A few weeks ago, I had the chance to hear one of my favourite journalists, CNN’s Brian Stelter, speak at an event hosted by the Canadian Journalism Foundation. I was excited to hear his thoughts on journalism in the so-called Trump era—and, very early on in his talk, I was taken aback by his positivity on the subject.
Stelter said he sees Trump’s attacks as an opportunity. “When he calls real news fake, it’s a great opportunity to explain why we do what we do,” he said.
Indeed, many news organizations have taken the opportunity (or should I say abundance of opportunities) to explain how journalism really works. I’ve written before about the Toronto Star’s “Trust Project” which, although probably not directly or solely in response to Trump, shows readers the behind-the-scenes of the Star’s journalism. Even a big-screen portrayal of journalism like The Post can help to inform people about the process of journalism.
The issue, of course, is who is listening to those explanations of journalism. Certainly, some people could ignore the explanations or simply dismiss them as “fake news.” But maybe those people’s minds can’t be changed by any explanation, no matter how truthful. It’s still beneficial to be transparent about the reporting process—and when Trump accuses the media of being dishonest, it’s powerful when the media responds by being transparent about their reporting processes.
It’s worth noting, though, that Trump’s attacks on journalism aren’t harmless. In July of last year, he appeared to encourage violence against journalists when he tweeted a video showing a man beating up another man whose face was covered by CNN’s logo. More recently, a man was arrested after threatening to kill CNN reporters at the network’s headquarters in Atlanta. Stelter called the instance “a reminder of the daily trouble” that journalists can face.
He also talked about the fact that Trump forces people to have discussions about important subjects, like gender, race and what it means to be an American. Many of these conversations have come up in the media; through panel discussions, op-eds, investigative journalism, columns, Twitter threads, podcasts and every other medium out there.
As Trump’s time in office has gone on, we have seen more and more of these conversations unfold. Journalism has become an important platform for public debate over controversial topics (take the recent CNN Town Hall on gun control, for example). Journalists have also started a lot of these conversations through their own reporting and investigations, helping to hold truth to power and inform the public about the actions of their elected officials.
It’s a challenging time to be studying journalism, but also an incredibly rewarding one. I was inspired by Stelter’s talk and, as a self-proclaimed optimist, I enjoyed the positive spin he put on Trump’s attacks on the media. It’s easy to look at Trump’s attacks on journalists and see storm clouds. But, as Stelter’s remarks show, there can be a silver lining.
As a journalism student, I’ve always been fascinated by the different ways that people consume news. I love talking to people about not only what sources they derive their news from, but also how they get that news. Is it from a print newspaper, or from a Facebook feed? Do they make a daily effort to actively seek out the news, or do they just see it at random intervals? With these considerations in mind, I decided to stage an experiment for myself—I wanted to see what would happen if I changed the way I consumed news for a week. So last Sunday, I logged out the place I most often go to see the news—Twitter—and asked my family to hide the morning newspaper and turn off the news when I walked by the room. Then I made a new Gmail account and signed up for 34 email newsletters.
I ended up with a pretty good variety of newsletters. Although I had a lot of general news updates and politically-focused sources, I also subscribed to newsletters focusing on entertainment, opinion, women’s rights and sports. Mysteriously, the sports newsletter never arrived. (I realized today that I may have forgotten to confirm my subscription. Oops.)
The main purpose of my week of relying on newsletters for news was really to see if email newsletters are a viable substitute for conventional news, or if they’re more of a supplement to other sources of news. I was curious about the benefits and challenges of relying on email newsletters as a sole source of news. What stories did they prioritize? Did I feel like I was missing out on the news? How much international content was I exposed to? Were breaking news email alerts effective?
On Monday morning, the official beginning of my experiment, I woke up to a deluge of emails. From 6:20 a.m. until around 9:00, my inbox steadily filled with morning updates. I read each newsletter in its entirety. My first impression of the newsletters altogether was that it was really nice to read slightly more in-depth explanations of the news, as opposed to shorter tweets. I liked the simplicity of scrolling through a newsletter and having all of the main stories presented to me, instead of searching for them on my busy Twitter feed (which, thanks to Twitter’s algorithm, often doesn’t actually present tweets in a timely, or “newsworthy”, order).
However, in reading about the stories in newsletters, I was only reading the facts. Sure, I could click on the linked articles to read the full story, but I still wasn’t being exposed to the variety of voices and perspectives that I would see on Twitter. This was one of the main pitfalls of relying on email newsletters for my news; I was only seeing what the people writing those newsletters wanted me to see. I was missing out on the conversations surrounding the stories.
This was especially apparent on Monday when I received an email from Fox News telling me that, according to a poll they had conducted, Doug Jones had a 10 point lead over Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate election. It seemed like a strange reversal from the general consensus of what other newsletters had said that morning. But without being able to rely on social media to show me the conversation around this poll, I had to wait until that evening’s newsletters arrived to hear other perspectives. The Vox Sentences newsletter cleared things up for me—it mentioned Fox’s poll, but also mentioned other polls that had Jones up by nine points. I probably would have seen this “counter point” of sorts earlier, had I been seeking out news on social media.
On Monday morning, I also received two breaking news alerts (one from CNN and one from Fox News) about the bombing in New York City. The breaking news alerts continued sporadically throughout the day—with less frequency than I expected, in all honesty. I used to subscribe to several breaking news app alerts, and I felt like my phone was always buzzing with these notifications. The email alerts seemed less frequent, but I still felt like I was “in the know,” so to speak.
Monday ended with a false sense of security—I thought I was in a good place heading into Tuesday, AKA the day of the Alabama Senate election. But after Tuesday morning’s newsletters, I waited the entire afternoon for an update on the election. I knew that, had I been on Twitter, I’d be bombarded with poll numbers and statistics and commentary and opinion. Because I’m so interested in politics, I wanted to have lots of information and alerts in the run-up to the results. But at 6:30 on Tuesday night, my dad was telling me he knew the results of the exit polls and I was refreshing my email inbox to no avail.
While I was waiting for an update on the election, I realized that newsletter authors must assume that readers are also getting news from other sources. Newsletters don’t necessary bill themselves as a complete substitute for typical news sources. In my mind, newsletters are designed for people who are too busy to spend a lot of time searching for the news; so maybe for this reason, it makes sense that they would only send alerts when the results were announced, and not in the run-up. They probably didn’t want to send too many alerts, I thought.
But I was desperate to know what was happening. My family was watching the news, seeing live updates, and I was sitting on my bed, a forgotten novel on my lap as I continued to refresh my email inbox. At 10:07 p.m., Fox News sent an alert about the Mueller investigation. Jones must be up in the polls, I joked to myself. At 10:25 p.m., I was scolding myself for not subscribing to more breaking news alerts. Finally, at 10:33 p.m., a TIME breaking news alert (which I didn’t even know I was subscribed to) told me that Doug Jones won. Finally able to stop refreshing my email inbox (although a few more alerts followed the first one), I wrote a note to myself: “I really wish I had Twitter to see everyone’s opinions on this unexpected and big moment. People will still be talking about this next Sunday… right?”
The Wednesday morning newsletters were filled with coverage of the election. I especially liked Politico’s Playbook newsletter—their analysis of Jones’s win looked more at the bigger picture, which was the kind of content I wanted to see. I wasn’t surprised that almost every newsletter made Jones’s win the lead story that morning, although from a journalistic perspective I was interested in their editorial decisions on this. Some newsletters framed it as a victory for the Democrats, especially moving into the 2018 midterm elections, while others focused on the loss for Republicans, and particularly the impact for Donald Trump and Steve Bannon.
I was also curious to see which newsletters mentioned net neutrality this morning, seeing as the vote was to be on Thursday. In my mind, it was a big story, and I thought the format of most newsletters would allow them to explain the topic in a way that might make it more accessible to readers who may not otherwise understand it. Not many newsletters mentioned it until the vote actually happened, though, which surprised me.
Throughout the rest of the week, I became more accustomed to relying on newsletters. I came to expect a full inbox in the morning and at night, and random updates throughout the day. A lot of the time, I felt like I was missing out on the news because I couldn’t just get an update anytime I wanted it—I had to wait until the next newsletter appeared, and even then there wasn’t a guarantee that the topic I was interested in would be mentioned (as was the case for net neutrality). Still, I felt generally well-informed, and I was able to have conversations with friends and family about the news without feeling like I was missing out on anything major that was happening.
Before the week really started out, I wrote down some predictions, including that “I’m probably going to miss a lot of local, and even national, news.” I was 100 per cent correct about this one. It was partly my fault, having only subscribed to one Canadian-based newsletter; but it made me wonder about the market for hyper-local, community-based newsletters, especially in an age where local print newspapers are fast dying out. I really only saw Canadian stories in The Globe and Mail’s newsletter—and even in that, I would say the majority of the stories were about provinces other than my own. Again, I could have subscribed to newsletter updates from the major city newspapers; but in terms of my local city and surrounding communities, I certainly lost out on coverage of those stories.
As of today, I have officially been relying on email newsletters as my sole source of news for a week. Overall, I feel pretty well-informed. I’d say that newsletters are a great supplement to my typical news consumption—they’re an especially fitting addition to getting news from social media and digital news apps, and they’re a refreshing break from print newspapers. But my week was not without its challenges, like waiting for an update on the Alabama Senate election results.
Now that my experiment is over, I actually want to subscribe to more newsletters to try to cross those gaps of more Canadian or local stories. I’m not going to continue to read every single email that pops up in my inbox, though. I’ll continue to subscribe to all of the newsletters, but I’ll be a bit more selective in what I read—some newsletters that stood out to me this week were Vox Sentences and Politico Playbook, so I will definitely keep reading those.
If there’s one thing I learned this week, it’s that there’s not one “best” way to consume news. You can get morning updates, evening updates, national updates, sports updates, political updates—you name it, there’s a newsletter for it. I’m glad I took this chance to change up my news consumption; but now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go log back onto Twitter.
In my memories, the sky was grey and cloudy on the morning of Nov. 9, 2016. I can picture, clear as day, walking through my campus; listening to people around me talk about the results of the election and looking up at the impending storm. That is, of course, only my recollection—in reality, the morning of Nov. 9 may have been cloudless and sunny (through some research it seems like the day was overcast, though perhaps not the “moment before the storm” darkness that I imagined).
Why do I remember that morning in that way? Pathetic fallacy, I suppose. Nov. 9, 2016, was a dark day, emotions-wise, for a lot of people, so in my mind I’ve equated the emotions and the weather.
I’ve written before about the moment I found out that Donald Trump won the election—I heard loud, bewildered shouting in the middle of the night, and assumed the outcome that was a growing possibility had turned into reality. In hindsight, I wish I had stayed up to watch the full coverage of the election, even though it crept into the darkest hours of the night and then the early hours of morning (and even though I had a journalism assignment due the next day).
At the time, I think very few people had an inkling of what was about to happen. When the world woke up on Nov. 9, on the morning I remember to be grey, a lot of us asked the same thing: What now?
As I wrote in my post after the election, I had been ready to write an article about the first female president of the United States. Accepting not just that I wouldn’t be writing that article, but that I would not be seeing that reality—for at least four years, and likely longer—was disheartening, to say the least. But it was not only Hillary Clinton’s loss that made Nov. 9 difficult; it was who she had lost to, and the policies and rhetoric that were about to take centre stage in the Oval Office.
Watching Clinton’s concession speech made me cry but I was determined to move forward with an attitude of hope. “I looked at my reflection in the mirror and promised myself that I was going to keep fighting for what I believe in, and supporting others who are doing the same,” I wrote.
That bleary morning turned into another night, and then another day. Time passed. In January, Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. I won’t list everything that has happened since then because, unless you disconnected your cable and Internet after the election, you likely know what has happened next. There were, in short, a lot of reasons to be concerned, fearful and angry.
But there were also reasons to be hopeful. One of the best examples of this was the Women’s March the day after Trump’s Inauguration (pictured above). The sheer number of women and men marching in solidarity both in the U.S. and around the world was nothing short of incredible. The message of the marches was loud and clear: Trump can try to limit womens’ rights, but women will not be intimidated by this—they will fight for what is right.
The ACLU was also a strong force in standing up for equality, freedom and human rights. “President Trump has been in office for 42 weeks. We’ve sued him and his administration 56 times,” the organization tweeted yesterday.
Another source of hope came two nights ago. It was Election Night in America all over again. I had an eerie sense of déjà vu as I curled up on my couch and watched the news. The music, the graphics, the anticipation building up to the results. I allowed myself a smile when the journalists said certain races were too close to call, thinking of the failure of many to accurately call the election last year.
But the feelings of déjà vu ended when the results starting coming in. It wasn’t just that Democrats secured two major victories in the gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey—it was there were historic wins for representation and equality.
Danica Roem, an openly transgender woman was elected to the Virginia state legislature. Not only this, but the incumbent Republican she beat, Robert Marshall, actually called himself the state’s “chief homophobe” and previously introduced a controversial “bathroom bill.” Roem had an incredibly classy response to a question about her predecessor. “I don’t talk about my constituents. Bob is my constituent now,” she said. (Mic. Drop.)
Virginia also elected its first two Latina delegates. Another notable victory included Ravi Bhalla, who is Sikh, being elected mayor of Hoboken, New Jersey (interestingly, Bhalla has called himself “Everything Trump hates”). He is the first Sikh mayor in New Jersey. Vi Lyles was elected mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, the first black woman to hold that post. The list goes on—you can read more about the historic wins in this Vox article.
Today marks one year since the morning many of us woke up worried about the future. There are, of course, still reasons to be worried. But there are also a lot of reasons to be hopeful. In the year since Trump won the election, people looking to make their voices heard have mobilized into movements. On Tuesday, voters showed a rejection of Trump’s rhetoric in favour of acceptance of the very people who Trump speaks out against. The newly elected political representatives now have the power to create real, positive change in America.
This is progress. This is a reason to be hopeful. And it is a reason to keep speaking out and speaking up as we continue to live in the world that was made a reality on this day last year.
When powerful figures try to dissuade the public from learning the truth, facts matter. A new CNN ad attempts to make this point with fruit (yes, you read that correctly). “This is an apple,” text underneath a shiny red apple reads. As an image of an apple continues to show, the text and voiceover explain that, no matter how hard some people might try to convince you are looking at a banana, the fruit in question remains an apple.
The ad is obviously, and perhaps quite smartly, targeted at U.S. President Donald Trump. Since his days on the campaign trail, Trump has consistently made claims at odds with the truth. Daniel Dale, the Toronto Star’s Washington Correspondent, fact-checks Trump. The sheer number of inaccuracies is startling—most recently, Trump broke what Dale called “his one-week record for dishonesty,” making 57 false claims.
In a literal sense, there is nothing but the truth—our world is made up of scientific, real truths. But our own biases and perceptions may mean that we all have different truths, even when data tells us differently.
It is this that, in my mind, complicates CNN’s ad. Yes, the fruit in the image is an apple. But if enough people begin to say it is a banana, doesn’t it kind of become a banana? If everyone believes it is a banana, does it matter that it is really and truly classified as an apple?
In Trump’s presidency we’ve seen, for instance, him employ rhetoric insisting that Muslim people are dangerous and should not be allowed into the country. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter that the data shows that “more Americans have been killed by white American men with no connection to Islam than by Muslim terrorists or foreigners,” as Vox reported. Trump says, over and over, that Muslim people are dangerous and pose a threat to American security—and despite the facts proving otherwise, some people believe him. We are looking at an apple, but some people are convinced it is a banana.
The premise of CNN’s ad is correct: facts matter. But more and more, we are seeing that they might not matter to an alarming number of people. As I’ve already written, emotions, biases and perceptions can impact what we believe to be true. That right-wing media on his side are further perpetuating incorrect ideas about Muslim people only helps Trump’s case in convincing people of something that is not true.
But while some of us see sites like Breitbart and InfoWars as those perpetrators of false ideas and stereotypes, it’s important to remember that many people see centre and more left-leaning media organizations in this way, too. No media organization is perfect. I think it’s crucial to remember the role that journalists and media played in helping to elect Trump; both by giving his rhetoric sensationalized coverage, and by overplaying stories about Hillary Clinton such as her email scandal.
Still, the fact remains that many people see CNN and other similar news organizations as—to borrow one of Trump’s favourite terms—“fake news.” CNN may be calling apples apples, but when a large number of people (influenced by powerful politicians and media outlets) believe those apples to be bananas, we have a severe disparity in opinions.
I may just be a journalism student, but in my opinion, it’s no longer enough for media organizations to say, “This is the truth—this is an apple and you should believe us because we are honest and value facts.” Some level of public skepticism in journalism is healthy (it is, after all, an imperfect institution). However, a recent poll suggests that 46% of Americans believe Trump when he says that major news outlets make up stories about him. As journalists, we need to do more to show the public why they can trust us, instead of just stating that that trust should exist.
One way that I see this happening is by creating a culture of transparency in journalism. I see a lot of news organizations taking steps towards this already. The Toronto Star, for example, launched a “Trust Project” to take readers behind the scenes of the newspaper.
These articles from the Star show how certain reporters take on their responsibilities, and even things like how the paper chooses when to publish a breaking news story, how they write headlines and how they correct mistakes. It’s hard to call something from the Star “fake news” when you read about the actual processes they use to ensure accuracy. This model of writing about the inner workings of the paper is enlightening to readers.
More transparency about how journalism is done can show the public why they should trust journalists when we say that an apple is, in fact, an apple. This is all not to say that CNN’s apple campaign is for naught, however. The ad is engaging in its simplicity and, if this lengthy post shows anything, it is certainly a conversation starter about facts and public trust in journalism. I hope that we continue to have these conversations as both producers and consumers of the news, because CNN is right—no matter how many times someone screams “BANANA” at an apple, the truth matters.
You may have noticed that I’ve written quite a few blog posts about the 2016 U.S. Election and the presidency of Donald Trump. I even wrote about the fact that I write about Trump so much, after a friend commented on the fact that all of my posts seemed to be centering around American politics. In that post, I concluded that I would keep writing about Trump because his actions, words and policies have serious impact on the world. I’ve continued doing this; but it’s not just the current political climate that I find myself writing about. I keep coming back to the election.
The 2016 Presidential election was the first time when I truly felt engaged in politics. Some of the campaigning period overlapped with that of the Canadian election, so the combination of both really sparked my interest. Although I wasn’t old enough to vote at the time, I began to consider which candidate I agreed with most and which policy issues I felt most strongly about.
After a few years of continually asking my dad to explain the Electoral College to me, I finally understood it enough to be the one to answer my friends’ questions. I devoured articles about the primaries and brought up politics every chance I could. I was fascinated, and so excited to finally feel like I had a good grasp on what was happening in the political sphere around me.
I think though, more than this, I felt a connection with Hillary Clinton. I don’t ever remember a specific moment where I realized I identified with her, other than watching her speeches and realizing how intelligent and qualified she was. I admired her for being a strong woman in an area dominated by men; in some leadership positions I’d held in high school, I was among the few females represented. Mind you, I didn’t experience what Clinton did—rampant sexism and blatant misogyny—but regardless, I developed an appreciation for her leadership.
The day after Trump won, I wrote about the bewildering, blistering reality of watching Clinton’s concession speech. It was sometime in those days afterwards, when the smoke was clearing but the headlines were still confounding and conflicting, that I turned on Twitter notifications so that I got updates every time Clinton tweeted. I still have them turned on; it’s not often that a tweet pops up, but when it does, I smile because I remember her campaign and what she fought for.
You can probably assume, based on all of this, that I was thrilled when Clinton announced she’d be releasing a book. I had already read Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign, which contextualized many of the articles I’d read about Clinton’s loss and helped better shape my understanding of the election. Now, as I type this, What Happened, Clinton’s account of the 2016 election, sits on my bedside table. I’m not very far into it (and you can surely expect a post about my thoughts when I’m done), but so far I’m really enjoying it. I’ve written and read a lot about the election, as I’ve established; but I still jump at opportunities to learn more and think more about it.
It seems that I’m not alone in this curiousity. Quoting a tweet that says that Clinton’s book has sold the most copies of any nonfiction release in the past five years, Nate Silver wrote, “The notion that ‘nobody wants to re-litigate 2016’ is sort of a myth…”. I’m sure that not everyone who purchased or read What Happened supported Clinton; many probably read it out of hatred or so that they could argue about or dispute its contents. But still, a lot of people remain stuck on the campaign trail. This could be because the results of the election came as such a shock to many people that there were some psychological reasons for their inability to move on.
I have to wonder as well if it is partly because of the new inhabitant of the Oval Office that many people still think so much about the election cycle. After all, Trump is still holding campaign rallies (yes, even though he already campaigned and won). In many ways, he is still talking and acting like he’s on the campaign trail, leading some to believe he is already campaigning for the 2020 election.
The 2016 U.S. election was historic. We saw the first female leader of a major party and we saw a stunning defeat that many of us didn’t predict. There has been no shortage of things to reflect on in the wake of Nov. 8. What role did voter suppression play? What role did the media play? What role did Russian interference play? Should the Electoral College be abolished? Politicians, journalists, researchers and citizens are still searching for the answers to these, and many other, questions.
Reflection is good; action, I think, is better. I am excited to continue reading What Happened, not only to gain a better understanding of what really did happen but, more importantly, to learn how Clinton is moving forward and how she suggests the rest of us move forward, too.
Reading the headlines about white supremacists rallying at the University of Virginia makes me wonder: Shouldn’t it be easy to condemn these people and their racist viewpoints? Shouldn’t we be able to, unequivocally and without hesitation, say that their actions are wrong? I am curious especially because the President of the United States seemed to be unable to do these things at his press conference today.
Watching Donald Trump speak, I was, like many others, waiting for him to utter the words “White supremacists.” But he did not call the protesters what they are. He didn’t even acknowledge that they were any more in the wrong than the counter-protesters (some of whom, by the way, were hit with a car in what many are calling an act of domestic terrorism).
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides,” Trump said. His words have prompted many to ask: “What sides?” The torch-carrying, Nazi-saluting white supremacists started this protest last night; the “other side” would be, I guess, the people counter-protesting. There are not “many sides” contributing to the hatred and bigotry—there is only one.
That Trump didn’t outright condemn the protesters speaks volumes. His campaign rhetoric emboldened people because it made it seem like it was OK to act upon stereotypes and to discriminate against people. And his policy and legislation as president—from his Muslim ban to his recent immigration policy which would reduce the number of legal immigrants to the U.S. and give preference to those who speak English—only further invigorate white nationalist sentiments.
After the election, David Duke, former leader of the KKK, said that Trump winning was “one of the most exciting nights of (his) life.” Today, Duke said that, “We are determined to take our country back. We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in, that’s why we voted for Donald Trump.” Trump has rebuked Duke in the past, but today he failed to openly decry the values of the white supremacists.
More and more, our societies are becoming more diverse. Many of us believe wholeheartedly in the undeniable truth that people of all races and ethnic backgrounds are, and deserved to be treated as, equal. So people like the white supremacists in Virginia feel threatened. In a Twitter thread, user @JuliusGoat made an excellent point about the protesters. “They are chanting ‘we will not be replaced.’ Replaced as … what? I’ll tell you. Replaced as the only voice in public discussions. Replaced as the only bodies in the public arena. Replaced as the only life that matters,” he said.
The actions of the protesters, as well as Trump’s response so far, are disturbing for a myriad of reasons. Had the protesters not been white, it’s likely that Trump would have issued a much stronger condemnation of their actions and words. Furthermore, that white supremacists are marching at all—in a progressive America, in 2017, no less—is a chilling indication that we, as a society, have not come as far as we may like to think.
Donald Trump’s campaign slogan was, in many ways, a recipe for success. It was simple, catchy, and it articulated his clear ideas for the country he wanted to lead. Many, including the authors of Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign, have cited Hillary Clinton’s slogan as an epitome of the problems that ravaged her campaign: it failed to capture her version for America. She had policy ideas—scores of them. But Trump had those four words. Make America Great Again. And now, for better or for worse, he has the presidency.
Of course, whether America was ever truly great is up for debate. If America is great now, at this present moment, is also debatable. And is America any greater than it was before January 20, 2017, the date of Trump’s Inauguration? It is a sign of these politicized times that even calling America “great” (a word which is arguably one of the most elementary adjectives in the dictionary) is a charged discussion. It is a discussion which matters nonetheless, though. If you believe that America is currently great, you’re not going to want to change it; but if you believe that some aspects of America are great, but need some work, then you are more likely to attempt to improve it.
If you want my opinion—and I’m guessing if you’re reading this, you do, if only to express disagreement in the comments: I agree with the latter declaration. I think that there are aspects of America that are great—ideals which, if recognized, have the potential to create positive change. But you only have to read a few of the posts tagged “politics” on this blog to know that I am not pleased with the Trump administration (and “not pleased” is putting it lightly).
In theory, I think that the founding principles outlined in the Declaration of Independence have the power to pave the way to greatness. Fundamental equality? Unalienable rights? The pursuit of liberty and happiness? I’ve written before about the hollowness of the word “liberty,” but I digress. These ideals, if recognized, would make a great society.
“If recognized” are important words. Many of Trump’s policies challenge concepts like equality and unalienable, universal rights, making these things not tangible parts of society but instead unequally distributed privileges. In reality, America is not great because it has not fully realized these ideals. Maybe it is great in spite of the absence of them, though, because as we are seeing more and more, where there is trumping of rights (see what I did there?) there is triumphing of the Constitution. The ACLU, for example, is making America better. Good, even.
In case you didn’t understand the reference in my title of this post, it comes from the “death monologue” from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s stunningly genius musical Hamilton (spoiler alerts ahead, but if you don’t already know how the musical ends that means you haven’t listened to the soundtrack which means you need to skip this paragraph and listen to it ASAP). In the musical, Alexander Hamilton, America’s first treasury secretary, is killed in a duel with Jefferson’s VP Aaron Burr. In a beautiful and heart wrenching moment, the duel freezes right before Hamilton is shot. He launches into a monologue, one spoken earlier in the musical.
“Legacy, what is a legacy?/ It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see/ I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me/America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me/You let me make a difference, a place where even orphan immigrants can leave their fingerprints and rise up”
That’s only part of the monologue; I could dissect the entire thing word by word, second by second. But I will focus on what I titled this post: “America, you great unfinished symphony.” I’ve already skirted around the word “Great” and whether or not it truly applies to America, present day or at any other time. Let’s talk about the idea of America being “unfinished”; an idea which makes me think of Barack Obama and his legacy which Trump has been steadily working to dismantle. Obama has lived to see the seeds of the garden he planted, and they’re being ripped up, some of them before they had the chance to grow. He wrote some notes in the song of America, but the choir has retired.
Unfinished. Healthcare, moving backwards. Women’s rights, moving backwards. Acceptance, tolerance, moving backwards. No one would claim that Obama “fixed” America; some argue that Obama actually paved the way for Trump’s success. Trump constantly claims that he was not aware how difficult certain things would be—“Nobody knew that healthcare could be so complicated,” he claimed. Certainly some of his supporters believe that Trump would be able to be successful, if it wasn’t for the crooked Democrats and biased liberal fake news outlets who are holding him back. Trump’s work is unfinished, some would say. I would agree, I just don’t think he is the person to fix things.
Perhaps my favourite part of this line from Hamilton’s monologue is the word “symphony.” America is an overture; harps and flutes singing while trombones blurt out the foundation. Independence. Equality. Liberty. Happiness, or at least the unrelenting pursuit of it. These are the underlying notes of the symphony of America, finely tuned notes sung since America broke away from Great Britain so many years ago.
With the election of Donald Trump, the great, unfinished symphony of America is both dying out and playing in a more chaotic manner. Things are happening left, right, and centre. Where to look? Look right at Trump’s actions. And then look at the people resisting. The people helping. The people caring. The people refusing to give in. These are the people who make America great, and who are going to make it an even greater symphony. The symphony of America may never be finished, but members of its orchestra can be relentless in their pursuit of greatness, of fundamental freedoms and equality. It may never be fully great, or a finished symphony, as Hamilton’s character sings. But that is up to Americans to decide.
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So much of what is happening in America lately is, to put it simply, unfathomable. Many actions may seem appropriate for an earlier time period, but are strikingly out of place in the “modern democracy” of the United States (quotation marks seem necessary). I could reference about any number of topics, from the growing evidence that Trump tried to stop FBI investigations into ties to Russia to his expansion of a policy he revoked early in his presidency to give U.S. aid to abortion providers across the world. I want to focus, though, on something close to my heart: the treatment of journalists under Trump’s administration.
In the aftermath of the explosive New York Times report that Trump asked former FBI Director James Comey to stop investigating his also-former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, another appalling tidbit was lost in the chaos. Trump suggested that Comey “Consider putting reporters in prison for publishing classified information,” writes Michael Schmidt.
This remark is startling at best and deeply troubling at worst. It is reminiscent of authoritarian governments and starkly un-American values. It is also, sadly, not a surprise coming from Trump, who has displayed malice towards journalists at every step of his path to the presidency.
Now, in the Oval Office, he still can’t see that journalists are an essential part of a democracy. I mean, it’s probably hard for him to see this, considering the impact of journalism on his reputation. Just this week, outstanding reporting from journalists at the Washington Post and The New York Times brought quick and serious implications; from calculated throwing around of the word “impeachment” — from both political sides — to the worst day in the stock market since Sept. 2016.
Interestingly, as Politico reporter Josh Dawsey noted on Twitter, Schmidt, the journalist who wrote about Trump asking Comey to stop investigating Flynn, was the same journalist who first broke the story about Hillary Clinton’s private email server. So was Schmidt “out to get” Trump? Or did he simply use the same journalistic rigour he applied to a story about Clinton to write a story about Trump?
As a journalism student, I am inspired by the persistence of journalists who cover Trump. They are up against serious odds — barred from press briefings, not invited to meetings with foreign officials, for example — and often have to decipher fact from fiction when White House officials blatantly lie (this is not to say that there haven’t been problems with media coverage of Trump, because there have). Journalists keep going, though, because what they do is important. The public has a right to know what is happening in their government, and journalists fulfill this critical role of gathering and communicating information.
Trump’s treatment of journalists both on the campaign trail and as President is unacceptable. But it is also unlikely to change. As the newly-appointed special prosecutor begins his investigations, I can only see journalists rightly continuing to cover Trump. But, sadly, I can only see Trump continuing to berate and belittle journalists in return.
Technology’s place in society, questions of privacy versus security and issues of government transparency were all explored in The Circle, a new movie directed by James Ponsoldt and based on a novel by Dave Eggers. I wouldn’t go as far as to agree with Vox’s appraisal that the movie is “bafflingly bad,” but it certainly contains confusing elements and has a startlingly abrupt ending. However, the movie does feature several topical ideas that have relevance to our society and everyday lives.
Among those ideas was one that, as someone who has studied politics, I found intriguing: mandatory voting. In the movie, staff at the Circle, a Google-esque tech company, have the idea to link voting with citizens’ social media accounts. Essentially, in order to vote, you need this account; or, to put it another way, if you have this social media account, you must vote. In the meeting where the idea is pitched, someone draws a comparison to a totalitarian regime.
But, as another character says, we have hundreds of laws that govern people’s actions, and that’s not considered totalitarian. Laws surrounding driving, for example, are more or less accepted as being beneficial for the safety of members of society. Following speed limits, or general rules of the road, are not seen as optional, or as personal decisions. So then is voting a personal decision?
On one hand, of course it is. Article 12 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights states that “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government.” Who people vote for is a personal decision; I’d argue that the decision to vote (or not vote) is also a personal decision. If people do not want to exercise their right to vote, then it’s their will to do this, so long as they live in a country that does not enforce mandatory voting.
In theory, mandatory voting is good because it encourages (or, rather, forces) citizens to get involved in the democratic process. Low voter turnout is a problem even in countries that pride themselves on their democracies (America had a turnout of approximately 56.9 per cent in the 2016 federal election). Mandatory voting would change this; but it wouldn’t automatically mean that citizens were well-educated about the choices on the ballot.
To professor and author Jason Brennan, this is a critical issue. He writes that “Bad choices at the polls can destroy economic opportunities, produce crises that lower everyone’s standard of living, lead to unjust and unnecessary wars (and thus to millions of deaths), lead to sexist, racist, and homophobic legislation, help reinforce poverty, produce overly punitive criminal legislation, and worse.” In other words, voting matters. It has huge societal implications, ones which reach beyond the voter and impact the millions of people in the country where the election is taking place.
Brennan argues “That citizens have no standing moral obligation to vote” since it is only one way to contribute to a civic society. If citizens are not going to vote ethically, and with the greater good in mind, then “They should stay home on election day rather than pollute the polls with their bad votes.” This, to me, is a compelling argument against mandatory voting. If people are not educated about the candidates, they will make uneducated decisions. This can negatively impact a country and, really, the entire world.
So then I return to my earlier question. Should we be able to decide whether or not we vote, or should this be a decision that the government makes for us through something like mandatory voting? I think it’s incredibly important to hear all voices in a democratic society; and yet, I’m not sure if forcing people to vote is the right way to do this. There are other ways to encourage people to vote, such as having a wide range of candidates who can speak to the issues affecting people, having more civic education so that voters are not ill-informed and making the voting process easier.
“You write about Donald Trump a lot,” my friend told me. I paused, thought about the the homepage of my blog, which I knew featured several posts about Trump. Then I thought about the drafted articles saved on my laptop—many of which are about Trump—and I nodded.
“You’re right,” I said. “But is a lot too much?”
Speaking of drafts, I have one called “To talk about Trump, or to not talk about Trump?” So let’s talk about talking about Trump (confused yet?).
A few weeks ago, Toronto Star’s Washington correspondent, Daniel Dale, came to speak at my journalism school. Dale fact-checked Trump throughout the election, and continued to fact-check him after he took office in January. He is, in other words, no stranger to writing about Trump. During his speech, he said, “Pretty much anything with Trump in the headline gets a ton of readers.” I nodded my head and laughed, because it’s true. As a news-consumer, I am quick to click on articles about Trump. And, lately, the articles I have written about Trump have outperformed non-Trump articles.
This, I think, is exactly the way Trump wants things to be. The adage “All press is good press” seems to embody Trump. Even in the days before he entered politics (the good old days, if I do say so myself) Trump faced negative news cycles. Still, they always seemed to work in his favour—more people watching The Apprentice, for example. I imagine the inside of Trump’s head is a chaotic place. The word “ratings” probably still bounces around a fair bit in his mind. After all, Trump did brag about the viewing statistics for his Inauguration. The presidency is like a reality TV show to him. Negative news about Trump is still good press to him.
Wow, television ratings just out: 31 million people watched the Inauguration, 11 million more than the very good ratings from 4 years ago!
So maybe we shouldn’t feed this. In January, I thought it would be cool to go a week without reading Trump-related news and then write an article about the experience. I imagine it would have been a bliss-filled week. I have to complete a weekly news quiz for my journalism class, though, so ignoring Trump-related news unfortunately isn’t an option for me (and, besides, another like-minded journalist ended up doing this experiment and writing about it). I have also considered what would happen if, for one day, news organizations just stopped talking about Trump and American politics. The problem is that, speaking of ratings, theirs would likely plummet. But a Trump-free news cycle would be so refreshing; and I think that’s what my friend was hinting at when she said I write about him a lot.
To say that a Trump-free news cycle would be refreshing, though, is an indication of my privilege. Unfortunately, many people can’t ignore Trump. To them, he isn’t just an incessant topic on CNN. He’s the reason they’re fearful to go outside, the reason their community is facing increasing hate crimes. Trump’s executive orders, policies, and actions affect real people—not just in America, but around the world. If you are privileged enough that they do not have a directly negative impact on you, then I believe you have a responsibility to speak up for those who are affected.
Beyond the fact that, as Dale said, posts about Trump are popular, this is one of the reasons why I refuse to stay silent about Trump. I want to think critically and write carefully about him, and I want to spark conversations and critical thinking for my readers. Maybe I am preaching to the choir—I have no evidence that any of my posts have, for example, made a Trump supporter change their mind about him. But if I’ve made one person think about him differently, or think about his policies and the people affected, then I think I’ve done my job as a blogger and as a journalist.
As I read and write about Trump, I am cognizant of the fact that so many other people are also writing about him. I am just one of the many voices, shouting Trump’s name into the void. Except it’s not really like that, because it’s not a void. I consider myself fortunate to be in a position where people read my blog, consider my words, and sometimes add their own perspective. I am not, by any means, a “definitive voice” on Trump or American politics. But writing about Trump challenges me, and it matters to me.
I know I write about Trump a lot. Maybe it is too much. Maybe we all write about Trump too much—because it is, after all, giving him the attention that he seems to crave. But we cannot lose sight of the fact that our words matter, because the impact Trump has matters. I am going to keep writing about Trump, the people he is impacting, and the ways we can help them. And if you are also a blogger, writer, or journalist, I would encourage you to do the same.