You’ll see a lot of Trump in this issue. You’ll see a lot of us Voice people grappling with how to find the truth, how to report the truth, and generally, what the hell to do with the truth when it looks so grim. Considering the discourse swirling around the media during the election season—that, amidst a slew of of accusations that the news was too left, too right or too fake, the media blew Donald Trump’s incendiary campaign up from an absurd nuisance to a grotesque danger—I don’t know that I’m comfortable with this issue’s level of Trumpiness. But that’s the thing about the press: if we were always comfortable with what we reported, we would hardly have a reason to report it.
While I agonized over how to cover Trump, my internet scrolling led me to one of The Atlantic’s nifty new videos in which James Fallows, a long-time Atlantic writer who has covered presidencies since Jimmy Carter, sketches out what makes Trump different from his predecessors. Fallows distinguishes between “the conventional politician and conventional lying,” citing Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton as examples, and “the second category, described just as bullshit,” characterized by Fallows as a “salesman, infomercial-type guy…saying whatever it takes to please the audience.” According to Fallows, “the bullshitter still recognizes the difference between something that’s technically true and technically not.”
The difference marked by this 45th President hinges on that recognition. As Fallows puts it: “It’s not evident to me that Donald Trump recognizes the difference between the reality he is expressing and the external reality as measured in the world.” This confusion is dangerous.
So what do we do, as journalists, when faced with a figure who not only lies, but who makes it unclear whether he even knows what the truth is? I’m reminded of the comments made by Linda Greenhouse, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Supreme Court beat reporter for The New York Times at The Yale Daily News’ Annual Conference on College Newspapers. After mentioning that while she was a student journalist, she had not demonstrated as an activist, Greenhouse was asked if current student journalists should protect their reputations by similarly abstaining from activism. She responded that no, student journalists should participate in activism if they feel inclined to do so, noting that our current moment differs from her undergraduate days because “now, we’re in a time of crisis.” To contextualize this statement, Greenhouse was in college during the Vietnam War.
Speaking to this same sense of crisis and urgency, Fallows says in his video that “What we don’t know…is whether people will look back on this as a close call for the institutions of American custom and self-correction and democracy or as the beginning of something really different.” Though this speculation warns of an ominous state future, perhaps in a more optimistic light, maybe this moment is the beginning of something really different in not only the political world, but the written one too. It might be a given, at this point, to say that journalism needs to change.