The national press is likely to be among the first institutional victims of Trumpism. There is no law that requires the presidential administration to hold daily briefings, none that guarantees media access to the White House. Many journalists may soon face a dilemma long familiar to those of us who have worked under autocracies: fall in line or forfeit access. There is no good solution (even if there is a right answer), for journalism is difficult and sometimes impossible without access to information.
In that article, titled “Autocracy: Rules for Survival,” I also made several incorrect predictions. This one, however, was easy to get right, in part because Donald Trump the candidate had made his attitude toward the press clear, and in part because I had worked as a journalist in Russia for many years. I may have been the first journalist blacklisted by the Kremlin back in 2000, Vladimir Putin’s first year as President. The Putin Administration went on to reduce the number of regular Presidential press conferences to one a year. (Sometimes Putin will be moved to hold an additional press conference or two, and he generally takes part in a brief, carefully orchestrated press appearance after meetings with foreign leaders.) The Trump Administration began asserting its power over White House correspondents by establishing that lying was a feature of its communications with the media, then excluded cameras from some White House briefings, then discontinued the practice of daily briefings, and has finally banned a reporter from the White House.
What should the media do now? On the CNN Web site, the British journalist Jane Merrick advocates for a boycott: “The entire White House press corps should walk out. Deny him coverage. Take him off the air. Cancel his series. Leave him to rage into Twitter’s echo chamber, which is all he deserves.”
There are good arguments in favor of a boycott. It would feel good and righteous to stop rebroadcasting the messages of a corrupt, lying, hateful Administration. A walkout would serve as a clear demonstration of professional solidarity, and solidarity is an absolute value. Reducing the amount of Trump on the air and in print would also probably be a good thing. The media scholar Jay Rosen has long argued for downgrading the prestige of the White House assignment proportionately to the quality of information that emerges from the Administration. “Put your most junior people in the White House briefing room,” he has written. “Recognize that the real story is elsewhere, and most likely hidden.”
But there is a counterargument. The White House is a lousy source of information about itself, but it is also the best available source. The real story of Trumpism is probably found not in the White House or even in Washington but in Ohio, in Texas, along the Mexican border, in refugee camps the world over, in Afghanistan, in Yemen, and in the Palestinian territories. But the story of how the Administration functions must still be observed up close. Walking away would give this White House exactly what it wants: less contact with the media, less visibility, ever less transparency and accountability. Walking away would feel good, but it would ultimately be a loss. Would the loss in information be greater than the gain in solidarity? That’s a hard question, but my guess is that the answer is yes.
The Trump Administration has the media in a vise. On the one hand, most of what comes out of White House mouths is poison to the public conversation: because it’s a lie, or an expression of hate, or both. Simply reporting Trump’s lies and incendiary comments, however critically, serves to entrench his world view as a part of our shared reality. At the same time, he is the President. His Twitter pronouncements find a sympathetic audience among tens of millions of Americans. Refusing to engage with his words would mean refusing to engage with Trump voters and with the Trump Administration itself. It would mean walking away from politics altogether, which, for journalists, would be an abdication of responsibility.
As for that responsibility, it warrants some reflection. Americans, including those who claim to have no use for the media that Trump calls “fake,” expect the press to perform a public function. The media is the fourth estate of the political system, and the only one expected to earn its own keep, independent of how well it performs its service to the public. With significant but limited exceptions—such as NPR, ProPublica, and the Marshall Project—American media producers are rewarded not for how well they inform the public but for how many sets of eyes they can draw to advertising. The correlation between these two measures is tenuous, if it exists at all. In the end, the decision about whether to walk out of the White House, report the latest tweet, or publish an anonymous Op-Ed is made on the basis largely—if not solely—of market factors: How will it play against the competition, and how many people will be drawn to read it? That’s the sort of logic that makes perfect sense to Trump, who believes that the world turns on the profit motive. But Americans may want to reconsider the wisdom of entrusting the fourth estate to the laws of the commercial marketplace.