When President Donald Trump took to Twitter to declare the media the “enemy of the American people” on Friday, the whole of elite opinion gasped in horror. Coming on the heels of an angry press conference less notable for news than the President’s dressing down of those that cover it, the mainstream media was aghast — and not without reason.
“Even by the standards of a president who routinely castigates journalists — and who on Thursday devoted much of a 77-minute news conference to criticizing his press coverage — Mr. Trump’s tweet was a striking escalation in his attacks,” wrote the New York Times’ Michael Grynbaum.
Trump’s supporters are loving every minute.
To his supporters though, President Trump’s war on the press is a glorious and long overdue angry fist to the nose of the Washington media elite. All the hyperventilating over over the immigration executive order, Michael Flynn’s resignation and lingering questions about connections to Russia are, in their view, contrived by liberals embedded within the bureaucracy desperate trying to cling to power.
President Trump’s supporters see all the recent media outrage as further evidence that he is accomplishing his mission. To them, he is doing exactly what he promised, ripping the status quo up by the roots and unshackling the public discourse from the stranglehold of Washington elites. That almost no one in the mainstream media sees it this way confirms that they just don’t get it. In Trump’s America, if the Washington establishment is rattled things are going exactly as planned.
After a week of bad news, Trump has changed the subject entirely. Battling with the media returns to familiar ground that energizes his base and gets the White House back on the offensive.
A Familiar Complaint
Donald Trump is hardly the first President to be infuriated by the media. No one in public life for any length of time feels they get a fair shake from the press. Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, was covered as gingerly by the mainstream media as any President. Yet, even he complained bitterly about leaks and unfavorable media coverage.
President Obama griped about the “false equivalence” of reporting that placed the point of view of his opponents on equal footing with his own. The conceit underlying it, of course, is that Obama’s perspective represented the exclusive truth and his opponent’s nonsense. Take away the rhetorical bombast, and Trump is making essentially the same point.
While President Obama was nuanced in his criticism, he was singularly aggressive in his attempts to control the message. The Obama Administration prosecuted twice as many leakers under the Espionage Act than all of its predecessors combined. Yet, with no hint of irony, the Obama White House also elevated sanctioned leaks intended to curry favor with journalists and shape the news cycle to an art form.
“Whenever I’m asked what is the most manipulative and secretive administration I’ve covered, I always say it’s [Obama’s],” Bob Schieffer, CBS News anchor and chief Washington correspondent, told Len Downie, in a Washington Post column. “Every administration learns from the previous administration. They become more secretive and put tighter clamps on information. This administration exercises more control than George W. Bush’s did, and his before that.”
Trump’s War on the Press
Like everything he does, Donald Trump’s war on the media is bigger, louder and more spectacular. In doing so, he is pushing dangerously close to the line between legitimate complaint and stifling dissent.
Unlike Obama, Trump has hardly gone out of his way to endear himself to mainstream reporters. At campaign events journalists corralled in the press pen often found themselves captive props for jeering diatribes against the media. At Thursday’s press conference, Trump delighted in pointing out the declining trust in the media. “The press — the public doesn’t believe you people anymore,” Trump told reporters adding almost as a point of pride, “Now maybe I had something to do with that. I don’t know.”
According to Gallup, he has a point. Trust in mass media is now at an all-time low of 32%. This fall in trust has been especially pronounced among Republicans (14%) and independents (30%), but among Democrats too, barely half of whom (51%) trust the press.
In a separate poll, substantially more Americans say they think that the press is too tough on Trump (36%) than thought the same about Obama (11%). However, this polling also indicates danger for Trump. A majority (59%) think the press is either getting it about right on Trump (31%) or are not tough enough (28%) on him.
Nearly every major news outlet has found itself on the receiving end of Trump’s weaponized bully pulpit. With trust in the press already at an all time low, Trump is likely to find a receptive audience.
In the precision-guided fury pouring from the President’s lips and his Twitter account, Trump’s detractors see ominous signs of autocratic tendencies. Sunday on Meet the Press, Sen. John McCain, among Trump’s most strident critics within the GOP, defended the press:
“If you want to preserve — I’m very serious now — if you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversarial press,” McCain said. “And without it, I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That’s how dictators get started.”
While McCain didn’t go so far as to accuse Trump of being an aspiring autocrat. Others have noted parallels with Vladimir Putin’s rise in Russia. Susan Glasser, a former Moscow correspondent, observed in a New York Times op-ed that you need not believe the conspiracies about Trump and Russia to be concerned about the path he is taking:
“Both Mr. Trump’s rhetoric and actions as president bear more than a passing resemblance to those of Mr. Putin during his first years consolidating power…the similarities are striking enough that they should not be easily dismissed…
“The media-bashing and outrageous statements. The attacks on rival power centers, whether stubborn federal judges or corporations refusing to get in line. The warnings, some of them downright panic-inducing, that the country is not safe — and we must go to war with Islamic extremists because they are threatening our way of life. These are the techniques that Mr. Putin used to great effect in his first years in power, and they are very much the same tactics and clash-of-civilizations ideology being deployed by Mr. Trump today.”
While this is worrying, suggesting Donald Trump is a malevolent autocrat in the making might be a little premature. It’s a far leap from Trump admiring Putin to emulating him. Even if you believe the worst about Donald Trump, there is little risk of a Putinesque autocracy taking root here. Unlike Russia, the U.S. has sturdy institutions and constitutional checks on power that protect against erosions of liberty.
Still concern about Trump’s threat to freedom of the press are not entirely without merit. Distrust in the mainstream press and the rise of social media as an alternate form of communication has created an environment in which reality can be distorted in more subtle ways to undermine dissent.
Trump’s fondness for counterfactual hyperbole creates confusion about whether anything can be reliably understood as objective truth, blunting the effectiveness of contrary facts in holding him accountable. Whether deliberate or not, it is a tactic literally ripped right from the Russian information warfare playbook.
“Multiple untruths, not necessarily consistent, are in part designed to undermine trust in the existence of objective truth, whether from media or from official sources.” writes Keir Giles, a scholar at London-based Chatham House in a recent NATO lithograph, The Handbook of Russian Information Warfare. “This contributes to eroding the comparative advantages of liberal democratic societies when seeking to counter disinformation, by neutralizing the advantages associated with credibility.”
When the media cannot be trusted and facts are unreliable, criticism loses its effective power giving politicians far more scope to operate without accountability. “Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government: When this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved, and tyranny is erected on its ruins,” Benjamin Franklin wrote in a 1737 essay. “Republics…derive their strength and vigor from a popular examination into the action of the magistrates.”
Worries about Trump’s threat to freedom of the press are not entirely without merit. Still, there are less far-fetched explanations for Trump’s war on the media than a plot to subvert democracy. Trump’s jousting with journalists may be nothing more than typical frustration with unfavorable press coverage, in typical Trumpean style, turned up to eleven. Either way, a Presidential war on the press should viewed with skepticism.
“I think we’ve learned through history to beware of presidents playing press critic,” Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism told the New York Times in an article about Obama’s complaints about the press. “They’re not press critics — they’re people trying to advance a political agenda.”