Honesty in the time of Donald Trump

Jeff vonKaenel

Donald Trump is president. I own three newspapers. Those two facts keep me up at night.

The former, because with every new tweet, every new executive order, the craziness grows. Policy differences are one thing, but announcing a ban on Muslims, bringing back torture, gutting banking regulations, reversing environmental protections, eliminating health care for millions of Americans, building a wall, praying for better TV ratings at the National Prayer Breakfast—this is something else. This is not just politics. It is a fight for America’s soul.

The latter, well … that’s a longer story. My journalism career started in 1973 during Richard Nixon’s presidency, at a time when the country was extremely polarized. The Vietnam War and Nixon’s presidency were outsized events that reached into most Americans’ everyday lives. And Trump’s presidency is such an event today. The impacts of his presidency may damage many Americans, and people worldwide. More and more people are asking what they can do to change history.

According to some estimates, one out of every hundred Americans participated in the Women’s March. No demonstration in America was ever this big. Last weekend, the Super Bowl on the football field seemed small compared to the Super Clash in Washington.

In 2017, what should the news media do? In more normal times, the media play the role of a referee calling penalties, helping to keep the game fair, determining ball placement. But Trump plays by his own rules. When called offside or flagged for roughing the passer, Trump simply ignores the rules and the penalty and takes the ball farther down the field.

The media do not know how to respond. Neither does the opposing team. How to challenge a team that does not play by the rules? The Republicans violated the normal rules by refusing to hold hearings for President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee for a year. Do Democrats respond by doing the same, or by following the established rules of governance? Trump has replaced senior intelligence and military officials on the National Security Council with a top political adviser. How best to respond?

Faced with a government that is not playing by the rules, the media will have to adapt. In 1968, when the government was lying about the situation in Vietnam, CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite denounced the government’s lies and corruption and said that it was time to negotiate peace. Soon after, Lyndon Johnson announced that he was not running for reelection.

Just as Cronkite changed his approach when he was faced with a lying administration, so must the media of 2017. During the Vietnam War, the government reports were so consistently wrong that the media had to seek out more credible sources. And so it will be in the time of Trump. The media will need to seek the truth.

Thomas Jefferson said in the last years of his life that, “Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.” His words still ring true today. In order to understand what was really happening in Vietnam, the media needed to develop alternative and more reliable information sources. The media had to stand up for truth. We will need to do that today. In the time of Trump, we will need more honesty. And that will mean: less Trump.

And, that’s the way it is, Thursday, February 9, 2017.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.