The writer is a US-based author of Alive and Well in Pakistan and Home Free: An American Road Trip, among other books.

Jay Rosen is a professor of journalism at New York University and one of the most astute articulators of what journalism and media are and how they function – and how they dysfunction, if you will – in American society. I specify media and journalism, because it was Rosen who taught me that they’re not the same thing, and that the distinction is important. Journalism, says Rosen, is a personal discipline, a vocation practiced by an individual, a way of paying attention to the world. The essence of journalism, Rosen points out, is the statement, “I’m here, you’re not, let me tell you about it.”

Media, on the other hand, is the complex of technological and commercial channels through which journalism flows from the journalist to you or me, the reader or “media consumer.” And these channels don’t merely exist in some neutral way; we make them, and commerce and technology distort journalism and information. And media don’t bring us only news; they also bring us sitcoms and soap operas, “reality” shows, tweetstorms, puppy and kitten videos, Kardashian sisters and, of course, Donald Trump.

I learned these things, and more, from Jay Rosen more than 15 years ago, from his book What Are Journalists For? and from a valuable opportunity I had to work with him directly to document some of the earliest immediate personal responses to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, almost literally down the street from New York University. I’m not a big believer in journalism schools, but I saw then how Rosen, as a journalism professor, was practicing a commitment to thinking through the implications of what exactly journalism is and why it’s important, as a civic contribution on behalf of his fellow Americans.

He’s still at it. And I’m grateful, because understanding what has become of our ecosystem of information and awareness is crucial to understanding our overall plight. (By “our” I mean first of all Americans in particular, but of course this stuff affects all of us, everywhere.) On April 21, Rosen gave a speech at the launch symposium of the Center for Media at Risk at the University of Pennsylvania, where he unpacked our current situation as he sees it.

“For core supporters [of Trump],” he said, “media hate helps frame the president as a fighter for them. ‘I will put these people down for you’ was one of the most attractive promises Trump made during the campaign. He has delivered on that pledge. They, in turn, deliver for him by categorically rejecting news reports that are critical of the president, in the belief that journalists are simply trying to bring their guy down.”

Next Rosen made a point that we – those many Americans who are not Trump supporters – really need to take to heart. “On his committed opponents, the president’s political style works by inviting ridicule and attack,” he said. “Their part in the script is simply to keep the culture war going through reflexive responses to the awfulness of the Trump phenomenon. The anger, despair, and disbelief that Trump inspires in his most public doubters is felt as confirmation, and consumed as entertainment by his most committed supporters – and his trolls. Notice how if Trump’s opponents defend the reporting of an institution like The New York Times (or simply make reference to it as revealed fact), that supports his campaign to discredit the press as a merely ideological institution.”

Finally, Rosen noted a third category of “Americans who are neither committed supporters nor determined critics of Donald Trump. On them, the campaign to discredit the press works by generating noise and confusion, raising what economists call ‘search costs’ for good information.”

Next in his speech, Rosen turned to what he called the risks we’re facing, some of which he correctly places in “an ‘already happened’ category.”

“There is a risk that journalists could do their job brilliantly, and it won’t really matter,” he said, “because Trump supporters categorically reject it, Trump opponents already believed it, and the neither-nors aren’t paying close enough attention. In a different way, there is a risk that journalists could succeed at the production of great journalism and fail at its distribution, because the platforms created by the tech industry have so overtaken the task of organizing public attention.” Keep that in mind the next time you find yourself whiling away the morning scrolling through your Facebook or Twitter feed.

“When the president of the United States forcefully rejects the premise of a common world of fact, and behaves like there is no such thing, any practice resting on that premise is in political trouble,” Rosen pointed out. “This has happened to journalism. No one knows what to do about it. There is a risk that established forms of journalism will be unable to handle the strain that Trump’s behavior places upon them. For example, the practice we came to call fact-checking has had zero effect in preventing the president from repeating falsehoods. There is a risk that the press will hang onto these forms well past their sell-by date because it’s what they know. They want things to be normal. For instance, access to confusion and disinformation serves no editorial goal, but ‘access journalism’ is alive and well in White House reporting.”

This last point – about what happens when “the president of the United States forcefully rejects the premise of a common world of fact” – is a new twist on an old and fundamental human problem: our propensity to defer to those who hold, seize or claim power. The truth is that the truth is what it is, not what Donald Trump says it is. But Trump has weaponised a democratically-elected political office, thereby turning political power into brute power. And all of us Americans – all three of Rosen’s categories – are letting him get away with it, because we want things to be normal. We vaguely hope that one day we’ll wake up from the nightmare and Trump will somehow magically have gone away. That’s not going to happen. •