‘Words matter’: Journalism’s battle for trust

WASHINGTON — The summit was billed as an effort to “reduce tension between the administration and the media.”

But if anyone arrived at Wednesday’s sold-out “Trump and the Press” summit at the Newseum hoping for an accord, they left disappointed. White House press secretary Sean Spicer and presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway joined an eclectic group of representatives from media and government to hash things out.

Yet both Trump staffers held their familiar stances toward the press, Spicer tense and fiery, Conway calmly critical. The previous day, Spicer had erroneously asserted that Adolf Hitler didn’t use chemical weapons during World War II, contrasting him with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

And though Spicer started the day with a conciliatory tone, he quickly became combative with MSNBC host Greta Van Susteren. It was like sitting in the White House briefing room.

Conway held her composure as columnist Michael Wolff said the Washington Post’s new slogan — Democracy Dies in Darkness — refers to her and the administration she serves. The Post and other media organizations have won new readers with tough coverage of the Trump White House.

“I’m not the darkness,” she said with syrupy politeness, moving into condescension. “It’s like I tell small children. Just because someone says something doesn’t make it true.”

And in that statement, she seemed to encapsulate an alarming strain not only in the conversation Wednesday morning, but more broadly in America at a time when trust in news organizations has hit an all-time low. As the Trump administration has waged war on the press, casting the media as “the enemy of the people” and “fake news” while threatening to roll back libel laws, the American people are less inclined to believe something because journalists say it’s true.

The polling agency Gallup reported just 32 percent of Americans believed the media could be trusted ”to report the news fully, accurately and fairly,” the lowest number since it began asking in 1972. Trust has been steadily sinking for decades, long before the concept of “fake news” entered the lexicon.

There is, of course, no such thing a single, monolithic entity called “the media.” What does exist is an industry in flux and representing many different ideological viewpoints, local and national brands battling for attention, influence in an age of social media dominance, waning loyalty and growing ambivalence toward facts.

“We’re told that we live in this nothing matters world, this post-truth world,” said Jim Acosta, CNN’s senior White House correspondent. “That couldn’t be further from the truth. Speaking truth to power is more important than ever.”

Acosta famously went toe-to-toe with President Trump in a February press conference in which Trump again attacked the media, called CNN “very fake news” and at one point commanded Acosta to “sit down” as he pressed forward with a question regarding leaked information and the Trump administration’s relationship with Russia.

“You said that the leaks are real but the news is fake,” Acosta said then. “I guess I don’t understand. It seems that there’s a disconnect there. If the information coming from those leaks is real, then how can the stories be fake?” But when trust in media is so eroded, any assertion by a public figure more easily makes its way into the public as truth. And the Trump administration has frequently exploited that reality.

“I think the president has to understand that he’s doing real damage to what we do, and to the First Amendment,” Acosta said Wednesday. “Words matter. We need a detente with the administration, we need people to trust us. We’ve got to find a way around it.”

Several efforts to restore that trust are now underway, including a global project called the News Integrity Initiative that brings journalism schools, nonprofit media organizations and advertising firms together with support from Facebook, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark and Mozilla.

Any successful effort must address the crippling level of political division in America, which is measurable in Washington and all 50 states.

“The data shows there are two sides online that don’t communicate,” said journalist and author David Kirkpatrick. “We do not cross that divide.”

The conversation that came closest to crossing it was one moderated by Fox News anchor Bret Baier and including CNN’s Acosta and reporters from the Associated Press, Breitbart, NBC and The New York Times.

They found common ground in the belief that journalists have a responsibility to hold the Trump administration to account.

“President Trump made a lot of promises to our readers,” said Breitbart reporter Charlie Spiering. “We published a lot of his words without questioning them. Now we have a lot of work to do.”

With racist, sexist and xenophobic clickbait, Breitbart has in recent years built a base of readers who identify as “alt-right” and its slogan calls for the “destruction of the political/media establishment.” Trump adviser Steve Bannon ran Breitbart until joining the administration.

Spiering found agreement from the panel about the need for critical reporting on the Trump administration, with New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush doling out praise.

“Listening to Charlie talk about the notion, the prospect, of having Breitbart holding President Trump accountable for his campaign promises to me is fantastic,” Thrush said. “And I think represents to me — it’s why I love media — and by the way, I’m the exact opposite of Trump on this. I love reporters of all stripes working for all organizations.”

But Spiering hit a tripwire when he argued there was “an element of truth” in Trump’s tweets.

“We’re not talking about an element of truth,” said CNN’s Acosta. “How about just the truth. Why can’t we just have the truth? That’s my question.”

Acosta, who grew up in Washington, had called for a return to more bipartisan spirit in politics.

“Well I think the sort of ‘go along, get along, everyone gets along’ climate in Washington, D.C., is what a lot of Americans are tired of,” Spiering said.

With public faith in Congress even lower than it is in journalism, and Trump’s approval rating hovering around 40 percent, it seems Americans are tired of many things.

Journalism can’t afford to keep being one of them.

This column is part of a new series, “Common Ground,” on issues of mutual interest across party lines, written by executive editor Kevin Grant from GroundTruth’s new bureau in Washington, D.C.