Donald Trump’s relentless media bashing has become one of the most persistent tropes of his cacophonous early time in office. He and his administration have called the press an “enemy of the people,” slammed leading media outlets as purveyors of “fake news,” dealt harshly with individual reporters at press conferences, excluded leading outlets like the New York Times and CNN from White House press briefings and promised that it will “get worse every day” for the “corporatist” and “globalist” media. Trump’s treatment of the press has editors, journalists and media freedom advocates rattled, shattering conventional understandings of an adversarial but mostly respectful relationship of leaders to the press in free countries where the so-called fourth estate is recognized as indispensable to democracy.
But Trump’s assault on the media should not come as a surprise. During the campaign, he dealt capriciously and dismissively toward the press, ejecting disfavored outlets from his campaign events and launching broadsides against individual reporters including NBC’s Katy Tur whom he derided as “little Katy” and the New York Times’ Serge Kovaleski whom he mocked for a physical disability. During the campaign, though, Trump’s primary foil was Hillary Clinton and his most energetic demonizing was reserved for her. Trump was in his element during the campaign; he thrives on conflict, devoting most of his time in speeches and public statements to taking down antagonists.
Now that Trump is in office the swipes at him are coming fast, furious and from all sides. Critics are after him for his blunderbuss and discriminatory travel ban, chaotic White House, dehumanizing immigration policies, blundering approach to key global alliances, shadowy ties to Russia and outright admiration for Vladimir Putin, risky healthcare strategy, plutocratic Cabinet and more. The press, reporting on all these issues, has become a proxy for plethora of Trump’s adversaries. Lacking appetite and aptitude to rebut the substance of each denunciation, Trump aims to discredit the messenger, asking his supporters to doubt everything they hear from traditional sources of news.
While Trump hopes to intimidate or cajole the media into more favorable coverage, his tactics are, predictably, having the opposite effect: The press is emboldened, angry and determined not to shrink from rigorous and tough coverage of the White House. Indeed, the risk that Trump’s fulminations and shenanigans will actually impair the media’s ability to do its job seems relatively limited: The White House and federal agencies are rife with leakers and, history suggests, the more paranoid and insular the President becomes, the more inclined rational observers on the inside may be to blow the whistle. Nor are damaged feelings a prime concern. Insults to media outlets and reporters can become badges of honor, resulting in raised professional profiles and increased viewers and subscriptions.
But there are three serious risks that Trump’s approach raises, and these must be dealt with aggressively and systematically to limit damage to the role of the press in American democracy. The first risk lies in Trump’s effort to discredit credible news and conflate fact and fiction in the eyes of his staunchest supporters. Trump would have Americans forget that the news outlets he is deriding are those that we rely on for our lives when terrorist attacks occur, natural disasters strike or international conflicts boil over.
At least in some circles, Trump’s effort to discredit the news seems to be working. In an NBC poll released this weekend 89 percent of Republicans said they agreed that the news media is “exaggerating the problems with the Trump administration because they are uncomfortable and threatened with the kind of change Trump represents.” If a significant segment of Americans comes to doubt the veracity of news reports and conflate real and fake news, the ability of the American citizenry to evaluate policy proposals and cast informed votes will suffer.
The mainstream media’s ability to bootstrap itself back into the good graces of Trump supporters in Middle America is limited. It will take other influencers – venerated CEOs, religious leaders, celebrities, local and state level officials and Republican leaders to resist Trump’s effort to bamboozle Americans into mistrusting the most professional and careful sources of public information that exist. Pliant murmurings by the likes of Vice President Mike Pence who spoke vaguely earlier this month about the virtues of a free press while tacitly affirming Trump’s elision of real and fake news are useless. Firm statements from unexpected quarters, like former President George W. Bush’s comment that the media is “indispensable to democracy” and that “we need an independent media to hold people like me to account” may make a difference. Principled supporters of media freedom need to be unequivocal in standing up for the role of the press and the sanctity of truth. If empowered with resources, community and civic organizations as well as local media outlets could play a role in educating the public about how news is gathered and verified, quelling doubts and reaffirming trust.
A second risk posed by Trump’s onslaught on the press is that his complaints become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Trump is right that many news anchors, analysts and reporters are deeply skeptical of his administration. Members of the news media skew left and it is fair to guess that a majority of those working for leading outlets disagree with Trump in an array of policy areas. It is impossible to know whether Trump is deliberately trying to goad the media into biased coverage that will substantiate his accusations of mistreatment. When Trump is ridiculed on Twitter by White House journalists, psychoanalyzed by correspondents who don’t draw clear lines between their factual reportage and their opining, or tarred with baseless allegations his case against the media is strengthened. No journalists nor media organization is perfect, but journalists and editors need to be doubly vigilant to avoid this trap and deny Trump ammunition with which to make his case. At least when it comes to political coverage, now is not the time to meet business pressures by cutting back on copyediting or fact-checking.
A third risk lurking in Trump’s vindictiveness toward the media is that he instantiates a “new normal” in relations between the press and political leaders, making vilification, capriciousness and bald evasions par for the course. As his administration wears on, Trump may well go the Nixonian route in invoking the machinery of government – the IRS, FBI and Justice Department – to investigate, harass and discredit journalists. Autocrats around the world are already following Trump’s playbook, leaving the US’s traditional credibility as an ally of free media worldwide in tatters. Preventing the normalization of Trump’s tactics will require sustained expressions of umbrage less by media outlets themselves than by other influentials – NGOs, politicians and civic leaders. The media needs to report on the story of its own stigmatization with objectivity and insight, while not allowing it to detract from coverage of substantive issues and actions by the Trump Administration. Media organizations should consider creating new beats to focus on relations between the White House and the media, ensuring that the story is not lost, but also that Trump’s attacks do not distract from coverage of other issues. It is the role of the Congress to prevent the apparatus of government from being coopted in service of Trump’s vendetta against the press.
In attacking credible, mainstream media outlets Trump’s real target is the American public, whom he aims to convince that they ought to listen to him instead of to his critics or even objective observers. Committed small-d democrats need to rise to the defense of the news media not for its own sake, but for the sake of the citizens who need to make informed decisions and to hold their leaders accountable.