President Obama says he is watching the media’s reporting on the rise of Donald Trump and he is not pleased with its performance.
During a speech at the 2016 Toner Prize Ceremony in Washington D.C., Obama spoke at length about the controversial election season and alluded to the New York billionaire’s ability to capitalize on using the mainstream media to his advantage.
“I know I’m not the only one who may be more than a little dismayed about what’s happening on the campaign trail right now,” Obama said, pointing to what he called “divisive and often vulgar rhetoric” aimed at refugees, women, and minorities.
He cited the “violent reaction” from the public as a result of the rhetoric on the campaign trail, alluding to the protests at Trump rallies and complained about the “deafening silence” from Republican leaders who failed to speak out against that rhetoric. In the Trump era, he complained, there was a growing sense that “facts don’t matter” but rather rewarded controversy.
“It’s worth asking ourselves what each of us — as politicians or journalists, but most of all, as citizens — may have done to contribute to this atmosphere in our politics,” Obama said, adding soberly. “I was going to call it ‘carnival atmosphere,’ but that implies fun.”
Defensively, Obama asserted that he wasn’t just being naive or politically correct about politics, reminding the audience that he was from Chicago and was used to “rough and tumble” politics. But his tone was one of urgency, calling for a swift change to the over-simplification of the political conversation.
Obama directly alluded to the nearly $2 billion of free media reportedly received from the Trump campaign to promote his message, lecturing journalists for failing to hold the billionaire accountable.
“A job well done is about more than just handing someone a microphone. It is to probe and to question, and to dig deeper, and to demand more,” he said. “The electorate would be better served if that happened. It would be better served if billions of dollars in free media came with serious accountability, especially when politicians issue unworkable plans or make promises they can’t keep.”
Obama appeared embarrassed that “the number one question I am getting as I travel around the world or talk to world leaders right now is, what is happening in America — about our politics,” he said.
He touted the highest ideals of the American system of government, which were supported by what he described as good journalism, rather than “instant commentary and Twitter rumors” and “celebrity gossip.” Obama also lamented the click-hungry state of today’s journalism, referring to the “slapdash Tweet” that would be lost in history.
“But 10, 20, 50 years from now, no one seeking to understand our age is going to be searching the Tweets that got the most retweets, or the post that got the most likes,” he insisted. “They’ll look for the kind of reporting, the smartest investigative journalism that told our story and lifted up the contradictions in our societies, and asked the hard questions and forced people to see the truth even when it was uncomfortable.”
He insisted that journalism had a responsibility to focus on the fact-based journalism and keep the American system of government working.
“So we are all invested in making this system work. We are all responsible for its success,” he said. “And it’s not just for the United States that this matters. It matters for the planet.”