By Sheri De Carlo
“Trump uses Twitter as his way of yelling at the television,” says David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post at “Politics and Democracy in America,” a discussion that also featured journalists Susanne Craig of the New York Times, and Daniel Dale, the Washington Bureau Chief for the Toronto Star. The discussion was moderated by Ottawa-based opinion columnist with CBC News, Neil Macdonald, and was presented by the Canadian Journalism Foundation in partnership with the Toronto Star to a packed house on February 15, 2017 at St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts.
Daniel Dale broke new ground in daily fact-checking of Trump’s statements, Susanne Craig, a Canadian who started her career at the Calgary Herald and whose investigative reporting got the scoop on Donald’s Trump’s tax returns, and David A. Fahrenthold who exposed Trump’s charitable activities and has often been called a nasty man by Trump, all contributed to the discussion. Moderated by Neil Macdonald, the discussion explored the challenges facing the industry.
“Since inauguration, before the Trump campaign, you say things like that, and you say things on Twitter, when he communicated on a policy position, people would take that as Trump is going to do this, he said he likes this, he’s going to do things that follow it. There’s a huge diversion between what’s he’s going to talk about and what he’s going to do, and how he’ll say something and then say the opposite a few days later, and not do anything, “ says Fahrenthold.
“I think that has been instructive for us to see the diversion between his words and his actions…and also we’re seeing now the consequences of his actions reverberating beyond him. That’s been a really frustrating and interesting part of covering him… seeing him lose control of the narrative he started,” says Fahrenthold.
“Trump is good for journalism the same way war is good for democracy,” says Craig. With all the tools that we have in this day and age, it is interesting from a communications perspective to see what tools are effective and how they are being used. “I think it’s a mistake when you let tweets set the agenda for the day – tweets aren’t the driving force of the agenda. Sometimes a tweet is just a tweet,” adds Craig.
It is interesting to note from a public relations perspective, that when organizations are in the news or an issue is affecting their customers, or reputation is being discussed, organizations often go to what they think is a safe space of no-comment; however, any engagement is better than none. “Dialogue and engagement is always good,” says Susanne Craig. “The New York Times wrote tough stories on Clinton as well.” She shared a story with the audience about a time when she was writing on a 3 o’clock deadline and Trump called her three times. “I was writing on a deadline and he just kept calling, it was crazy.” She points out Hillary Clinton only spoke with the New York Times once.
“To me what’s interesting is that people talked a lot about that when he was in the campaign, especially after he won, that Trump is creating an alternative reality, he’s eroding the line between truth and fiction. I don’t see him doing that, maybe in his own mind he is or maybe with people around him he is, but he hasn’t succeeded in doing that, I think, to a broader public,” says Fahrenthold. “In fact, the [way] they did in the first days of the campaign, Sean Spicer going up on the podium and insisting that this was the biggest inauguration ever when it clearly wasn’t, Kellyanne Conway talking about alternative facts. What they did was so comical, I think people sort of laughed, rather than seeing this as some sort of Orwellian trick to make people forget what was true and what wasn’t.”
“I think he has a very deliberate campaign underway to undermine the media at every chance. He’s not only labelled our newspaper ‘the failing New York Times,’ he’s gone after the media as a whole, as the opposition party, he has threatened to sue reporters, he’s banned news organizations from his news conference,” says Craig. “I think it is a very deliberate tactic so that at a certain point his whole aim at the end of this is believe only what he says and if it undermines the public confidence in the news media, it just places a premium on what he’s saying.”
Daniel Dale says he has people emailing him after every fact check he does, asking…”so?” Regarding the terms ‘lie’ versus ‘false claim,’ Dale sometimes avoids using the word ‘lie’ and instead will write ‘false claim’ because “you can’t rule out ignorance or confusion. To me, if you can get facts, you can slightly alter the thinking of a small percentage of people—that makes a difference,” says Dale. “When the New York Times uses the word ‘lie,’ it is powerful because they use it so sparingly,” says Susanne Craig.
In response to a question from the audience on what is the most positive thing that may come out of what is happening right now, Dale says, “There is a resurgence in civic engagement, people want to learn how the country is being governed.”
In a city where there are many events for choice going on at any given time, such as theatre, concerts, sporting events, including the popular basketball team, The Raptors, playing that same night as the discussion, it can be tough to grab the attention of Torontonians. The sold-out crowd showed that people are taking what’s happening in the news on the other side of the border, and the impact it may have on North America, very seriously, yet at the same time chuckling along while viewing recent Saturday Night Live skits. While clearly the public appreciates humour, we do appear to be increasingly confused when it comes to distinguishing reality versus fiction, and sorting news interpretation and communication versus promotion and aggrandizement, maybe even propaganda. Who knows…maybe it is all a grand conspiracy to achieve a resurgence in Saturday Night Live ratings…you think?