Bill Maxwell: Journalism and journalism students are experiencing a ‘Trump Bump’

President Donald Trump is having an unintended positive impact on the Fourth Estate.
President Donald Trump has a heated exchange with CNN reporter Jim Acosta while a White House aide tries to pull the microphone away from Acosta, at a news conference about the results of the midterm elections, at the White House in Washington, Nov. 7, [Doug Mills for the New York Times]
President Donald Trump has a heated exchange with CNN reporter Jim Acosta while a White House aide tries to pull the microphone away from Acosta, at a news conference about the results of the midterm elections, at the White House in Washington, Nov. 7, [Doug Mills for the New York Times]
Published November 30

Shortly after Donald Trump became the Republican candidate for president, he began attacking the press on Twitter and during rallies.

The attacks quickly became a major part of the campaign as Trump railed against “fake news” and declared that the media is the “enemy of the American people” and that journalists are “very dangerous & sick.”

The onslaught effectively discredited the press in the eyes of the Trump-loving right, and it has caused, and continues to cause, problems for many of us in the profession: from a reporter being “body-slammed” by a politician at a public forum; to others being shouted down at public meetings; to CNN’s Jim Acosta having his White House press pass revoked for asking the most powerful person on Earth tough questions.

But something unintended and positive is happening to journalism as a result of Trump’s crusade. We are seeing a “Trump effect,” a “Trump bump.”

Immediately after the White House revoked Acosta’s press pass, nearly a dozen deans from leading journalism colleges knew that Trump had crossed a red line. They signed a statement condemning the Acosta revocation. This is a big, big deal because deans and other academics are notoriously non-confrontational on issues that involve elected officials and politics beyond their campuses.

“Although gratuitous, harsh and insulting reprimands directed at reporters and news organizations that pose inconvenient questions are routine under this administration, the Acosta incident crosses an important line regarding First Amendment protections and press freedom,” the statement read. “Prohibiting White House access to punish a reporter for asking vexing questions of significant public concern resembles the act of an autocrat, not the chief of state of a constitutional republic. The president’s actions against Acosta seem clearly intended to warn other journalists: if you question governmental actions and sayings, the same might happen to you. Play it safe: sit down and be quiet.”

But even before the Acosta affair, Trump’s hostility was benefiting journalism in another way. Many journalism colleges and programs nationwide report that enrollments at the undergraduate and graduate levels are increasing. This is great news after many years of sharp decreases, the shuttering of programs and reductions in newsroom jobs.

With the Trump administration, news, mostly controversial, is plentiful and nonstop in print, on television and digitally. New tools and methods of newsgathering, less rigid styles of writing for online publications and the reawakened allure of investigative reporting are attracting students to the profession.

Many students are entering the field because they are angered by Trump’s lack of veracity and by the White House press secretary’s robotic recitation of the president’s alternative reality.

Still other students are motivated by the idealistic belief that journalism is a high form of public service and that news reporting is essential to a viable democracy.

Some professors are directly challenging the president in their classrooms. They are designing courses that analyze Trump’s words and actions toward the press.

Mira Sotirovic, an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s College of Media, introduced a course titled “Trumpaganda: The War on Facts, Press and Democracy.” The eight-week, three-credit course examines the administration’s sustained war against mainstream media. Sotirovic makes clear in the course description that all presidents, beginning with George Washington, fight with the press but that Trump’s rhetoric is nothing less than propaganda and a “political imperative.”

Other professors say many of their students have studied Trump’s words and speech patterns and have submitted cynical caricatures of the president. These portrayals can be interpreted as indications of disrespect not only for Trump the president but for Trump the man. These students see Trump as an amoral person who has no respect for truth and facts.

A Trump bump also can be seen in the increase in subscriptions at several of the nation’s leading newspapers such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post.

In no way is Trump having the profound impact on the Fourth Estate that Watergate reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had. But he is having a positive impact he did not intend.

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