You can care that Kanye West was summoned to Trump Tower this week and still care that Syria is in flames. The media — and the media-consuming public — are taking a beating for being distracted from real issues by the spectacle of a flashy singer standing next to a flashy president-elect in his gold-plated building.
That’s a lot of shiny objects, which we do love.
But it’s also news. It’s news when a president-elect who eschews daily intelligence briefings and postpones a scheduled press conference to discuss his business conflicts nonetheless finds time to host an entertainer who, by his own admission, didn’t even vote in the last election.
But folks were quick to admonish the press for taking Donald Trump’s bait. “We no longer have journalists, we have entertainment reporters,” John Pavlovitz, a highly respected minister and writer, posted Tuesday on Facebook — echoing the thoughts of a significant segment of the populace outraged by Trump’s pre- and post-election behavior and convinced the media aren’t sufficiently covering it.
I respectfully disagree. If Trump had his way, the public would know only what he wants the public to know. And that would be neatly contained to a series of tweets — his preferred mode of communication. Never mind that just 19 percent of the adult population uses Twitter. Never mind that Twitter users are mostly college-educated and under 50, which leaves out many of the folks he’s promising to bring back into the fray. Twitter doesn’t pepper you with questions the way a press corps does, so it serves a fragile leader just fine.
The public, however, knows far more than what Trump tweets, and that’s because we have journalists. And those journalists aren’t waiting around for press conferences.
The fact that we know Trump likely hasn’t paid taxes for two decades, that he brags about groping women, that he takes credit for charitable gifts he never actually gave, that taxpayers will likely be paying his corporation when the Secret Service moves into his New York building, that his pick to run the State Department has worrisome ties to Russia and so on — we know because of journalists.
Are journalists also flocking to shoot photos and grab quotes from Kanye’s Trump Tower voyage? Indeed. Journalists and readers are flocking to all sorts of stories — all day, every day.
But let’s not label everything a distraction. Humans are capable of processing and prioritizing more than one topic at a time.
We can click on, read about and discuss the Golden Globes, HGTV’s Tarek and Christina splitting and Alan Thicke dying. And we can still click on, read and discuss gun violence, the fall of Aleppo, the Dakota Access Pipeline and Trump’s Cabinet picks.
Our collective human experience is best understood when we explore all of its layers. Journalists give us access to those layers. Journalists hold the powerful accountable, and the public, in turn, holds us accountable.
Let’s not get distracted from the fact that we’re best served to work toward the same goal: knowledge, truth and understanding.
Heidi Stevens is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.