SXSW Panel: The War at Home: Trump and the Mainstream Media

How to report and consume news under siege from the White House

Four all-stars of TV journalism gathered Thursday afternoon at the JW Marriott to consider the nature of news reporting in the Donald Trump Era. The rough consensus was that the “new rules” of operating under Trump represent an opportunity as well as a challenge.

(l-r) Dan Rather, Katy Tur, Matthew Dowd, and Brian Stelter (Photo by Jana Birchum)

The panel – Katy Tur of NBC, Dan Rather of “News and Guts” (better known as the longtime CBS reporter and anchor), Matthew Dowd of ABC, and Brian Stelter of CNN – provided a flurry of sparks about Trump, and some thoughts about how reporters and consumers of news need to respond to Trump’s new world order.

Tur acknowledged the challenge, but said she considers Trump’s adversarial relationship with the media an “opportunity” to investigate and press the administration. “If some spokesman is saying ‘the sky is purple,’ we need to be saying ‘the sky is blue,' and correct the record.”

Rather objected briefly to the panel’s title, and the terms “war” and “mainstream media.” He gently suggested “war” is overstating the conflict (perhaps recalling his hard time at the front in Vietnam). Nevertheless, he did say the Trump presidency represents the greatest “test” of the press. He prefers calling “mainstream” those news sources that attempt to be “honest brokers of information.”

Dowd also described the current period as “really exciting,” in part because the Trump presidency is a symptom that “our institutions are broken” and in need of reform. The media, in particular, needs to focus on giving Americans “a common set of facts.”

The group agreed that Trump presents substantially different reporting problems from other presidents. “There’s a difference between [conventional official] spin and lies,” said Tur, and Dowd noted that if somebody lies “95 percent of the time,” it’s not an accurate response to treat the difference as a 50/50 dispute. Dowd noted that Trump wants to “break all the rules” of political honesty, but expects everybody else (especially the media) to maintain the old rules of “balance.” Allowed to do so, said Dowd, “the person breaking all the rules, wins.”

The panel was divided on responding to Trump’s direct attacks on the media. Stelter said attacks on the press as “enemies of the people” (more recently, “NBC is despicable”) must be countered, but Tur strongly disagreed, insisting it’s better to ignore the attacks and continue just to “do our jobs.” Tur’s position carries plenty of conviction, since during the campaign she was the target of very hostile, personal attacks by Trump. It’s clear that Trump’s ascension has highlighted the predicament of a media institutionally committed to political “objectivity.”

There was fairly wan advice about not “demonizing” one another and reaching out personally to persuadable Trump voters. On the panel and in the room of several hundred people, there was an unspoken (perhaps accurate) presumption that nobody attending this particular panel would admit to being a Trump supporter.

The War at Home: Trump and the Mainstream Media

Thursday, March 16, JW Marriott

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