There’s a Logic to Trump’s War On the Media

There’s a Logic to Trump’s War On the Media

Trump goes after the news media not because he thinks they’re strong, but because he thinks they’re weak and he can diminish them further.

April 28, 2017

This article appears under the title, "Trump's Media War," in the Spring 2017 issue of The American Prospect magazineSubscribe here

Donald Trump’s attacks on the news media since taking office have been so persistent, so over-the-top, so deranged—in a word, so Trumpian—that it’s not surprising to see a backlash. Journalists are denouncing Trump for his continuous stream of vitriol toward them. Newspapers and magazines are enjoying spikes in subscriptions and support. Around 200 activists even congregated in Times Square one Sunday in February to show solidarity with the press corps against Trump’s onslaught.

The press’s job of keeping the public well informed about national and international affairs is no doubt harder than ever today. Trump’s eagerness to attack the media relentlessly and without restraint has made it harder still. But the ultimate reason that a demagogue like Trump mounts such crude, broad-brush attacks is that the institutional power of the press has diminished, and Trump descries political advantage in putting more pressure on them.

In 2017, the news media command considerably less authority than they once did to set the news agenda, arbitrate disputes over public issues, or even establish a common standard of what we ought to be discussing. Seeing that weakness, Trump appears to believe that he doesn’t need the mainstream media the way his predecessors did—and that when it comes to raw, open warfare with the journalists who cover him, he has nothing to lose. Whether he is right or wrong will depend on the performance of the press in the next four years.


The Nixon Precedent

When we hear the young Trump administration described as “unprecedented” in its treatment of the media, we often forget that all presidents spar with the press, often viciously. Almost every administration in modern times—since the rise of an influential press corps in the early 20th century—has at some point been labeled the “worst ever” in its treatment of the fourth estate, only to have such florid overstatements debunked in the light of history.

But if there is one close parallel with Trump in recent presidential history, it is with Richard Nixon, generally considered the president most unfriendly to the news media until now. Like Trump, Nixon hated the press for two very different reasons, one political, the other personal.

The political argument, stoked by aides like Pat Buchanan and Roger Ailes who preached a cultural populism, was that America’s elite newsrooms and television networks were riddled with liberals who promote an ideological agenda or at least let their opinions color their reporting. A familiar right-wing talking point today, this claim was relatively novel in the 1960s. But it gained traction during that tumultuous decade thanks to coverage of events ranging from the civil rights protests to the riots at the 1968 Democratic convention. Nixon embraced this view from the start of his presidency. In 1969, his vice president, Spiro Agnew, entered the history books with a pair of speeches assailing the bias of the leading news organizations. Over the years, the “liberal media” claim did yeoman’s work for the rising conservative movement. It mobilized an angry base of scapegoat-hungry voters and simultaneously helped to discredit any news or commentary critical of the conservative movement’s leaders or ideas.

If ideology fed Nixon’s attack on the press as biased, it was personal animus that gave the attack its nasty bite. A self-described “paranoiac,” with deep resentments that spawned an extravagant sense of entitlement, Nixon saw enemies everywhere. At least since his 1952 slush-fund scandal, when he almost had to step down as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice presidential running mate, he had been convinced that the press corps had it in for him. Aides commented that he couldn’t distinguish legitimate criticisms or even routine questioning from personal animus.

The result was a self-fulfilling prophecy: Regarding journalists as the enemy, President Nixon punished or lashed out at them in myriad ways. But the more he did so, the more aggressively they went after him, thus validating his suspicions. Watergate in particular confirmed many reporters’ resolve to practice what came to be called “adversarial journalism.” Sometimes this adversarial posture was channeled into hard-hitting, critical reportage. During the ensuing decades, however, it increasingly appeared as gratuitous scandal-mongering, snide and captious television punditry, or overblown feeding frenzies over small-bore pseudo-scandals. The result was to damage the press corps’ standing with not only conservatives but voters of all stripes.


Trump versus Nixon

With Trump’s election we have another president who regards the media as both politically and personally hostile. Like Nixon, Trump harbors an irrepressible sense of victimization, an ego insecurity that’s momentarily salved by eruptions of rage at those—especially in the media—who cross him, question him, or draw attention to his failings. Like Nixon, Trump’s insecurity leads him to monitor the news obsessively, creating endless occasions for explosions of anger.

But Nixon’s and Trump’s personalities aren’t identical. Nixon cultivated the illusion that he was a straight arrow, a schoolboy, a square. Sometimes the mask slipped—such as at his famous “last press conference” in 1962, when, possibly inebriated, he excoriated reporters for giving him “the shaft” during his just-concluded failed bid for governor of California. Outbursts like these, though not uncommon, were nonetheless jarring, because the private Nixon suddenly on view was at odds with the statesmanlike persona he normally labored to project.

When it came to retaliating against the press, Nixon was if anything worse than Trump (at least so far). Not only did he mete out petty punishments, like preventing a journalist who was investigating his finances from going on his historic trip to China, but he abused his power in unconstitutional ways. Nixon had the FBI investigate enemies and the IRS audit them; he tried to deny broadcast licenses to the Washington Post Company as political payback; he put reporters under surveillance.

Notably, though, these measures were mostly concealed. In public, Nixon strove, though not always successfully, to adhere to the norms of civil discourse. Asked about growing sentiment for impeachment at a news conference as the Watergate scandal spiraled out of control, he delivered a barbed joke: “Well, I am glad we don’t take the vote of this room.” Later, when asked if he had been lambasting the TV networks out of anger, he replied, “Don’t get the impression that you arouse my anger. … You see, one can only be angry with those he respects.” Though his bitterness was palpable, Nixon remained the collegiate debater, trying to score rhetorical points.

AP Photo/David F. Smith

Sore Loser: Richard Nixon provides the closest precedent to Trump in open hostility toward the news media. Here, after being defeated in his campaign for governor of California in 1962, Nixon complains about news coverage and says, "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore."

Trump doesn’t seem to care about seeming respectable. He revels in his bad-boy persona. Whereas Nixon’s private White House tapes shocked Americans by revealing a petty, vulgar vindictiveness at variance with his public mien, Trump’s “Access Hollywood” tape, in which he bragged about grabbing women’s genitals, didn’t seem to shame him or deter his voters, who were already familiar with his lecherous, alpha-male posturings. For all the attention it garnered, the tape didn’t reveal a Trump fundamentally different from the one we already knew.

When it comes to the press, therefore, Trump has made no bones about waging war. His attacks aren’t necessarily more dangerous than Nixon’s, but they are more personal, crude, impulsive, and indiscriminate. In public, Trump has outstripped his predecessor in calling journalists names and questioning their honesty. When CNN reported on, and Buzzfeed then published, a dossier of opposition research compiled against Trump, he called Buzzfeed “a failing pile of garbage” at a news conference—pausing as if to search for a better epithet but grabbing the one closest to his lips, no matter how juvenile. Blurring the distinction between CNN’s reported and carefully worded story and Buzzfeed’s indiscriminate information dump, Trump then called CNN’s report “fake news”—a term that has become his administration’s favorite phrase to try to discredit any news, accurate or not, that it doesn’t like. When the network’s Jim Acosta tried to respond, Trump shut him down, saying, “I am not going to give you a question. You are fake news.” These salvos exhibit neither Nixon’s desire to remain decorous nor his instinct to win the argument. They’re pure invective and insult—the unadulterated expression of anger and enmity and Trump’s own need simply to insist that he’s right.


The Twitter President

This kind of attack—rash, brash, mean-spirited, juvenile—will be familiar to any of the 26 million people who follow the real Donald J. Trump on Twitter. Compared to most of us, Trump began tweeting early, in 2009, though initially he used his feed to promote himself and various dubious business ventures. Then, sometime in 2011, as Politico noted in a chronicle of Trump the tweeter, he realized that the platform was ideally suited for insults and abuse. The more serious he grew about a presidential run, the more he turned to Twitter to generate attention, build a following, take down his opponents, and develop his persona as the blunt, no-nonsense voice of the dispossessed.

Of course, Trump’s tweets have also caused him huge problems. He seemed to hit bottom during the fall campaign when he went on an early-morning tweet bender berating the Venezuelan-born Alicia Machado for disclosing how he humiliated her during her term as Miss Universe. Trump was able to overcome the fallout from his online impulsivity and get elected in part because his aides stopped him from tweeting in the campaign’s last weeks, to focus on touting his economic message. But any expectations that as president Trump would lay down his digital guns were quickly revealed to be wishful thinking.

Conventional wisdom holds that Trump likes Twitter because it gives him a direct pipeline to communicate with these 26 million followers (roughly half of whom seem to be journalists). But this argument doesn’t really hold up. For decades, presidents and even presidential candidates have found ways to break through the filter of press analysis and framing and reach the public directly. At first they did so by giving speeches that, according to custom, newspapers reprinted in full; later their words were broadcast on television or radio (though they did depend on the broadcasters’ cooperation). They’ve always been able to issue press releases and statements. Twitter isn’t entirely new in this respect.

What Twitter does is provide the perfect outlet for Trump’s unbridled, emotionally laden style of communication. Twitter is ideally suited for a particular vein of internet speech that goes back to what was called, in the internet’s earliest days, “flaming”—the propensity when arguing online to fire off angry, nasty, or insulting comments, often with little relevance to the substance at hand. Face-to-face communication forces us to reckon with the human being we’re arguing with; writing or typing a response compels reflection and revision. Even if you’re on one of the cable TV shout-fests, you’re probably aware of the millions watching. But when you tweet from the isolation of your laptop or phone, with no editor to review your comments, it’s easy to let fly with vituperative, ill-considered, misspelled, badly punctuated, ALL CAPS bursts of unreflective emotion.

Patrick Pleul/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Barack Obama became the first president to use Twitter in 2009, but unlike Trump, he used the platform mainly as another way to disseminate the same public relations fare that the White House Communications Office has issued for decades. 

This is what distinguishes Trump’s tweets from everyone else’s. Barack Obama, after all, pioneered the White House Twitter feed, to much fanfare in early 2009, but few people can remember a single Obama tweet. He used the platform mainly as another way to disseminate the same public relations fare that the White House Communications Office has issued for decades. Hillary Clinton, too, tweeted, sometimes wittily, but as disclosures from John Podesta’s hacked emails showed, her campaign had as many as a dozen staffers weigh in on crafting a 140-character squib—a process guaranteed to snuff out not only any raw emotion but also the immediacy and authenticity that make tweets like Trump’s so appealing, or appalling.

Trump’s tweets are especially popular among journalists, probably because unlike so much of the scripted, crafted political communication that they encounter, Trump’s seem authentically his own. (Not all of them are.) As a result, even while Trump was just one Republican in a pack of 17, his provocations attracted an undue amount of attention—not just on Twitter but in the print and broadcast outlets where these journalists worked. Trump’s outrageousness, showcased on Twitter, gave him the exposure he needed to differentiate himself from his rivals and vault to the top of the polls. It’s an old axiom in journalism that conflict makes news, and Trump’s invective does. Not coincidentally, it is often directed at the media. When The New York Times last January compiled a list of the (now more than 300) “People, Places and Things Donald Trump Has Insulted on Twitter,” roughly one-third of the targets were journalists, news shows, or news organizations—who by and large seem to revel in the attention even if a few occasionally take genuine offense.

In and of itself, Twitter isn’t transformative. What made it so useful for Trump in 2016—and perhaps will help him in his presidency as well—was a political climate of extreme impatience with conventional political and journalistic authorities. In the past, Trump’s blunderbuss assaults on all manner of racial and ethnic groups, his glaring flip-flops and contradictions and fabricated claims, his mile-long rap sheet of genuine scandals would have sunk his candidacy; scores of candidates have been felled by transgressions far more trivial than any of Trump’s top 20 offenses. But Trump’s gaffes, scandals, and prevarications perversely made him more popular—because the press’s efforts to highlight his shady business practices or gratuitous insults wound up making him seem, to many, like a slayer of the reviled mainstream media. His tweeting usually played out in the same way. The recklessness and lack of discipline that many assumed to be Trump’s Achilles’ heel turned out to be his secret weapon.

Finally, Trump’s tweeting helps him set the agenda. It puts journalists in a reactive position. Thousands of them chase after his tweets—retweeting them, responding to them, fact-checking them, ridiculing them, taking umbrage at them, using them as the basis for columns, hot takes, and idle chatter on what Trump has called “the shows.” Journalists have no obligation to lavish  attention on his swipes at Meryl Streep or the newly elected Democratic party chair Tom Perez or even their own institutions (as when he wrote, “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”). Sometimes these tweets aren’t particularly newsworthy and can be ignored. Yet journalists not only take pleasure in responding to Trump’s tweets; they seem to feel obliged to cover these dashed-off half-thoughts as part of their professional duties.


Weakened Warriors

But the key factor that has enabled Trump to adopt his gonzo style is the loss of power by the fourth estate. Since Nixon’s day, the cultural authority of the mainstream news media has plummeted. It’s now simply much harder for journalists to gain a hearing with the broad slice of the public that used to trust what they reported. As a result, their efforts to correct Trump’s misinformation, highlight problems in his presidency, or even report on corruption, scandal, and dysfunction have to swim against the tide if they are to reach the huge swaths of the electorate who trust Trump more than they trust the press.

Several long-term developments have weakened the press institutionally. The prevalence of adversarial reporting (especially in the form of crude gotcha journalism as opposed to substantive investigation) diminished reporters in the public eye. To many citizens, regardless of ideology, the typical Washington journalist now seemed preening, self-important, and unremittingly negative. The explosion of armchair television punditry, at the expense of reporting, had a similar effect.

Another blow came with proliferation first of cable TV news and then of internet blogs and start-up webzines. The multitude of outlets scattered the news-consuming public’s attentions, further chipping away at the authority once commanded by news-gathering reporters at blue-chip newspapers and sober-minded television anchors at the big networks. The cable channels and new websites could also filch the heart of a story from the top-tier news outlets and serve it up to younger or more casual readers in a snarky package, blurring the line between reportage and parasitical commentary. Twitter has exacerbated the tendency to parasitism, allowing commentators of varying degrees of knowledge and talent to opine about news gathered by others; it has also increased the emphasis on snark, as purportedly neutral Washington reporters—men and women who are expected to banish any hint of editorializing from their news stories—dispense with professionalism to spin out sassy, hostile, nit-picking, pompous, and ill-informed opinions, whether about Trump or anything else that pops up on their phones.

And then there was the 40-year right-wing drumbeat about the mainstream media’s purported liberal bias, which convinced many conservatives not to trust sources like The New York Times or the network news shows—outlets that, not long ago, were widely recognized as neutral and nonpartisan bearers of information. In the 1990s came the rise in quick succession of talk radio, Fox News, and countless right-wing internet sites. These outlets amounted to a full menu of alternative news sources providing conservatives with counter-arguments and ripostes to any judgments proffered in the mainstream media, which, increasingly, they felt license to ignore.

bradhoc/Creative Commons

A protest sign from the Women's March in Chicago on January 21, 2017. 

During George W. Bush’s presidency, this undertaking expanded to construct a kind of alternate reality for the right. Under Bush, the conservative movement consummated a decades-long degradation of experts—in economics, science, law, intelligence, and other fields—on whom journalists had long depended to help readers make reliable sense of the world. Experts who doubted the administration’s claims, whether about Iraq’s nuclear weapons program, global warming, or Bush’s own economic policies, were themselves dismissed as partisans who cloaked their political conclusions in the trappings of disinterested expertise. Observers wryly labeled Bush’s presidency “postmodern,” in which no fixed truth existed and all arguments were reduced to their political utility.

Already, early in the new century, some were speaking of a “post-truth” society. Others used pretentious coinages like “epistemic closure” to explain the imperviousness of tightly knit ideological communities—now often forged online—to countervailing evidence. But in the following decade, things got worse still. Not just in the usual shadowy corners of society but increasingly out in the open, outré conspiracy theories now flourished—the most infamous of them being the slander that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States. As the conservative but anti-Trump radio host Charlie Sykes wrote, “The echo chamber had morphed into a full-blown alternate reality silo of conspiracy theories, fake news and propaganda.” Where Cold War delusions, like the supposed communist plot to fluoridate our water, could be sidelined by media gatekeepers, now worldwide interconnectedness allows nonsense to spread far and wide. Pseudo-scandals like Benghazi gripped not just the usual smattering of crackpots who had spun scenarios about the Kennedy assassination or Roswell but also ranking members of Congress, influential voices in the right-wing mediasphere, and individuals on Twitter who managed to build up large and loyal followings—including, of course, Donald Trump.


The Road Back

Reporters now face the challenge of regaining the trust of citizens on the left as well as the right. These disaffected Americans no longer seem hungry for the old meal of straight-up reported news with a twist of analysis and a side of opinion. They prefer other fare: the ideological reinforcements of the cable news ranters; the self-congratulatory humor and sputtering indignation of the comedy anchors; the alternate universes of the social media conspiracists; or simply the generalized noise of the internet.

Instead of rebuilding their credibility, some journalists seem to be chasing these audiences by emulating sites like BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post instead of the Times and the Post. The Times seems poised to make the potentially fatal mistake of cutting back on editing. The snark-filled tweets of reporters—who act as if they’re joking in the breakroom rather than speaking for the papers of record—further chip away at their authority. Still other ostensibly fair-minded reporters, lured by the cameras, slip out of the temperate personas they don for PBS or Charlie Rose and take potshots at the president on MSNBC. This approach will never win back the readers who are seeking uncolored, trustworthy information. Confronted with the cacophony of fury and complaint that floods the airwaves and fills the screens, Trump and his supporters can write it off as “so much anger and hatred.”

Understandably, journalists who feel targeted by Trump want to fight back. But their counterpunching won’t be effective if it’s perceived as either self-aggrandizing or partisan. For more than a century, American journalism has thrived by placing reporting over ideology. The most persuasive rebuttal to the right wing’s “liberal media” claim has always been the simple fact of the press’s overriding professionalism. In the world of the mainstream media, where journalists aspire to be objective and nonpartisan, all the professional rewards and incentives—prizes, prestige, advertising dollars, personal satisfactions—accrue not to those who spout off in news columns or land a punch against a political target, but to those who dig up big news, uncover secrets, and score scoops. Not every individual journalist has necessarily articulated this understanding of what keeps them on the straight and narrow, but most follow it nonetheless. Lately, however, it seems that fewer reporters appreciate the value of upholding traditional journalistic norms and are in danger of sacrificing long-held principles for the short-term satisfaction of getting in a jab at Trump.

AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Unfriendly Fire: Trump is surrounded by "the enemy of the American people" as he arrives at a fundraising event in 2015. 

There are ways to fight back that can enhance the press’s standing rather than lowering it. Instead of hollering about being called an “enemy of the people,” a reporter can explain to readers the distinctive and fraught history of that phrase, as Andrew Higgins of The New York Times did. Instead of crying “liar” when Trump falsely claims that three million people voted illegally, a newspaper can track down the source of that fictitious statistic, as The Guardian did back in December, and explain how it reached the president-elect’s ears.

Even more important, reporters have dug deep into the burgeoning Russia scandal, the backgrounds of Trump’s cabinet nominees, the disarray behind his misguided immigration ban, and other big developments of the administration’s early days. Context and clarifying information, not outrage, is what journalists can produce to keep the public informed and restore their position as sources of reliable news.

Twelve days into the Trump presidency, Reuters editor-in-chief Steve Adler issued a memo to his staff noting the “challenging” environment for journalists, in which the president had already called them “among the most dishonest human beings on earth” and his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, called the media “the opposition party.” But instead of boycotting administration briefings or trying to rally support for the press, he said, Reuters would redouble its commitment “to reporting fairly and honestly, by doggedly gathering hard-to-get information—and by remaining impartial.”

The big unanswered question, though, is whether reporting out the facts and bringing to light new information will in the current media environment sway any of those who’ve given up on the mainstream media. Some may be hunkered in right-wing mediaspheres, where suspicions of the leading media institutions, bolstered daily by Trump’s cries of fake news, prove an insurmountable barrier to changing minds. Others are scattered in their attentions, unwilling or unable to devote the time to sorting claims from counterclaims.

History again provides perspective, and maybe hope. In previous times, similar problems existed, if not to the same degree. During Watergate, the White House and other skeptical voices initially dismissed the scandal as what Donald Trump would call fake news. But in time, the reporting of a small few penetrated the right-wing bubbles. “At the beginning, all of us assumed Watergate was … what Ron Ziegler told us it was,” wrote William F. Buckley: “nothing more than a third-rate burglary.” But in time, the scales fell from Buckley’s eyes, and he came to think that those who stood by Nixon did so “because the alternative is to wake up in the morning and find that they are in agreement with a particular conclusion reached by The New York Times.” Even many of them changed their minds by the end.

In the coming four years, reporting will count for more than ever. Whether Donald Trump turns out to be an overgrown child or a fearsome menace, a proto-fascist or a paper tiger, it seems clear already that a lot of journalists are determined—not in the spitballs wars of Twitter or the food-fights of the cable news shows, but in the great gray columns of newsprint that are necessary to set forth a story in full—to put up a fight.

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