President Trump’s announcement that he would slash funding for public radio and TV stations in his budget is perhaps the least surprising thing to emerge from an administration that manages to shock the conscience on a daily basis.
This is a symbolic gesture to galvanize the right in the culture war that’s been brewing for a half-century. Time and time again, NPR and other stations have bent over backwards to incorporate conservative viewpoints, like with this recent report on charter schools that was roundly criticized by public school advocates. But no matter how assiduously fair our public media is, conservatives dismiss it as liberal — and increasingly, as the enemy.
But there would, of course, be real-world implications for these budget cuts, particularly for radio and TV stations in small markets — those that have been the hardest hit by layoffs and belt-tightening in local papers and broadcast affiliates.
The biggest losers will be citizens there who have fewer and fewer options to find out news about their communities. While there’s been a proliferation of flashy national political sites that recycle mainstream stories with a heap of propaganda or outright lies, they won’t tell you what’s going on in your local school district or township hall.
And Trump’s move was meant to send an unmistakable message to all media: “There are consequences for reporting things I don’t like, so be very, very careful.” Some charter members of the access journalism movement are already on board with the plan, like Mark Halperin, who sniffed this week on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that the press “should not be combatants trying to beat the people we’re covering.”
Some of us get into journalism to speak truth to power — no matter who that is. Others just want to buy a boat or get invited to tony Georgetown cocktail parties (or the more downscale Lansing equivalent at Troppo).
The Trump presidency is helping to make this distinction crystal clear.
I’m happy to wear my “enemy combatant” label as a badge of honor. It helps that I was never popular in high school — or ever. I lack the insatiable need to be loved by strangers, my colleagues or the people I cover.
That’s been my philosophy during my 15-year career in journalism, working as a reporter at a half-dozen mid-size newspapers in the Midwest, writing a syndicated column and doing analysis for trade political publications.
It hasn’t always been rainbows and sunshine. I’ve had bosses lecture me because a backbencher senator didn’t like me enough — not that he refused to talk to me, just that he didn’t like me. I’ve had an emergency editorial meeting called because a super-sensitive press flack didn’t like a column I wrote criticizing his boss’ campaign strategy.
It’s called working the refs. It’s something that politicians and other powerful figures have been doing since the first newspapers rolled off the printing press. But if journalists allow this kind of interference to impact our work, we’ll cede power that we’ll never get back.
For the last three years, I’ve run the ultimate insider publication, Inside Michigan Politics. And I haven’t changed a bit. I’m still holding leaders’ feet to the fire and figuring out what makes them tick.
And you know what? People still talk to me from across the political spectrum because I know my stuff. I’m tough, but fair.
Over the years, I’ve called out Republican Gov. Rick Snyder for a variety of actions, from caving on an anti-LGBT adoption law to signing Right to Work (after repeatedly insisting it wasn’t on his agenda). I’m quite certain that he and the rest of his administration aren’t exactly my biggest fans. But I just sat down for an in-depth interview with his lieutenant governor, Brian Calley, who in all likelihood will try and succeed him next year. It was a fascinating and candid conversation.
I had a similar dynamic with the previous Democratic administration of Jennifer Granholm, which some of my right-wing critics conveniently tend to forget.
But there’s no doubt that conservatives are more hyper-sensitive these days about media bias, real and often imagined. In my experience, liberals will whine incessantly about stories they don’t like. Conservatives will try to get you fired (and it can work!)
I’ve been writing political columns for 10 years. People know where I stand on issues. I’m upfront about everything instead of pretending that being a journalist has somehow neutered my opinions or made me a moral eunuch. If you don’t like it, fine. You don’t have to talk to me. But most people do.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had conservative Republicans tell me they prefer dealing with me over other reporters who pretend to be unbiased, but they know are definitely liberals.
The truth is that most conservatives assume every reporter is liberal nowadays, so let that set you free. They’re going to try to pick apart anything you write. Any story they don’t like is “fake news,” even when you get every fact correct. Some people just crave propaganda.
I know this is deeply unnerving for many of my colleagues. The temptation to scribble puff pieces to try to appease sources can be strong. Wanting to be liked is basic human nature.
Screw that. We’re here to hold leaders accountable. Your sources aren’t your friends. By and large, they’re trying to use you to get a message out. That’s what they’re supposed to do. And you’re supposed to get information out to the public.
So do your job. Be hated. Respect yourself.
And remember: The people you go home to at night are the only ones you have to worry about liking you.
Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.