“When I announced it, you all said, ‘It’s not possible.’ Come on, give me a break, man. It’s a good start. 100 million,” President Biden responded to a question from Associated Press reporter Zeke Miller. Miller asked at a January 21, 2021 COVID-19 focused press briefing if Biden’s vaccine goal of 100 million shots in 100 days was “high enough.” Miller asked this while noting that the United States is averaging close to one million vaccines daily already at the beginning of Biden’s term. Miller’s question proved prescient—Biden increased the administration’s goal to 150 million shots in 100 days just a few days later. But in the moment? Biden did not fully respond to Miller’s inquiry about setting the goal higher and instead left the room, taking no more questions.
The relationship between the media and President Biden will be observed with a great deal of scrutiny throughout his first 100 days. The Trump administration’s distaste for the media created a unique and often hostile climate for journalists covering the White House for the past four years. This was even evident in its treatment of journalists during the pandemic, in which many journalists felt unsafe in the environment of the White House’s flouting of protocols. Though the Biden administration has clearly attempted to strike a different tone, the impact of President Trump’s rhetoric will not be confined to his term. Almost 1/3 of Americans believe traditional major TV and newspaper media outlets report “fake news” regularly, according to a Monmouth University poll. Conspiracy theories run rampant, and the January 6 attack on the Capitol was a harrowing indicator of their potential consequences.
During this period, the COVID-19 pandemic presented an unprecedented challenge for the journalism industry. Though the effects for all industries may never be entirely clear, there are observable financial impacts for news media during the pandemic. A Pew Research Center study of the six publicly traded newspaper companies found a 42% median downturn in ad revenue in Q2 2020 compared to Q2 2019. This downturn came when newspaper circulation was at its lowest since 1940. Yet simultaneously, many major outlets, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, and The Atlantic dropped their paywalls for COVID-19 coverage. There was also a proliferation of COVID-19 news products, such as weekly or even daily newsletters or specific dedicated sections of online publications.
Even before the pandemic, the U.S. was struggling with important questions—which lack clear answers—about the role of the media and journalism in the 21st century. The extent to which members of the media should “interfere” or involve themselves in the stories they report is an emblematic philosophical rift in the industry. A traditional view of journalism dictates a journalist must maintain impartiality and a strict adherence to objectivity in their coverage of the news. But does the media conflate objectivity and neutrality? There has been no shortage of criticism in the media’s coverage of the Trump administration from across the political spectrum. Perhaps, more importantly, the media undeniably played a role in the political rise of Trump. Though the extent of their role is certainly debatable, the idea that they were simply an observer is naïve at best, and an abdication of accountability and responsibility at worst.
Reporting the facts simply no longer fully encompasses the job of a journalist. Though that was always a reductive view of their role, the rise of disinformation and the influence and weaponization of different forms of media to sway public opinion has created a new media climate. One may encourage a more active approach toward fact-checking and selectivity in airing government addresses, but there are still large questions to be answered. Though there is no singular question or panacea, journalists must approach their reporting in the future with a conception of the role they may play in their own story; they can no longer shy away from that inevitability. Pointed media criticism will last well beyond Trump, and attacks on the media pre-date his administration in ways that provide fascinating insight into the current challenges the industry faces.
A president being hostile toward the media is far from new. President Nixon was similarly antagonistic toward the media, and fought them on two distinct fronts. In private, Nixon ordered illegal wiretaps and federal investigations of reports, and had on his “enemies list” numerous newspaper and television journalists. Publicly, he frequently excoriated the dominant broadcast networks for their coverage throughout his time in office.
But President Nixon’s public attacks on the press occurred in an undeniably different media and information climate. Nixon assumed office over a decade before CNN signed on the air, which was well before the founding of Fox News and MSNBC in the mid-1990s. Though hyperbole, the “virtual monopoly of a whole medium of communication” that Spiro Agnew claimed was enjoyed by the broadcast networks ABC, NBC, and CBS on television certainly no longer exists. The advent of the internet and social media further diluted the power and influence of television news. In 2018, 34% of U.S. adults said they preferred to get their news online. The diversified and complex flow of information in modernity suggests there will never again be even a perceived “concentration of power over American public opinion unknown in history,” like Agnew so alleged.
The distinct media environments of the Trump and Nixon eras forced different strategies for swaying public opinion. The Nixon administration’s message regarding their treatment from the media was best encapsulated by Spiro Agnew’s speech in Des Moines, Iowa in 1969. Speaking at a regional Republican conference, Agnew attacked the television news media, focusing primarily on perceived bias among the networks, and their undue concentration of power and influence on public opinion. The speech came just a few days after Nixon’s notorious “Silent Majority” speech, and television coverage of the public address may well have been the trigger for Agnew’s castigation. Agnew railed against the “instant analysis and querulous criticism” to which the speech was subjected. The echoes of this speech were apparent in many of Trump’s criticisms of the media.
There are key distinctions, however, between Agnew’s message and the approach the Trump administration took toward the media. Agnew was challenging the opinions and presentation of those opinions from the broadcast networks. By placing their commentary directly after the speech, he argued, they were precluding viewers from arriving at their own conclusions. Their commentary created a gloss that irrevocably characterized the speech in the minds of the public. And the opinions themselves were preordained and negative toward Nixon. Crucially, however, the veracity of the media’s claims was never called into question. Though alleging significant bias and a lack of accountability, Agnew did not explicitly question the legitimacy of news media. Agnew mentioned contributions of news media and emphasized that the core issue was a concentration of influence, rather than the media’s presence and work fundamentally. While it is unlikely these measures were taken in the interest of maintaining public trust in the media rather than in service of the appearance of reasonability and morality, the effect on the public is not limited to the former or the latter. Note, however, that the speech was undeniably damaging, and retroactively drawing a line that Agnew supposedly did not cross belies the unprecedented nature of his attacks.
But there is a stark contrast between this messaging and the Trump administration’s rhetoric regarding the media. Michael Conway, former counsel for the U.S. House Judiciary Committee during the Nixon impeachment, wrote “Trump is seeking, and to a startling degree succeeding, in discrediting the entire media profession by declaring the press to be ‘enemies of the people.’” Like Nixon, the antagonism of the media did not stop with rhetoric. CNN reporter Jim Acosta, for example, was banned from the White House grounds in what was overwhelmingly likely retaliation for his coverage and exchanges with President Trump. Attorney General William Barr invoked the specter of jailing journalists at his confirmation hearing.
This antagonistic relationship is exacerbated during the pandemic, when coordination between the press and the White House is crucial to distribute information. For a Trump administration that often shirked their traditional press responsibilities, this presented a clear issue. The pandemic requires frequent and clear updates of new and developing information. New research about the efficacy of masks, mutant strains, and vaccine distribution were constantly evolving topics that required adequate media coverage and accountability, which in turn requires a dialogue between journalists and the White House. But with a decrease in communication and an increased reliance on social media to communicate with the public, there may well be a need to discuss legal codification of the means and frequency through which the White House communicates to the American people. Though potentially a tool for increased transparency, the one-sided nature of social media communication may well be abused by future administrations. The dissemination of disinformation and unclear directives surrounding the pandemic from the administration put journalists covering the White House in an all-too-familiar scenario: how should they report on or combat lies and falsehoods?
 The extent to which Trump’s approach to the media and messaging constituted a strategy, rather than a mere abhorrence he was unable or unwilling to keep in check, is a valid and important one. This is particularly the case given the danger media members faced at Trump rallies. For this post, however, Trump’s actions and their effects will be analyzed without a judgment as to the degree of their intentionality and premeditation.