Media in the Trump Era

Published 1:58 pm Thursday, October 19, 2017

The President’s Lecture Series for the 2017-18 academic year at Longwood University began with a well-attended first installment that featured NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik on Oct. 11 in the university’s Wygal Hall.

Describing Folkenflik’s qualifications, a Longwood press release noted that for the last 13 years, he “has been at the center of the storm — covering the biggest media stories and chronicling the industry’s behind-the-scenes pressures, from President (Donald) Trump’s public feuds with The New York Times and other titans of the industry to how the demands of technology have changed presidential election coverage.”

In the release, school officials also highlighted his being a four-time winner of the Arthur Rowse Award for Press Criticism from the National Press Club.

Email newsletter signup

After being introduced by Longwood Chief of Staff and Vice President Justin Pope, Folkenflik delivered a speech entitled “Believe Me: The Media, The Public and The Presidency in the Trump Era.”

For the academic year, the President’s Lecture Series is set to “explore broad challenges for American democracy from a variety of perspectives,” university officials said in the release, and Folkenflik’s speech represented a compelling first step in that exploration.

He posed the question many have asked given President Trump’s verbal attacks on different media sources: “Why does the President, why does Donald Trump hate the press so much?”

“I am here to report to you tonight without fear of meaningful contradiction that there is nobody in America who so desperately wants the affirmation of the press than our current president,” Folkenflik said. “There is nobody who wants the press to love him more than Donald J. Trump and that the anger that he feels, the dismay that he articulates and expresses is directly responsive to the degree of coverage that is critical of him. And so you’ve got this funny yin yang thing where you’ve got somebody who’s seen as being hostile to the press who actually just wants to be treated with great respect.”

Folkenflik highlighted how Trump is educated on how the media works and has interacted with it throughout his career. Folkenflik also noted that Trump ran a remarkably cost-effective campaign because he was able to make himself the story and automatically get media coverage. He did this early on in the campaign by attacking Megyn Kelly and Fox News.

Folkenflik described the label of “fake news” as a “brilliant jiujitsu” that has the ability to freeze both journalists and politicians.

He addressed the challenges faced by journalists in today’s polarized political climate, emphasizing how it can be difficult to successfully communicate reporting — no matter how brilliant — if the story itself is offending half the audience.

Folkenflik broke down different types of fake news, and he noted that the popularity of the label has led some news organizations to make a point of showing their homework in their stories by citing an escalating number of sources consulted to confirm the information presented.

Near the conclusion of his speech, Folkenflik touched on the usefulness, in reporting, of letting people speak in their own voices.

After the speech, he fielded a variety of questions from students and those in the audience.

Questions covered subjects such as whether or not the press has a responsibility to cover unpopular topics and whether or not one should have an equal number of sources for both sides of an issue in an opinion piece.

Folkenflik emphasized the importance of balance and also encouraged people not to think of a story as having only two sides.

He asked aspiring reporters if they are open-minded and curious and if they are willing to do a 180 if the facts lead them there.

He was asked if anything is going to be offensive to someone, how do you get the story out? His answer touched on the importance of what he described as “scrupulous fairness.”

Asked what he thought about the use of anonymous sources, he said he would prefer something to validate them.

In his answers to other questions, Folkenflik offered notes of encouragement and exhortation.

He said there have been some self-inflicted wounds in the media, but there are also reporters doing great work.

Highlighting that it is on the media to tell a story in an interesting and compelling way, he said, “May we never do dull but important stories.”

He also said that media should provide information to help people be good citizens, not just consumers.

Folkenflik stayed after the event to speak individually with those in attendance.

“It seemed to me from talking to folks before and during the event, as well as after, that you had a nice array of people from the town, from the campus, students asking really lively questions that forced me to think hard and can help inform the kinds of threads that I pursue for stories as well,” he said. “I fear that I never fail to get more from these events than other people get from coming to hear what I have to say, because I find it very stimulating, and I thought the folks here at Longwood really have whetted my appetite to think hard about what we’re experiencing now in the media.”

President W. Taylor Reveley IV had a front-row seat for the first installment of the lecture series and was pleased with the value it had for students.

“Something that I think about all the time is students and our students in college today have come of age almost exclusively in a time, politically, that’s been very rancorous and when the media is not trusted in the same way that it once was in ways so many of us remember,” Reveley said. “And to have a night like this to be able to reflect with one of the giants of journalism about how journalism works, how it doesn’t, what the future can be, I think, is an intensely meaningful thing for our students.”