The former New York Times public editor says the president-elect will lead to “a new kind of journalistic inquiry.”
The campaign and transition of President-elect Donald Trump have not been “politics as usual,” and journalists shouldn’t treat it that way.
So says the Washington Post’s media columnist, Margaret Sullivan, formerly the public editor at the New York Times. On the latest episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, Sullivan recalled the two columns she wrote on election night.
“One said the media had blown it, and the second one, which I wrote at 2:00 in the morning, was a journalistic call to action, saying this is going to require a very diligent new kind of journalistic inquiry,” Sullivan said. “This is not my expression and I know it’s overused already, but I think ‘scrutinize, don’t normalize’ works pretty well.”
“The role of the press ought to be looking hard at what Trump and his administration are doing, and to hold him accountable and be very clear about what’s going on,” she added.
Sullivan has since changed her mind somewhat on her first thesis from that night, arguing now that the media succeeded in some important ways while failing in others.
“The mainstream press really did tell the public who Donald Trump was,” she said, pointing to coverage by the Post, the Times and BuzzFeed. “If someone were interested in knowing who Donald Trump was, they could absolutely find out. In that sense, there was no failure. I think where we missed the boat was in not looking hard enough at the forces that would elect him, and the way they would do it.”
Those forces include the voting power of the widely discussed white working class, but also the extent of enmity toward Hillary Clinton and a tendency to present accurate polling data in “misleading ways.”
Sullivan was also critical of how political journalists have reacted to Trump’s breaking with the norms of their relationship. She predicted that Trump and his team would “throw a big hand grenade” into how those reporters have traditionally worked with the White House.
“There’s a kind of defensive posture of, ‘Well, you have to do it, because we’ve always had it that way,’” she said. “The truth is, he can do pretty much whatever he wants to on that. There is no manual and there is no law that says he’s got to hold press conferences, or for that matter, release his tax returns, which he said he’d do and hasn’t done.”
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