Is Trump’s War on the Media a Sign of Weakness?
March 3, 2017
No one can say that President Trump’s war on the media was unexpected. And while the conservative base is euphoric, the bigger question is if the public will view it as a sign of weakness.
Just a month into the job, the new leader of the free world used his vast power to ban from briefings three well-established and well-respected news outlets: Politico, The New York Times and CNN.
Sure, that goes back on Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s December 2016 promise that the White House wouldn’t do so. (He famously said on a panel, “That’s what makes a democracy a democracy versus a dictatorship.”)
But Team Trump has made the calculation over and over again that charges of hypocrisy don’t stick when you stick to your guns. And anyone could see where this was going during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Trump jousted constantly with various news organizations — even going so far to eviscerate some reporters by name at rallies. That delighted his frenzied supporters, some of whom started deploying the Nazi slur “Luegenpresse.” Several journalists were assaulted at rallies, prompting some outlets to invest in private security.
The Republican also repeatedly declared that he wanted to change the entire First Amendment because it has “too much protection” for free speech, and to make it easier to sue reporters. After winning the election, his first tweets raged against protests against him as “unfair” and threatened those who burned the American flag with jail or loss of their citizenship.
Talk about taking extreme positions.
Trump has now announced he’s boycotting the White House Correspondent Dinner (i.e. “Nerd Prom”), which is meant to be another shot across the bow at the media. But, in fairness, if that symbol of beltway incestuousness dies, I won’t be shedding any tears.
Now it’s no secret that Trump’s media bashing is a winner with Republicans. Since the era of Richard Nixon, they’ve bitterly complained that the press is biased against them. At this point, this is taken as gospel — no evidence required.
It’s gotten so bad that many reporters I’ve talked to have, like me, had to routinely defend our profession to conservative friends and family who apparently want to hold us personally accountable for all the sins of the “crooked media.”
This animus (and paranoia) has given birth to a robust right-wing media like Breitbart and Fox News, which, not surprisingly, are enjoying unparalleled access to the new administration. Breitbart, which was previously run by Trump’s top adviser Steve Bannon, seems content to function as Pravda did in the bad old days of the Soviet Union (or perhaps more aptly, RT during the era of Trump chum Vladimir Putin).
During the campaign, various reporters and commentators insisted that Trump was no worse for the media than Hillary Clinton, who went months without holding press conferences. That was a laughable argument then, as Trump clearly posed a unique threat to press freedom. And it’s been proven especially so since he took office.
Now the argument seems to have moved on to positing that Trump is no worse than President Barack Obama, who also wasn’t fond of press conferences and frequently complained about the media’s shallowness. There’s a slew of hot takes in right-wing media insisting that Obama is the real bad guy (I guess we can safely assume he’ll continue to play the role of bogeyman for the right for awhile).
But this is a tried and true tactic that Trump and his allies used throughout the campaign with Clinton. Whenever criticism came their way, like about Trump’s myriad business conflicts of interest, they stubbornly insisted that Clinton was the same or worse. That probably helped Trump hang onto just enough skeptical Republicans to eke out a win.
The real question is how Trump’s war on the media will play with the general public. Journalists have never been terribly popular figures, as we’re known for being nosy troublemakers.
Now we live in an era where everything takes on political meaning, from the movies you watch to what stores you frequent. So it’s no surprise that people’s views on journalism and specific outlets are colored by politics. And people of all political stripes have pretty strong views on the media.
So Trump may have picked a ripe target in going after the media. Even those who defend reporters tend to include caveats about what we do wrong. It may turn out to be a good political strategy, even if it’s a disaster for democracy.
But there’s one big problem in having a president who spends more time tweeting about reporters and news organizations he doesn’t like than about world affairs. It looks weak, thin-skinned and even erratic.
That’s a much bigger problem for America than any real or perceived media bias. And I think the public knows that.