By Aaron Barlow
Donald Trump has been a disaster for political journalists, but he has also been an incredible boon for those of us who teach journalism. Questions of ethics and practice, for instance, particularly in interview situations, are no longer simply academic. They become matters of the moment; students can see, unfolding in real time, the consequences of journalism without a firm professional base, the descent into entertainment of a field whose prime focus is supposed to be information.
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Chuck Todd’s phone interview with Trump for “Meet the Press” on November 29, for example, allowed my student to hear Todd pull back from lines of questioning that got too touchy and then humble himself, asking Trump to come on for an in-person interview. The students then debated the responsibility of the journalist when interviewing a subject of continuing interest. Do you ask the hard questions at the risk of losing access to the subject? Or do you back-pedal or toss in a few softballs in order to make the subject comfortable — and available in the future? These questions were suddenly right before them.
If Chuck Todd, one of the most successful journalists in America, feels he has to grovel at the feet of an interviewee, imagine, I asked my students, how a young journalist must feel. Losing access can mean losing a job. Professional ethics and standards have to be jettisoned, many journalists learn, in order to stay in the field. Once the pattern is set at the first rung of the professional ladder, it is not going to change later. Commitment to professionalism disappears.
What is more important, the story or the number of readers? My students always talk about this, and it is also made present by Trump. By the middle of last semester, my students had gotten sick of seeing Trump everywhere — my current students (it is about midterm) are beginning to feel the same way. Almost everything we look at in the political press tends to circle back to the presidential primaries and, in particular, to Trump. When we met a week ago Tuesday, I had my students (they are following particular candidates in groups) begin to research candidate reactions to the Brussels bombing, secure in the knowledge that the news stories would quickly turn in that direction — they did, with Trump and Cruz getting the biggest headlines. Even in a disaster, the sure-fire way to increased viewers and readers is to find the most outrageous reactions — and Trump and Cruz were sure to give them.