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Journalism’s dilemma in the age of Trump

Mar 27, 2018

One of my morning rituals is that after I have written for a while, I wake up my Australian Shepherd and we engage in a vigorous game of tug of war while I watch the headlines on CNN.

When I did this yesterday, the screen was filled with Anderson Cooper, one of the best interviewers in journalism today, with an excerpt from his interview the night before of a porn star. He was asking her whether her most famous contact had used a condom during their sexual encounter, and as she said no, I turned the TV off.

Instead, I put on Leonard Cohen; if I need proof of the decline of civilization, I might as well have it elegantly sung to me by a brilliant poet. I know very well why the commercial networks were eager to air what Stormy Daniels said, and I can make a case for this being “news.”

But there's an enormous problem here. In fact, two problems.

The real news is that our country is needlessly falling apart in many ways: Our roads, our bridges, sewer systems, public education. Phil Power, founder of the Center for Michigan, will have a column in Bridge Magazine this week that makes a compelling case that we are fast becoming the worst state in the nation when it comes to educating our children.

That, ladies and gentleman, is far more obscene than anything Stormy Daniels has ever done. Also obscene is this: By raising the tax on gasoline a couple of dimes a gallon, the state would have more than enough money to restore our roads and bridges to something approaching civilized industrial nation status. But our lawmakers refuse to do that.

This is one issue where the public is relatively well-informed, and journalists have done a relatively good job explaining it. Yet something is very clearly broken.

Under the old model of democracy, our job as journalists is to find out the facts, give them to the people, and then they demand change. We’ve mostly done our part, and people very clearly want the roads fixed. But they can’t seem to make that happen.

And we have another deeper problem. Journalists normally make what Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein once called a “presumption of regularity” about those elected to high government positions. We examine or question their policies, and sometimes their behavior, but we take it as a given that they are, well, sane.

What we are not trained to do is cover officials who seem to be irrational, have little knowledge of the offices they hold or the nature of democracy, and couldn’t care less.

Today, this is clearly a problem on a national scale. But it may be even more acute in Macomb County, where nearly a million of us live. Voters there two years ago elected a county clerk who makes headlines daily for behavior that once might have gotten someone institutionalized. How do we treat her fairly without ignoring the reality, which is that her behavior doesn’t seem to be anything we would view as normal? That’s not easy to answer.

But I can tell you that those of us at Michigan Radio do think about these issues all the time, and that being a responsible journalist in today’s world isn’t as easy as you might think.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.