President Donald Trump’s entrance into the political sphere not only disrupted the long run of traditional politicians as candidates, but also introduced a new quarrel with what some refer to as the fourth branch of government: the press.
On Wednesday night in Bovard Auditorium, the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy hosted the Holt Lecture, a speaker series devoted to communications and politics. The lecture series was established by Price School board of councilors member Dennis Holt, and his wife Brooks Holt.
This year’s Holt Lecture, titled “Journalism, Accountability, Power,” featured Frederick J. Ryan Jr., publisher and CEO of The Washington Post. Ryan previously served as the president and COO of Allbritton Communications Company and founding CEO and president of POLITICO. Previously, he was the chief of staff for former President Ronald Reagan. He is also a USC alumnus and serves on the USC Board of Trustees.
Ryan was introduced by Jack Knott, dean of the Price School. Knott commented on the timeliness of Ryan’s talk and the importance of trustworthy journalism in the present time.
“We are in an era of significant challenges in democratic governance and a growing, unprecedented level of distrust in democratic institutions,” Knott said. “Nowhere is this distrust more manifest than in the relation between the news media, journalism and the government.”
According to Knott, people’s trust in the media has never been lower, and Trump is part of the problem.
“Political narratives increasingly rely on perceived reality instead of analytic methods, evidence and facts,” Knott said. “President Trump has brought the idea of fake news and alternative facts into our everyday vocabulary.”
Ryan began his talk by centering around his work at The Washington Post. Ryan is to thank for the The Washington Post’s transition into the digital world from its traditionally print publication.
“When I started two-and-a-half years ago in this position as publisher of The Washington Post, some people looked at me like I was crazy,” Ryan said. “They asked me, ‘Why would you join a print legacy news organization at a time where the business model is failing?’”
Ryan used his new position at The Washington Post to compartmentalize the staff, hire new engineers and increase the number of platforms the newspaper utilizes.
“We established a very aggressive strategy of embracing both established and emerging social media platforms,” Ryan said. “Rather than being platform-agnostic, we are platform-specific, with specialists producing stories for each social media platform.”
Under Ryan’s supervision, The Washington Post has expanded to platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat, which Ryan notes has expanded their readership and extended their audience to a younger demographic.
Ryan also touched on the danger of fake news, especially in the rapidly changing digital sphere.
“It’s wrong to inflate unfavorable news to fake news,” Ryan said. “Applying the fake news label is an attack on the truth. It’s reckless and corrosive to democracy, and elected officials attempt to deliberately and systematically erode the credibility of news organizations because they object to factually accurate reporting.”
According to Ryan, conflict between the White House and the media is not unique to the Trump administration. Nevertheless, Ryan notes, there is a particularly contentious relationship between Trump and the press.
Ryan believes that Trump’s war with the press has stemmed from a different type of coverage.
“Over the years, he has very effectively engaged with the press to promote his business ventures,” Ryan said. “But that coverage was essentially publicity. He views the press as a tool to publicize his business and personal image. Today, on the presidential stage, he faces a different type of media reporting: accountability.”
Raphael Bostic, the moderator of the event and chair of the Department of Governance, Management and the Policy Process at the Price School, asked Ryan what consumers can do to recognize and avoid fake news. Ryan said readers should be looking at multiple news sources, not just ones they agree with.
“There are business models in media that appeal to one particular ideology or the other,” Ryan said. “I advise readers to go to a variety of news sources. I try to go to ones that I know are objective, and I go to ones that I know have a particular view. Just so you can have a better understanding and broader perspective of opinions. The more the better. We have to be very skeptical.”