Donald Trump, the Free Press and the Future of American Democracy



Jeffrey Goldberg is the 14th editor-in-chief of The Atlantic and is widely recognized for his foreign affairs coverage and investigative journalism. Goldberg joined Brown on Monday for a conversation with Edward Seinfeld, director of the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. The talk was part of a new series by the Institute called Byline, which features conversations about “journalism in America’s post-truth moment.”

He began his career at The Daily Pennsylvanian during his time at the University of Pennsylvania. Since then, he’s written for publications ranging from the The Jerusalem Post to the New Yorker.  Eleven months ago he was appointed editor-in-chief at The Atlantic after nine years as a national correspondent for the magazine.

The room had completely filled with students and professors about 15 minutes prior to the event. Overflow students buzzed around the doors and people spilled into the hallway. For a little over an hour and a half, the conversation ranged from the relationship between President Trump and the media, Nazis, and revolutions, to Ta-Nehisi Coates and Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Facebook.

A large portion of the conversation was framed by the shift in opinions on the moral arc of the universe. According to Goldberg, from the 1960s until recently, much of America believed that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice, holding up Martin Luther King Jr.’s ideology and President Obama’s life as evidence. This general outlook, held close by much of liberal white America, faced a dramatic shift with the election of Donald Trump. Now, Goldberg says, many Americans’ views have shifted to Atlantic journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates’ view of a moral arc that bends toward chaos; Coates favors respecting individual moral arcs, like Sandra Bland’s, and her moral arc certainly does not bend toward justice. Goldberg pondered this moral dichotomy during the conversation and ultimately concluded that he could not claim to know whether we were headed for chaos or justice.

Goldberg also spoke to a piece In the most recent issue of The Atlantic, in which Jack Goldsmith considered the impact of a president who rejects so many norms on the institutions of our democracy. Goldsmith argues we have mainstream media like the New York Times and the Atlantic also rejecting norms and shifting into activism, losing their journalistic integrity. Goldberg said that though he may not agree with this piece, his job as editor-in-chief is not to agree, but to make sure he is publishing the best-written argument. This notion came up again and again in the conversation with Jeffrey Goldberg: the role of the media in the revolution, past, present, and future.

Seinfeld and Goldberg examined how the media affected Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency. They discussed Hillary Clinton’s relationship with the media and the reach and limitations of the press. The Atlantic endorsing her was its third ever presidential endorsement, but Goldberg described it as an anti-endorsement – Clinton had the stability to serve, Trump did not. The Atlantic did not consider political positions on, for example, healthcare or taxes in endorsing Ms. Clinton.

When asked about Clinton’s criticism of the press in Trump’s election, Goldberg said “I’m not unsympathetic to her viewpoint, but I don’t prescribe capriciousness to the New York Times in the way that she might be doing.” He also described the problems between Clinton and the press as the result of the Clintons’ decades long mistrust of the press and the press’ boredom of the Clinton machine. He told the audience that only with time did we realize that someone should’ve put their thumb on the scale – but he thinks it should’ve been President Obama, not the media.

Even Goldberg admits he should have known earlier that Trump would win, after being the target of intense anti-Semitism on Twitter. “The saving grace of most American Nazis is that they’re terrible spellers…I was the number three most hated Jew on Twitter, which is the bronze medal,” he said.

He acknowledged that throughout the campaign the media worked symbiotically with Trump to create a reality TV show: “Trump benefitted some two to three billion dollars in free press, the media has benefitted in subscriptions and media readership. That reality TV show ends when someone is killed.”

Goldberg said that in these times where norms are being broken and challenged on a daily basis, it is important for the media to keep its composure. The job of the media in this shifting epoch: now its most crucial role is to not to give in to an over-simplified and absolutist narrative. He says he told staff at The Atlantic, “Just double down on your job and drive discourse on whatever the pressing issues are. We’re not trying to bring down the president we’re trying to bring out the truth. If this brings down a president, so be it.”

Goldberg and Seinfeld talked Fox News as well, and Goldberg said that daytime Fox covers stories in a “fine way,” but criticized the evening and nighttime shows on Fox that exist as entertainment. He also pointed to criticisms of MSNBC and left-leaning media for creating bubbles and not showing certain viewpoints. He cautioned not to equate the two, but pointed to the bubbling resentment in America where Fox has come to represent people who have “decided they are voiceless.”

The speakers also addressed he rise of Facebook and its affect on the election cycle, noting that It changed the way people get their news, and how they communicate with each other about news. In Facebook’s view, Goldberg said, the social networking site is just a vehicle, “a vehicle for recipes, racist invective, pictures of cats, and Russian influence.” He hinted that Facebook’s inability to cooperate and take responsibility could lead to regulations coming from both sides of the aisle. Though Goldberg expressed clear disdain for the social networking site, he also described himself as a “free-speech absolutist,” saying “if we start going down this path of regulation we have another problem on our hands.”

Right now Facebook increases online readership of The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Washington Post and various other news outlets. Facebook and Google are also about the only platforms on which news media can advertise its online content. Because of their monopolies on the market, if these companies were to cut out the middleman (the media), Goldberg warned that publications like The Atlantic could lose pretty much all of their online advertising.

At the end of Seinfeld and Goldberg’s conversation students and professors lined up to ask questions. While some were reverent of the editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, like the professor who simply asked how to get through the presidency, some were more critical. One student questioned the future of legitimate journalism in the world of fake news, and another challeneged Goldberg’s refusal to call all Trump supporters racist. To the latter, he responded “I knew I would get that question at Brown,” adding he would not lump the people who are “just not woke about America” in with the Richard Spencers of the country.

Be Sociable, Share!