Media in the Age of Trump
Donald Trump is a creature created in the laboratories of media and reality TV. It is the media’s irresponsibility and criminal negligence that allowed him to rise to where he is now. But what could they do? He was ratings gold. They were there every time he opened his mouth. He probably got around $2 billion of free coverage because, as CBS’s CEO Les Moonves said, “He may be bad for the country, but he’s damn good for CBS.” Now, though, they are “the opposition party.” That’s gratitude for you. It isn’t as though Trump turned on them as soon as he’d won the election. He just turned the heat up.
You may recall that over a year ago (Feb. 26, 2016) he said if he won, he’d “open up the libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.” His position is curious overall; on the one hand media attention (or any other kind) is like crack to him, but at the same time he must delegitimize them in order to peddle his particular brand of snake oil. Two days after the election he came out firing on Twitter: “Just had a very open & successful presidential election. Now professional protesters, incited by the media, are protesting. Very unfair!” People are always being “unfair” to him.
On Nov. 21st he summoned to his tower top executives and anchors of cable and network TV, then berated them for twenty minutes. It was stunning and unexpected. They thought they were there to discuss media access to the White House. Trump singled out CNN’s CEO Jeff Zucker: “I hate your network, everyone at CNN is a liar and you should be ashamed.” He went on to everyone else: “We’re in a room of liars, the deceitful and dishonest media who got it all wrong.” The next day was a scheduled meeting with the (“failing”) New York Times that got canceled, then rescheduled, after he blamed the paper for the confusion. The following day Trump called the Times “a great, great American jewel.” This is classic abuser behavior. You beat on the victim, beat on them, then when you compliment them they’re so happy. They want more compliments and less beatings, so they become compliant. It’s a form of Stockholm Syndrome.
Enmity towards the press is certainly nothing new, even here; Nixon called the press the enemy. It’s on page one of any dictator’s playbook. Napoleon Bonaparte said “Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.” Autocrats can’t stand the press, which is why it’s the only profession singled out for protection by the Constitution. It’s the media’s job to be adversarial, which often means simply telling the truth. Trump constantly refers to them as dishonest, lazy, scum, losers, and dummies. Lately, he’s using the meme of “fake news” for anything he doesn’t agree with. As near as I can figure, it’s a three step process. In step one he says something outrageous, in step two the press reports it, and in step three he plays the victim card, accusing them of lying, by quoting what he just said. The result is an increasing distrust of the media, exactly what Trump wants. There are even strong indications that Trump’s advisers are leaking false stories, so that when the media reports them he can reaffirm his fake news narrative.
Last September a Gallup poll reported that only 32% Americans had a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media, an all-time low, and down 8 points since 2015. That was six months ago; I’d wager that the number now is in the twenties, because history teaches us that big lies, constantly repeated, eventually become accepted. At CIA HQ on Jan. 22nd, he said, “I have a running war with the media.” Three days later senior advisor Steve Bannon said the media should “keep their mouths shut and listen for awhile.” On Feb. 24th, at the annual CPAC Conservative gathering, Bannon said things are going to get worse every day for the media. The bridge too far, though, was Trump’s accusing the media of being the enemies of the American people. This is tin-pot dictator stuff, and unworthy of a supposed great nation.
All this would be bad enough, but during the campaign, Trump exhorted his trolls to harass journalists at his rallies. NBC’s Katy Tur had to be escorted out of one by the Secret Service for her own protection. Kurt Eichenwald, who writes for Newsweek, is an epileptic. He has twice received GIF’s or emails with the particular frequency of strobing that causes seizures. Jewish reporters receive hate tweets and emails too disgusting to detail. Journalists have been arrested at anti-Trump protests, and in New York City, six were charged with felony riot.
Journalists are fighting back, which is their only option if they want to remain relevant. Dan Rather said recently that this is a gut-check time for the media. Some admit they have avoided certain stories out of fear that Trump will sue them. Many of these are independents or working for smaller operations without the money to have a phalanx of attorneys standing by. Finally, the term “lies” was used by the press to describe Trump’s misstatements and distortions (New York Times). Even MSNBC’s Chuck Todd, whom I consider a lightweight, stood up for truth by challenging Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts.”
We are all soldiers in the war on facts. Our weapons are intellect and the ability to discern. George Orwell, in a 1943 essay on the Spanish Civil War, worried “that the concept of objective truth is fading out of the world.” I’m reminded by another quote by Hannah Arendt, in her classic work The Origins of Totalitarianism: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists.”
Let’s not forget that one crucial fact: Trump needs the press more than it needs him, and by a country mile. A malignant narcissist, he has to constantly be in the spotlight or he’d curl up into the fetal position. What would happen if the media simply refused to cover him at all? Well, then the classic abuser would turn on the charm again. And round and round we go. Who was it that said, “Who are you going to believe, me or you lying eyes?”