating for the next story that might reveal something negative about [Trump]… are now having to contend with the fact that in a Democratic presidency, the news media is going to do its job there as well, and do critical stories when necessary about the Biden administration,” said McIntire.
This is not a bad thing for journalists.
“I think the pace will be less intense now that former President Trump is not on Twitter,” Shearer evaluated. “And I think for the better, just because that was an unsustainable model for thoughtful discussion.”
Social media platforms such as Twitter have been huge elements of the news experience under the “Tweeter-in-Chief.” Carter worries that “we moved faster than we can think about the results,” though she recognizes the potential of social media as a platform for discourse.
Social media is at once a hub of useful information for reporters, a center for disinformation, a platform for sharing stories instantaneously, and a mistake for journalists who use the platforms to share personal opinions.
Journalism may look different than the days when these journalists yelled “hold the presses!” to break a story, as Carter fondly reminisced, but there are plenty of new horizons for aspiring journalists.
“There’s no better time to get involved in journalism than now,” said McIntire, “because of the confluence of issues that confront our country.”
These issues may be related to the Trump era, but they transcend its bounds.
“This is really going to be a different kind of crucial time for journalists,” agreed Shearer. She added that fissures in the Democratic and Republican parties and racial divides warrant attention as they continue to contribute to our country’s divides.
Shearer envisions that contemporary movements for racial justice offer an opportunity for journalists to affect people’s lives for the better. “There are a lot of people hurting in this country,” she said, “and the best thing we can do is to keep asking: ‘What’s been done? What’s been done to help?’”
“I think journalism’s always been kind of a cool job, but I think people have gotten into their own kind of star power,” said Carter, diagnosing an attitudinal problem that she admits having to keep in check herself.
Journalists should break news only when it serves the public good, according to Carter. “It’s a job where if you’re doing what’s right, you’re doing it because you feel that kind of sense—like, I gotta do something for this! You want to be the first one there.”
Professor Shearer teaches students of journalism how to account for responsibility toward others when writing an article. “The first thing I would tell my students is, who are the other stakeholders on this? Who are the people we haven’t thought about?”
Shearer acknowledged the conversation surrounding objectivity in journalism, but said that at the end of the day, “if you’re only thinking of ‘both’ sides, you probably haven’t thought enough. There’s usually more than two sides to anything.”
As the Trump-era fervor dies down, journalists hope that trust can be re-established and that the public can look toward the media with productive interest.
The answer may lie in local journalism.
“What’s missing is local news reporting,” concluded Carter emphatically. She, like McIntire, got her start reporting for local papers, and they both bemoaned the economic difficulties of journalism that have wiped out small and medium-sized newspapers.
Keeping apprised of local community leaders and the issues that affect individual states through local journalism is necessary, because people would know and care about what was happening in their own communities.
“I’ve always believed that being a journalist, your job is to be a voice for the voiceless,” said Carter. Engagement with news at the local level would make a big difference, she explained, “because we’d have more voices.”
Carter believes in the power of journalism, and she believes in her personal mission. “It’s such a blessing to have this kind of job and to be able to do it,” she reflected.
In truth, she said, “it’s a service job.”