Order of executive arrogance—how do I explain Donald Trump to my students?
Dr. Anthony Ogbo
Professor of Communication and Journalism
Texas Southern University, Houston Texas
The media remains one of the independent entities accorded explicit constitutional protection. The First Amendment, for instance, prohibits the government from abridging the freedom of speech or freedom of the press. On the contrary, the president has considerable power over the press because he has control of the most significant governmental information that the press might need to serve the public. Throughout his first tenure, President Donald Trump has made his Twitter handle a haven for disseminating personal attacks and falsehoods. More disconcerting is his assault on the media sector. However, the purpose of this article is not to scrutinize or analyze the relationship between President Trump and the media. Bringing real-world journalistic ventures into the four walls of a classroom is fundamental, not just for the sharing of knowledge but also for preparing students for a prospective field career. Drawing on real-world experiences in the classroom, this article invokes the fundamental challenges of teaching journalism in the era of President Trump.
The media remains one of the independent entities accorded explicit constitutional protection. The First Amendment, for instance, prohibits the government from abridging freedom of speech or freedom of the press (Bowker, 2000; Harcup, 2014; Kirtley, 2009; Mervin, 2018; Youm, 2008). On the contrary, the president has considerable power over the press because he has control of the most significant governmental information that the press might need to serve the public (Jones & West, 2017). Throughout his first tenure, President Donald Trump has been deceptive in both spoken and written words. He had made his Twitter handle a haven for disseminating personal attacks and falsehoods. More disconcerting is his assault of the media sector. His malicious attack on the media have persisted since his inauguration, and he has gone after media houses and individuals critical of his policies or administration. In some of his most horrific phrases, he has confronted major media houses, including the hosts of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” (Thrush & Haberman, 2017), the CNN network (Nakamura & Davis, 2017), and many others. This array of pugilism and aggression has created a major challenge in the media’s ability to bring to light significant matters about the executive branch. However, the purpose of this article is not to scrutinize or analyze the relationship between President Trump and the media. Bringing real-world journalistic ventures into the four walls of a classroom is fundamental, not just for the sharing of knowledge but also for preparing students for a prospective field career. Drawing on real-world experiences in the classroom, this article invokes the fundamental challenges of teaching journalism in the era of President Trump.
2.0 Real-world Reality
I was grading papers on fact-checking techniques and ran into a clarification piece about how the U.S. president, Donald Trump, boldly made bogus claims at a rally in Arizona about a phone call to the Chief Executive Officer of Exxon Mobil. ExxonMobil quickly countered his statement with a Tweet: “We are aware of the President’s statement regarding a hypothetical call with our CEO…and just so we’re all clear, it never happened” (2020).
Another student faulted Trump’s mail-in ballot claims. Trump had suggested that mail-in voting was a monumental fraud, claiming that “unsolicited” ballots, where states send a ballot to every eligible registered voter, are a “big con job.” However, such fraud is exceptionally uncommon in U.S. elections. The truth is that in nine states, including the District of Columbia, mail ballots were sent to voters even when they did not request them. Moreover, five of the states in question, Colorado, Oregon, Utah, Hawaii, and Washington, held their elections predominantly by mail without any significant incidents of fraud.
Besides teaching and communicating course concepts, I have never shied away from importing real-world environments into my journalism class engagements. It is a part of what makes students’ learning experience more intellectually rewarding, and it offers them more hands-on knowledge of the subject matter. Doing this also offers students a sense of practical commitment to inspire their career choices. For the first time in this profession, however, I have found myself in uncomfortable situations, which have arisen when discussing, instructing, or assigning topics related to the U.S. president, Donald Trump, as laboratory tasks. It is obvious that my class roster—a multiplicity of names and faces representing various ethnicities—might invoke the divisiveness of Trump’s America.
In the newsroom that I also manage, discussions about Trump are a new part of the organization’s culture. We love to talk about him and could do so all day. We jeer at his professional transgressions, share comical memes about him on social media, and destroy his arsenal of mendacious rhetoric with powerful editorials. But the classroom is an entirely different arena; as a teacher, you are overseeing a theatre of innocent children, and you have a mission to share or transfer knowledge devoid of ideological predisposition or political rancor. In the Trump era, I admit, this is a little difficult.
For instance, I sent my Media Reporting class to cover the 2020 U.S. vice presidential debate between the incumbent, Mike Pence, and the challenger, Senator Kamala Harris, which was held on October 7, 2020. I was surprised to observe that most of the students rendered a contrast between this debate and the presidential debate held a few weeks prior between their ballot partners, the incumbent presidential candidate Donald Trump and the challenger, Joe Biden, a former vice president. Students went beyond the class lectures to explain Trump; I was proud that they did so.
The world had already witnessed this ugly presidential debate, with its chaotic nature and gutter-level executive displays. President Trump was uncontrollable, both physically and verbally. Maribel Hastings of America’s Voice Education Fund wrote, “The ‘bully in chief’ was on display in his maximum splendor. Is anyone surprised that Trump demonstrated shameful conduct and trampled once again on the office of the presidency of the United States? Sadly, no” (2020).
The “Trump matter” gets worse for me by the day. In my Ethics class, for example, I have systematically avoided matters relating to President Trump or the White House. This is a sharp distinction from the previous regime of Barack Obama, during which my class could spend the entire lesson discussing topics such as ethics and policy strategy, presidential demeanor, and diversity in the White House media briefings. Because of this, I feel guilty when I grade current students’ papers and read how they use President Trump—a president I have purposely avoided speaking about with them—to answer written questions on considerations of moral decency. I also feel guilty because brushing President Trump under the rug is not the best approach.
Donald Trump’s fabrications are unimaginable. His deceitful war against the media alone could overwhelm any journalism instructor. He has unleashed a barrage of destructive Tweets to lampoon the entire media as worthless and disgraceful, false and horrible, full of fake reporting and “very dishonest people” (Kalb, 2017).
To make it worse, the level of misinformation released by this president poses another instructional challenge in the classroom. In July 2020, Kessler et al. of the Washington Post reported that President Trump had already made more than 20,000 false or misleading claims:
It took President Trump 827 days to top 10,000 false and misleading claims in The Fact Checker’s database, an average of 12 claims a day; But on July 9, just 440 days later, the president crossed the 20,000 mark—an average of 23 claims a day over 14 months.
That was not all. In another provocative composition, Susan B. Glasser wrote an article for the New Yorker entitled “The most mendacious president in U.S. history,” which explained that Trump’s prolific malicious Tweeting is so “alarming, unpleasant, and simply exhausting” that it often escapes real scrutiny. Similarly, in an ethnographic study entitled “A presidential archive of lies: Racism, Twitter, and a history of the present,” McGranahan (2019) described President Trump as a purveyor of hate speech, emphasizing that his “role in articulating, spreading, and entrenching extreme and vitriolic speech and endorsing and enabling others constitutes history.”
Another publication, a study and special report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (2020), revealed that President Trump has been proficient in destroying the credibility of the press by dangerously spreading falsehood, “even as the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to kill tens of thousands of Americans.”
With hundreds of editorials reflecting President Trump’s moral laxity, especially his persistent assaults of the noble media fraternity, putting President Trump out on a journalism classroom discussion board might yield more politics than scholarly concepts. It might lead to a free-for-all of political pugilism, especially if there are students already radicalized by his discordant falsehood. It might also lead to a distracting discussion or fistfight between pro- and anti-Trump groups of students.
The Amidst the prevailing circumstances, bringing Trump’s unethically anti-media world into the classroom remains an inevitable instructional challenge. The purpose of teaching, according to Charles and Pitts (2018), is not to push students toward any particular views but to inspire healthy and productive exchange despite sometimes disparate ideologies (p. 188). This approach helps to prepare students to join a global system that emboldens the silence of their political voices and engenders their apathy.
Furthermore, infusion of current events into a classroom context could yield intelligent discussions that would cultivate critical thinking and make students politically astute (Galczynski et al., 2011). This could help students to discern the difference between facts and fabrications (Madison, 2019, p. 56). Another approach comes from Broere and Kerkhoff’s 2020 article “Putting politics where it belongs: In the classroom.” The duo argued that in the classroom engagement process, every activity is an opportunity to support social justice. The authors explain that “By layering conversations about culture, politics, and the world, middle-level students can understand the complexity of local and global issues and see themselves as connected to something bigger” (p. 53). Another positive consequences about teaching with controversial issues is that engaging in discussion with people who hold different opinions fosters political tolerance (Diana Mutz, 2006).
I have always believed in the positive implications of importing political trends into the classroom for instructional purposes. “Despite ideological divides, educators must engage students in subjects that challenge them to think” (Madison, 2019, p. 57). The major issue in this case, however, is how to strategically implement this approach without infiltrating my classroom’s tranquility with the conflict-ridden politics of Donald Trump. How can I use President Trump to convey theories of political leadership? How can I use his bad reputation in the media, his assault on free speech, or his collection of lies to deliver lectures in journalism?
Boys et al. (2018) noted how instructors navigating such discussions, particularly during such a divisive political era, would likely have a significant effect on both the classroom environment and the students, the future leaders of the profession. Hess and Gatti (2010) contended that the strategy needed might depend on the skills of the professor. Instructors skilled in discussing tough issues in the classroom create a listening and learning experience for both the instructor and students. Therefore, teachers must seek professional development to help them better understand how to use discussion effectively and continually. This process not only measures what students are learning but also probes into whether they are becoming more effective debaters.
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