Philip Taubman, an author and consulting professor at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) and former journalist at the New York Times, Esquire, and Time magazine, spoke to students this past Wednesday about the state of news media in the Trump era as part of Stanford in Government’s first policy lunch of the 2017-2018 academic year.
Taubman — whose nearly 30-year career at the Times included stints as a Washington correspondent, Moscow bureau chief, deputy editorial page editor, Washington bureau chief, and associate editor — took on the topic of President Trump’s labelling of specific media outlets today as “fake news.”
While acknowledging that delegitimizing news organizations that publish reports critical of the Trump administration is certainly dangerous, Taubman contended that the “fake news” moniker serves as an opportunity to examine a deeper, more serious issue plaguing the American press today: the near infinite number of news sources on the Internet, many publishing stories with little to no verification.
The lack of accountability news sites operate under can lead to actual fake news, allowing Trump to dismiss valid reports and furthering public distrust in the media. Taubman spoke of his experience growing up with “only 13 channels” on television. These few, he said, served as the “gatekeepers of news;” whereas in today’s media world, there is a “fog of news” and “cacophony of information.”
Taubman went on to describe the unprecedented nature of Trump’s use of Twitter to make major policy announcements as well as to antagonize both foreign leaders and domestic policymakers. When questioned about the comparison of the current president’s use of social media to former president Franklin Roosevelt’s famous “Fireside Chats” or John F. Kennedy’s strategic use of television in his campaign, Taubman responded that those uses of then-modern technology were effective because of the monopoly that the presidency enjoyed in controlling what information and narratives could reach Americans across the country. Today, the ability of the presidency to control what information the electorate receives is disrupted by the myriad news sources available to everyone. But Twitter still provides a way for the president to communicate his thoughts directly without any kind of oversight.
Taubman explained that the biggest challenge the American press faces going forward is the increasing partisanship of even established news organizations, leading to entirely different streams of information being consumed by Americans across the country. He predicted that if this trend continues, exacerbated by Trump, the American press could end up looking like the British press, where news is primarily consumed along the lines of political views. Taubman also emphasized the need for greater attention to local news coverage, lamenting the trend of local newspapers shifting their attention away from local and state policies to more national-level discourse.
Vivan Malkani, a junior studying political science, is the events editor of Stanford Politics.