This is a time of testing for American journalism—will it rise to the occasion? Today’s media environment faces dangers as threatening as our physical environment faces from climate change. Journalism’s operating model has been under siege for more than a decade; now it confronts an existential risk as an authoritarian populist attacks democratic norms once taken for granted. But this moment of peril is also a moment of opportunity. Much depends on how a media system already under stress from the epochal changes in technology, economics, and audience behavior responds to this new challenge. And much is at stake: not only a renewal of the journalistic vocation, public trust in the media, and its commercial potential, but also the accountability architecture of American democracy itself. Securing these things will mean returning to some old principles: fairness, accuracy, rigor, and, above all, a position outside of power, exerting pressure on it, rather than inside, transmitting its message. And even that on its own may not be enough. To truly confront this moment and emerge strengthened, the press will require new and sometimes uncomfortable strategies.
I know how bewildering it can be as a journalist to feel the secure foundations of a liberal-democratic culture shift and slip beneath you. As a parliamentary reporter in South Africa, and later as the editor of Johannesburg’s Mail & Guardian, a newspaper built on blockbuster investigations of corruption and the abuse of power, I watched it happen in slow motion to a country that was too complacent by half about the strength of its young institutions. In the 2000s, as the leaders of the African National Congress lost patience with the very constitutional constraints on power they had once battled apartheid to secure, they took to closing off reporters’ access, launching proxy lawsuits, stigmatizing the press as biased, building a case for regulatory oversight, and abetting the purchase of hostile news outlets by business cronies. Today, under Jacob Zuma’s majoritarian rule, a free press survives, albeit in diminished form, thanks to a vigorous and persistent fight.
The United States, where I work now, is not South Africa: Its democratic traditions are older, its legal protections for speech more absolute, its media more diverse and, despite the carnage in print journalism, vastly better resourced. And yet the features of an authoritarian populism, centered on the personality of a demagogic leader, are emerging with stunning rapidity here.
The day after he was inaugurated, Donald Trump made it clear that his “running war with the media” would continue into his presidency. “They are among the most dishonest human beings on earth,” he said of journalists in a speech at the CIA’s headquarters. He then sent his press secretary, Sean Spicer, out to berate the press for accurately reporting on the inauguration’s attendance and to fabulate numbers about crowd size. The next morning, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, introduced a spluttering Chuck Todd to “alternative facts” when he questioned her about Spicer’s lies on NBC’s Meet the Press. Four days later, with the sulfur of Trump’s first executive orders still hanging in the air, White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon gleefully told the press to “shut up” and then daubed it with the scarlet letter that authoritarians routinely bestow upon independent journalism: “the opposition party.” And so it went, compressing into days an assault that in other countries—Russia, Turkey, Venezuela, South Africa—has taken years. But the tropes of illiberal democracy aren’t enough for Trump. When stories in The Washington Post and The New York Times helped to bring down his national-security adviser, Gen. Michael Flynn, he escalated to outright dictator-speak, attacking “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN)” on Twitter and describing it as “the enemy of the American People!”