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Is Donald Trump good for ratings while being bad for journalism?

Nearly two years into the current administration, journalists are still struggling to determine how to cover this president who has broken all the rules of communicating with the people and who is fighting to undercut the legitimacy of any news organization that dares to criticize him.

Joining Marvin Kalb for the Oct. 1 edition of "The Kalb Report," legendary ABC News anchor Ted Koppel and three media reporters, Brian Stelter of CNN, David Folkenflik of NPR and WBUR, and Emily Rooney of WGBH Television in Boston, scrapped over whether the news media should just do its job or fight back against a president who it believes is undercutting the First Amendment.

University of Maryland University College co-produces "The Kalb Report," which launched its 25th season with this program.

“CNN’s ratings would be in the toilet without Donald Trump,” Koppel said.

Shot back Stelter, “I reject the premise that these networks are making so much money off of Trump and thus would benefit from it.”

Trump’s attacks against the press “are a poison, and he’s infecting tens of millions of people with that poison,” Stelter said. “For us to sit here and pretend as if he is not saying it just lets it fester, and further divide the country.”

Koppel said he had known Trump for 20 years before he was elected.  On the day Trump was nominated, Koppel said he interviewed him.

“In the course of that interview, he said to me, ‘You know, Ted, I don’t need you guys any more … I can contact my people directly.” That was because he had millions of followers on Twitter and Facebook that has only expanded during his administration.

“So, you have two things,” Koppel said.  “A president who really understands how to circumvent the media as a means of activating his base. And the base, which in turn, is capable of communicating with one another in a fashion they’ve never been able to before.”

By focusing so much on Trump’s rhetoric, journalists are overlooking the real substance of what is happening, Folkenflik said. Trump has manufactured a crisis with all of his Tweets, he said, but what has really happened?  The nation isn’t at war. The economy is perking along.

“We tie it all up in what his sentences are, how he addresses us,” Folkenflik said.  “But often it distracts us from what’s actually happening throughout the government that’s affecting tens of millions of Americans.”

Emily Rooney said that while Trump has energized newsrooms and helped ratings, he has so taken over the news that news organizations ponder whether “we are going to have a Trump-free Friday.”

“Have people had enough of it?” she asked.  “Shall we move on to how they covered the tsunami or how they covered Hurricane Joaquin?”

The problem the news media has is that its job is to report what the president says and whether it is true, Stelter said. “If we say Trump said five things today that are bogus, and that is true.  But it sounds like we are attacking him.”

Added Rooney, “Incivility has been sanctioned by our president.  He does it all day long.”

But Koppel said the news media has been engendering this revolution against it.

“I think we need a little humility about the people who are so frustrated with us that they find themselves turning in desperation to Donald Trump, if for no other reason[than] that he pisses us off and people love that. Just love it.”

And when Trump finally leaves the presidency, is that the end of all this?

Folkenflik said people already are planning for what happens when he leaves, no matter how he leaves.  “What reality show does he get? ‘The Ex-Presidents of Bedminster, New Jersey?’ The post-presidency will be televised.”

"The Kalb Report" is a joint project of UMUC, the National Press Club’s Journalism Institute, the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs, Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center, the Gaylord College of Journalism at the University of Oklahoma, and the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. It is underwritten by a grant from Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

The program is available for viewing here: