Tonight at dinner, our conversation was driven by President Trump’s expulsion from Twitter. I wanted the kids to understand the significance of the Presidential use of digital media in a post-media world, and what it means that he no longer has access to The Bully Pulpit. I thought I’d bring you into our dinner lesson here at Rivendell Academy (our in-house name for the schooling we do at home).
We began by discussing Thomas Paine. His pamphlet, Common Sense, is responsible for galvanizing colonists into what amounted to a civil war; a war against their fellow Englishmen. Common Sense is as important to the existence of the United States as is the Declaration of Independence.
We talked about Benjamin Franklin and his fellow publishers, who wrote newspapers without much regard to objectivity. We talked about Pulitzer and Hearst and the age of Yellow Journalism (or tabloid journalism, or checkbook journalism). Many historians cite this approach to selling papers as the main cause of the Spanish-American War.
We talked about President Teddy Roosevelt and the way he used the media to govern. As he was speechwriting and composed an especially delicious passage, he is reported to have said something like, “My opponents will accuse me of preaching. But haven’t I got a Bully Pulpit!” (Bully, in this case, was used as an adjective and meant something superlative.) President Roosevelt used the media so deftly that he set a precedent for thought leadership and agenda-setting as one of the most important facets of US presidential leadership.
I explained that in the following decades, a golden age of journalism flourished, driven by specific journalistic ethics (like objectivity) and reinforced by specific practices (like quoting and triangulation of sources). This trustworthiness created by these ethics made the media the eyes and ears of the American people, enabling them to hold their government accountable in an entirely new way. Government corruption was significantly diminished as a result.
We talked about the media’s role as The Fourth Estate, an unelected but necessary piece of the relationship between electors and elected in the United States.
Due partly to squeezed media revenues following the internet’s democratization of publishing, newsrooms have fewer editors than ever before. Those all-important keepers of journalistic ethics have been seeking innovative business models, and they haven’t been as free to groom the next generation of Woodwards and Bernsteins.
Though previous US Presidents have used social media, President Trump actualized the potential of direct communication with the people of the United States (and, indeed, the world). For the first time, no one was mediating the president’s messages. He often governed directly in public, even firing cabinet secretaries and announcing major policy initiatives in full public view.
President Trump’s tweeting has been Twitter founder and CEO Jack Dorsey’s biggest blessing and curse. One the one hand, the president’s choice of platform has kept the company at the very center of relevance for public discourse. On the other hand, as far as anyone can see, President Trump didn’t self-censor much. His use of the platform often took him beyond the bounds of the company’s normal terms of service. He gave new color to President Roosevelt’s term ‘Bully Pulpit’. Dorsey, a thoughtful person, came up with a rationale that kept Twitter from having to ban the leader of the free world. He argued (and his company wrote a new policy stating) that there’s a public interest served by having direct access to the thoughts of national leaders, even if those leaders say things that would normally get others banned from the platform.
Among others, there is a major downside to President Trump emphasis on the importance of public communication relative to the other functions of executive authority. Beyond neglecting the more mundane functions of governance (like whipping votes around a given legislative agenda), it also puts the presidency’s most prominent power in the hands of one unelected person: Jack Dorsey. When Dorsey, feeling pressure from employees and shareholders and probably anticipating future congressional testimony, decided to suspend President Trump’s Twitter account, he was able unilaterally take the bully out of the Bully Pulpit.
Future leaders will have to make some hard decisions about how to communicate and exercise thought leadership. They’ll need to use the power of the internet without becoming beholden to its business models.