Anu Roy-Chaudhury: Trump v. Transparency

Monday, March 6, 2017 - 5:20pm

A buzz from my phone used to mean a new text message or email notification, but these days every time I reach for my phone I am greeted with a news alert, where the name Donald Trump never fails to be included. Since the inauguration, the Trump administration has been closely reported, its each and every move serving as the centerpiece of daily headlines, both domestic and international. Every day of the 45th presidency means a slew of new stories depicting the continued unconventionality of the country’s leader. In other words, every day feels like we’re waiting to see what Trump does next, and we can depend on the press to always keep us updated. Yet, given his personality, he isn’t taking this too well. 

The question of government transparency has long been a question without an answer. How much does the public get to know? How much should the public know? How much do we actually know? Holding political leaders and administrations accountable for their actions is only possible when we actually get to see their actions. Yet, our power in lifting the veil on the government can only go so far. Instead, the news is our vital way of being and staying informed, making sure our leaders take responsibility for their actions. Those who have power to make change, both good and bad, have people and communities to answer to. The arrival of a Trump administration has recently threatened that idea.

What began as an irritability with The New York Times, Trump’s dislike of the press — or rather dislike of his bad press — has escalated. After a series of tweets referring to reputable news organizations as “FAKE NEWS” and a disastrous White House Press briefing, it is safe to say that the Trump-press relationship is unconventional at least. While the press may not always have the best relationship with the government, past administrations kept it cordial with the press corps. The new president and his administration, continuing the trend of unconventionality, have taken White House-press relations in a new direction.

Two weeks ago, the strained relations culminated in the barring of certain news outlets from a White House briefing. The act was uncalled for and, in my opinion, un-presidential. While left-leaning publications may be more critical of the administration and thus be an unfavorable attendance for Trump, the exclusion extended to more conservative publications as well. This marks a highly unconventional approach to public relations in the White House. Simply dubbing any news that is unfavorable or tainting as “fake” is not only a sure sign of disregard for the First Amendment, but a sign of weakness.

This defensive stance on the press is not a warranted one, and as Trump continues his war on the press, his credibility as a strong and truthful leader disintegrates. I will admit, the press has been more frequent in their reporting of the new presidency than in past presidencies, but the fear and uncertainty of the people who followed the news about Trump from the campaign trail into the White House means we need the press now more than ever. 

In the past month, Trump has shown he isn’t slow to get to work. The New York Times published an insightful infographic grouping the administration’s recent actions on a scale from abnormal to normal and important to not important. Not surprisingly, the majority of events were rated as abnormal and important. (It is also important to note these ratings were conducted by panelists across the ideological spectrum.) The presidency’s willingness to make important and widespread change means a higher need for transparency from the people but a likely unwillingness from the administration to provide it.

The Trump administration’s barring of news corps from a briefing and his own deeming of press as the enemy of the American people threatens the institution that fights for government transparency. There already exists a disconnect between people and the government, but turning on the news, picking up the paper or reading articles online is what lessens that disconnect. If we are not informed, we cannot hold our leaders accountable. If Trump continues actions which undermine the means of informing the people, he is actively working against a more transparent government. While Trump’s difficult relationship with the press started during his campaign, now as a president with ample power, his relationship with the press is not just between the press and him, but the American people as well.

The lens we see our government through is only enhanced and made clearer by a strong and willful press corps. Sure, the constant coverage of the Trump administration can be annoying and the daily news alerts or shared articles on Facebook are getting old; however, Trump’s rhetoric against the press means being informed and seeking accountability is more important now than ever. It also means supporting the journalists who are, despite adversity, seeking the truth by any means possible. The new administration’s straying from political norms has manifested as actions that compromise basic tenets of people’s relationships with their officials. Trump’s war on the press — his thorough and daily dissatisfaction with reporting — is only a sign of the weakness of this administration and, more importantly, works against true government transparency.

Anu Roy-Chaudhury can be reached at anuroy@umich.edu.