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Trump and the Rebirth of Press Freedom

NEW YORK – US President Donald Trump’s administration has shocked the mainstream press by bullying news outlets and unabashedly trafficking in “alternative facts” (also known as lies). But Trump’s challenge to the media status quo may not be an entirely bad thing: journalists now have an opportunity to root out the bad habits associated with cozying up to those in power.

Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, drew gasps recently when he told the New York Times that the news media represent “the opposition party.” Bannon may have wanted to disorient his interlocutors, but he also inadvertently reminded them of the adversarial role they are meant to play. In a healthy democracy, the press helps citizens hold the government accountable, by vigorously interrogating official policies and behavior.

Unfortunately, it has been decades since America had that kind of news media. Instead, the press has allowed multiple presidential administrations to spoon-feed it information. News organizations in the United States have prioritized access to the corridors of power above all else, even when access is conditioned on avoiding uncomfortable questions or accepting evasive answers.

When “access journalism” leads senior editorial decision-makers to identify with political elites, explaining the government’s thinking to the public becomes their primary purpose. Combine that with cuts to news budgets, and political coverage becomes a mere endless cycle of sound bites from politicians and their surrogates – not unlike a dedicated sports channel covering a football season.