Hawzah News Agency (Washington, US) - I moved to Washington DC in 2008 after graduating from university, where I studied journalism, and naively proclaimed I would have nothing to do with politics. It was a world that seemed so cynical and inaccessible, and at first I didn’t fully grasp what role the media ought to play in holding to account people in positions of power. But Barack Obama’s election swiftly reinforced how political reporters have a front-row seat on history– stenographers for moments that will be looked back upon for generations to come. I got my start covering the Obama White House and the 2012 presidential election, and it’s safe to say there’s never been a dull moment since.
One of the prevailing challenges of reporting in the Trump era has been trying not to let the president dictate the terms of the news cycle. After nearly two years, it’s hard to say if anyone has yet figured out how to really cover Trump; it’s still the case that one tweet can derail the entire news cycle. It’s a reality-TV presidency, and we’re all tuned in for every twist and turn, not knowing what to expect in the next episode.
Even as I write this piece, Trump appears to have defied precedent by leading the country into the longest government shutdown in US history – all because Congress refused his demand for billions of dollars in funding toward the construction of a wall along the US-Mexico border.
The partial closure of the government has provided yet another reminder that the key to covering Trump is to press on with the core storylines that have defined Trump’s tenure – be it his draconian agenda on immigration, the isolation of America on the global stage, or the recurring hints of corruption and efforts to undermine the institutions that hold the US government together. The standards have been lowered for what is and isn’t acceptable, in large part due to the kind of rhetoric Trump has injected into the mainstream. There’s a tendency now to say, “it’s just Trump being Trump”; but if this were any other president, any one of these daily controversies would be a months-long scandal.
The government shutdown, for example, has dragged on for more than a month, leaving roughly 800,000 federal workers without pay since 22 December. It has impacted on air travel across the country, imperilled food and drug inspections and threatened the delivery of food stamps and other anti-poverty programmes. And yet, on most days it no longer leads the news in Trump’s Washington.
How the media frames the president and his actions is vital to the public’s understanding of where he fits into a historical context and his role in the breakdown of norms.
There’s even more curiosity in what lies ahead now that House Democrats have vowed to restore oversight of the executive branch; in other words, to act as the check and balance that Republicans ignored almost entirely in Trump’s first two years.
The reality is that with Republicans still in control of the Senate, there certainly has been no sudden shift in terms of the status quo. The partisan battle lines are sharply drawn, as evidenced by the ongoing shutdown.
But Democrats have more leverage, with their newfound House majority, to hold the line on progressive priorities as part of any negotiations, particularly on must-pass spending bills that outline how government funds are allocated. (See their refusal to fund a border wall.) Democrats are in a position to essentially block any of Trump’s agenda with which they disagree – which is just about everything.
There’s no question that the president’s legal troubles are mounting. After recent revelations, it will be interesting to see how Democrats decide to use their investigative authorities, which come with considerable power to subpoena documents and witnesses. They’ve already suggested they will go after Trump’s tax returns, business dealings in Russia, hush payments to women, conflicts of interest among White House officials, and misuse of taxpayer dollars by cabinet officials, among other things. It’s going to be quite a wild ride.
It’s not opinion to state that the president has used his platform to demonise minority ethnic immigrants, it’s a fact.He has drawn a repeated link between minority ethnic immigrants and crime, even though numerous studies show that the immigrant community in the US is less likely to commit violent crime when compared with the native-born population. He has also seized on the international criminal gang MS-13 to stoke fears around those crossing the US-Mexico border, even though MS-13 members make up less than 1% of the approximately 1.4 million gang members in America.
And therein lies the key for me as a journalist: The most powerful tools we have at our disposal are the facts. Rather than getting swept up in the narrative Trump is trying to set, we have been tasked with challenging it when his words are at odds with the truth.
As a Muslim American born to Pakistani parents, I do believe there is a certain perspective I can bring to conversations around what is and isn’t covered, or how certain stories perhaps should be covered. Although I’m a reporter first, I’ve spoken often about the lack of diversity in the US media, which is especially glaring in political reporting. There are so many times when I look around – whether it’s in the White House briefing room, on the campaign trail, or at the Capitol – and realise I’m the only Muslim there.
That feeling is more pronounced on some occasions, such as when Trump retweeted a series of anti-Muslim videos by the far-right group Britain First. Those are the days where I have to remind myself that challenging the president is not inherently adversarial or biased, but, due to the lack of Muslim voices covering the White House, my duty to contribute to the conversation in a way I am uniquely positioned to do. On that occasion, I tweeted a list of all that anti-Muslim statements he had made to demonstrate that this was not out of character for him. It’s part of who he is.
I also contributed to a lot of our coverage around the president’s travel ban, which for me was an opportunity to rely upon my ties to the Muslim community to better demonstrate how real people were affected. I did a piece where I paid a visit to the mosque where Barack Obama spoke as president, in part to highlight how much had changed for that particular community since Trump was elected. I spent time with a Syrian refugee family in Charlottesville, Virginia, to show the impact of his travel ban on those who were separated from their children.
Reporting on US politics is an extremely competitive space, more so now than in the past. What’s been encouraging is the largely positive feedback from US readers who don’t simply dismiss the Guardian as a foreign outlet but see us as part of the conversation. Often people I encounter here in Washington tell me they find the Guardian’s issue-based coverage to rank among the best. Whether it’s on climate, immigration, criminal justice or gun control, there are viral areas where we’ve been able to carve out a niche and have considerable impact.
I would not have predicted that I’d ever be covering a Trump presidency. But I’ll be watching how Democrats leverage their majority in the House, and whether they are willing to fully utilise their investigative powers against Trump. During the 2020 campaign cycle, Democrats will probably face challenges from what is shaping up to be a very large field of potential candidates. The party will need to be more unified, particularly to take on a behemoth like Trump; it shouldn’t be assumed by anyone that he won’t be given a second term.