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Examining How The Trump Years Helped To Shape The Media


The past four years were a constant challenge for members of the media. The departing president's business model was attacking the media and he also led a sustained attack on truth. The president's constant disinformation about matters large and small went far beyond the ordinary range of political spin. By the end, he was welcoming the support of conspiracy theorists and claiming he won an election that he obviously lost. NPR's David Folkenflik reports on how journalists faced that challenge and how it changed them.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: His political viability was born with the birther lie about President Obama and Trump just kept on lying as he entered office.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: That was some crowd. When I looked at the numbers that happened to come in from all of the various sources, we had the biggest audience in the history of inaugural speeches.

FOLKENFLIK: Presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway coined an instant classic, deflecting the skepticism of NBC's Chuck Todd by saying the administration was offering alternative facts. And then, we were off to the races.


KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: It's not a policy.

FOLKENFLIK: The president's then-Homeland Security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, warring with reporters over the separation of adult migrants from their children at the southern border.


UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: Are you intending for parents to be separated from their children? Are you intending to send a message?

NIELSEN: I find that offensive. No.

FOLKENFLIK: In fact, the administration had set up that policy quite purposefully, as others, including the sitting attorney general affirmed. Trump assailed scientists when they contradicted his claims, assailed weather forecasters, public health experts. His attacks on the truth interwoven with attacks on the press itself.


TRUMP: That is a lot of fake news back there.


TRUMP: I'm the president, and you're fake news. It's totally fake news - made-up, fake.

FOLKENFLIK: And then on individual reporters.


TRUMP: I say that you're a terrible reporter. That's what I say.

FOLKENFLIK: Particularly women reporters, especially women of color.


TRUMP: I don't know why'd you say that. That's such a racist question.

YAMICHE ALCINDOR: There are some people that say...

FOLKENFLIK: That to Yamiche Alcindor of PBS, who is Black. This to CBS's Weijia Jiang, who questioned Trump's boasts about handling COVID-19.


TRUMP: Don't ask me - ask China that question, OK? When you ask them that question, you may get a very unusual answer. Yes, behind you, please.

WEIJIA JIANG: Sir, why are you saying that to me specifically?

FOLKENFLIK: Specifically, it may matter that Jiang is of Chinese descent. So he badgers bullies and bulldozes the White House press corps, slanders and slurs individual reporters, marginalizes and mocks the media, yet many feed on the conflict. Take cable news channels, where some personalities developed into #resistance heroes.


DON LEMON: What is it about President Obama that really gets under your skin?

FOLKENFLIK: Here's CNN's Don Lemon speaking through the camera to Trump.


LEMON: Is it because he's smarter than you, better educated, made it on his own, didn't need daddy's help?

FOLKENFLIK: Like CNN, anti-Trump MSNBC and pro-Trump Fox have enjoyed ratings records amid Trump scandals and outrage while local newspapers have flagged. The New York Times and The Washington Post saw millions of new paying subscribers, thanks in significant part to unsparing investigations of Trump world. That growth may not continue in the Biden years. The journalistic challenges, however, will linger.

KHADIJAH COSTLEY WHITE: I do think that reporters are going to be really paying attention to whether or not they're participating in the spread of misinformation.

FOLKENFLIK: Khadijah Costley White is a journalism professor at Rutgers University.

COSTLEY WHITE: I'm already seeing reporters outright on the 6 p.m. news say this is untrue. This is not based on any reality, right? I mean, they were kind of trying to couch things that Trump says to make it very clear that it's not real information.

FOLKENFLIK: Costley White has written a book on conservative media and the Tea Party. She says Trump's core supporters have such strong feelings for him that he floats above journalistic reproof. For them, he's a brand rather than a politician. And his efforts to discredit the press have succeeded to a surprisingly large degree.

CARL CAMERON: It's up to the media to be believable, and it shouldn't be so easy for one guy to knock it all down.

FOLKENFLIK: That's former Fox News Chief Political Correspondent Carl Cameron. When some overzealous exposes turned out to have holes in them, Trump exploited that, sowing further mistrust in the media. And on the right, Fox gave Trump a warm embrace, so warm that Cameron ultimately left the network, yet even that wasn't enough. Trump has sought to drive audiences to even more loyal news outlets. Places like Newsmax, OANN, Gateway Pundit, places where groundless and harmful conspiracy theories thrive, places the president gets much of his own information.

CAMERON: There are no guardrails. Anybody who has an iPhone or a laptop or just some way to communicate electronically can try to create a new reality.

FOLKENFLIK: Trump's going out just as he came in. The media, caught in his vortex, has changed appreciably. David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.