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Trump and the media: shooting the messengers

Trump rages at serious journalists who gave up on him before he began—reflecting a divided America whose two tribes have given up listening to each other
February 10, 2017

The new American revolution, which began on 8th November 2016, when 63m people voted for Donald Trump, has been gaining momentum, as the Republican Party rallies round him, with even diehard sceptics falling in line. But there are also growing signs of resistance—from the Democratic Party, from many among the 66m who voted for his rival and, most strikingly, from the “mainstream media,” or MSM.

This last development is the most remarkable. For nearly a century, American journalism has prided itself, however fancifully, on its Olympian neutrality. No longer. A week before Trump’s inauguration, the Washington Post’s respected media columnist Margaret Sullivan warned that “A hellscape of lies and distorted reality awaits journalists covering President Trump.” She went on: “Trump will punish journalists for doing their jobs... Journalists are in for the fight of their lives. And they are going to have to be better than ever before, just to do their jobs.”

She wasn’t exaggerating. As President-Elect, Trump had waited a full two months after the election to hold his first press conference, a raw spume of blurtings. He dismissed intelligence findings that Vladimir Putin meddled in the election as “fake news... phoney stuff. It didn’t happen.” All the evidence suggests it did happen, and there is pressure on the Senate to investigate. Trump also urged Congressional Republicans to promote the new and better healthcare coverage he has insisted his administration will deliver in place of “Obamacare.” In fact, no such new plan exists. Congress’s non-partisan Budget Office has estimated that 18m people stand to lose insurance within a year if the programme is repealed. He refused to take a question from a CNN reporter Jim Acosta, instead berating him (“Your organisation is terrible... you are fake news.”) The canards and inventions were instantly exposed, as one publication after another—the Post, the New York Times and others posted fact-checking reports.

That was just the foretaste. Since then, Trump has been sworn in, and immediately flew into a tantrum over photos of his sparsely attended inauguration—cable television contrasted the sea of white space with Barack Obama’s densely-packed crowd in 2009. Trump then forced his press secretary, Sean Spicer, to go before journalists and claim that the cameras had lied.

His preoccupation with crowd size—parallel to his fetish for poll numbers—originates in his years on television, where success is measured in ratings. It gnaws at him that he was not, in the end, the people’s choice, and so he insists the reason he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton was that three million people voted illegally. It is a preposterous claim without a scrap of evidence to support it. And yet he belaboured the fantasy in a meeting with Congressional leaders, taking aback lawmakers who had expected a robust discussion of government business. Then again, when the subject does turn serious, and word comes of Trump’s pet hope to re-open overseas “black sites” for “enhanced interrogation,” that is, torture of suspected terrorists, the mind reels, and the sense grows that freedom in America is no longer a given.

The signature expression of the moment is “alternative facts.” This term wasn’t coined by a detractor but by a member of Trump’s inner circle, his adviser Kellyanne Conway, in a wince-making botched television interview—its result was to catapult Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four to the number one spot on Amazon (the publisher says a 75,000-copy reprinting is on the way). What Conway meant was that Spicer wasn’t exactly lying, or even objectively mistaken-—he just has his own sources, as perhaps many of us do in the age of Facebook. The difference is that Trump, as king of social media, has actually mused about changing libel laws so he can punish journalists who dare to rely on facts inconveniently at variance with his own. The pattern is now fixed. Readers log into their news feeds expecting to see the word “lie”—used both by Trump and those covering him. The cloud of embarrassed apology that followed the election, when some of the country’s most powerful journalists, including Dean Baquet, the New York Times’s Executive Editor, did public penance for getting so much so wrong, and vowed to do better, has evaporated, giving way to a second revolution: a new journalism of stubborn dissent.


“What’s new isn’t that we have a president who uses the media whenever he can,” the New Yorker’s John Cassidy wrote. “It’s that, simultaneously, he has made demonising the press a central part of his political strategy.”

Actually, it’s not entirely new. Press-baiting was a leading pastime for Richard Nixon, whose presidency may provide the best guide to Trump’s. Just as Trump relies on a ferocious and gifted ideologue, his chief political strategist, Stephen Bannon, who told a New York Times reporter, “I want you to quote me on this. The media here is the opposition party,” so Nixon employed the buoyantly right-wing speechwriter Pat Buchanan, best remembered today for his own presidential campaigns in the 1990s, which presaged Trump’s in their passionate attacks on immigrants, elites and foreign states.

But Buchanan entered history for the speeches he wrote for President Nixon (Buchanan popularised the term “silent majority”) and his Vice President, Spiro Agnew. He reminisces about it all in a forthcoming book, Nixon’s White House Wars. “In the battle to control America’s agenda,” he recalls, “the media were our true adversaries,” exactly what Bannon meant when he said, “the media here is the opposition party.” Nominally the opposition were Congressional Democrats such as Senator Edward Kennedy. “But more so were their media allies, who were the filter through which we had to go to reach the people. We saw the media as a distorting lens. Our objective was not to censor or silence them. That was impossible. What we could do was raise doubts about their motivation, veracity and wisdom.”

Buchanan’s deftest stroke was a belligerent speech he wrote for Agnew bluntly attacking the “big three” television news networks at the peak of the Vietnam War. The precipitating event was a speech Nixon had given the week before, outlining an ambitious new war strategy of “Vietnamisation.” After the president was done, studio “experts” had jumped in, dissecting the new policy with “instant analysis and querulous criticism,” instead of letting the public sift through it all themselves. This might seem familiar griping from a beleaguered White House. But Agnew went on to discuss the privileges of Nixon’s tormenters: “Now what do Americans know of the men who wield this power?... Little other than that they reflect an urbane and assured presence, seemingly well informed on every important matter... [They] live and work in the geographical and intellectual confines of Washington DC or New York City... [and] bask in their own provincialism, their own parochialism.”

The description has as much charge in 2017 as it did in 1969, and it applies equally well to print journalists (whom Buchanan attacked in a later speech) as television talking heads. The ingrained idea of “a media elite” is what gives Trump the upper hand in what he calls his “running war” with them. And there is just enough truth to make the label stick.

For weeks, Trump’s cabinet choices were assailed for including so many “older white males.” Now overall diversity in the New York Times newsroom is at 22 per cent, which may not sound too bad, but when Liz Spayd, the paper’s new “public editor”—effectively its ombudsman—looked at those 20 or so reporters who actually covered the presidential campaign, she discovered “less diversity than you’ll find in Donald Trump’s cabinet thus far.” From nine years as a senior editor there, I know that no one at the New York Times is happy about this: a diversity “mission” was adopted long ago, which despite mixed results had entirely laudable intentions. But such schemes frequently run into their own problems, and—very often—a backlash, too. Once editors begin doubling as minority recruitment officers, race becomes all they can see. Like Spayd, they gaze out at their colleagues and behold not a room of individuals but a sea of “blinding whiteness.” In a tough time for newspaper recruitment, they begin asking themselves, as another New York Times editor said to me while weighing the merits of an applicant a few years ago, “if I hire one new white guy this year, should it be him?”. This was refreshing candour—and there may be no better alternative. But such practices are what lead all those other Americans who feel that their own disadvantage is never addressed by any diversity programme—aimed, say, at graduates of large state universities or Christian colleges—to take heart from Donald Trump’s snickering at “political correctness.”

The reigning ideology of “difference”—with its pecking order of race, gender, sexual identity—in institutions such as the New York Times  doesn’t stop at hiring. It also spills over into reporting and news analysis and gives us, for instance, “Voices From Donald Trump’s Rallies, Uncensored,” the newspaper’s video compilation of racial epithets gleaned from “over a year covering Donald Trump’s rallies, witnessing so many provocations and heated confrontations.” Much praised when it was posted, in August, it looks today like a prequel to Clinton’s lethal “basket of deplorables” remark made a month later. Toss in the craving du jour for “big data” and eye-popping “graphics” and the result will be the strangely de-personalising score-card coverage of the 2016 presidential race in which 130m-plus voters were grouped into units labelled “colour,” “gender,” “income,” and “education.” By the end, the individual voter had been smothered in the ether of statistical collectivities: the “white working class,” “college-educated women,” the “Asian vote.” A week before the election a new counter was placed on the board. We were told the 35m members of “the disability vote” might tip the scales, presumably away from Trump since he had grotesquely mimicked a disabled New York Times reporter, perhaps the ugliest moment in the campaign (though there were other moments nearly as bad). But this assumed, on remarkably little basis, that disabled voters form a single-issue unit—and of course, they don’t. In fact they appear to be divided equally among Republicans, Democrats and independents—a mirror of the country at large. The bloc is not a bloc at all.

When Bannon, the former Executive Chairman of the hard-right news website Breitbart, told a New York Times reporter after the election, “the media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for awhile,” he had a point, just as Nixon’s White House did. The difference is that Trump and company are less dependent on the MSM. They can reach their audience directly through their own mass-audience outlets—Fox News, talk radio, Breitbart, above all Trump’s Twitter feed—and so frame their own messages on their own terms.

With remarkable agility Trump and his followers leaped on to the post-election crusade against “Fake News” and spun it to their own advantage. One minute it had been the New York Times publishing a solidly reported story on energetic, amoral fabricators, some operating as far away as Tbilisi in Georgia, spinning lurid untruths about Clinton; the next minute it was Trump’s Fox News surrogate Sean Hannity gleefully announcing, “FAKE NEWS ALERT: Washington Post Misreports High Level State Department Resignations” after a columnist there excitedly sent out an “exclusive” on a “mass exodus” of Obama holdovers. Within hours it emerged they had been pushed out in a fairly routine house-cleaning. Just as the “left” can point to Trump appointees and say “just another white male,” so the right can point to new examples of “media bias.” It’s a mug’s game, and journalists will be well advised to move on.

"The Trump-Nixon axis gets one big thing right. There are two Americas, each driven by its cartoon idea of the other"
Especially when there are bigger stories to tell, larger secrets to unravel. For instance, the mounting evidence, furnished by US intelligence, that the secret author of Trump’s victory was very possibly Putin. A few Republicans have joined Democrats in calling for a congressional investigation. If it happens, and it is seriously pursued, journalists could break major news, via leaked documents and off-the-record interviews. Another fruitful subject will be Trump’s risky handling of the Constitution’s “emoluments clause,” which forbids federal officials from accepting gifts from foreign governments. Trump has effectively made himself available for business, by declining to put his many holdings in a blind trust—the established practice, even for a non-billionaire like Obama. He instead handed the properties off to his grown children, who are already top executives in the Trump organisation; their dual roles as political advisers now make them the best-connected businesspeople in the world, with temptations on all sides. (Trump was indignant when Nordstrom, the department store chain, announced it was dropping his daughter Ivanka’s clothing line, due to weak sales). The president’s spanking-new Washington hotel, towering up from Pennsylvania Avenue, a few blocks from the White House, presents a stark image of America as a global banana republic, with entrepreneurs booking rooms at astronomical prices, and Trump cast in as Juan Perón, Argentina’s former president.

Nixon is again the model here. His successful war on the media turned with Watergate, when the Washington Post team of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brilliantly uncovered a dark underworld of White House-directed crime. To this day, Nixon’s supporters blame his downfall on media bias. But the key source was a Justice Department official, Mark Felt, forever remembered by his code name, “Deep Throat.” The danger to presidents comes not from outside “critics,” but from disgruntled people inside. And Trump’s swaggering approach, combined with infighting that has already led to a binge of unflattering leaks, could undo him. No one knows this better than the provocateur Bannon, who in his Breitbart days fed his best scoops to the mainstream press instead of publishing them on his own site. “What you realise hanging out with investigative reporters,” Bannon told Bloomberg Businessweek’s Joshua Green, in a profile published in October 2015, “is that, while they may be personally liberal, they don’t let that get in the way of a good story.” “And if you bring them a real story built on facts, they’re fucking badasses, and they’re fair.”

But they must also be careful. Although Trump the rogue is a big target, and a thin-skinned one, he is not so easy to wound. This truth emerged during the first major crisis of the new administration, his slapdash executive order banning immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries together with any and all refugees from everywhere else—in blunt violation of American law, which ended a long history of screening on the basis of “national origin” in 1965. Civil liberties lawyers instantly filed briefs in federal courts, and several judges blocked the order. But the damage had been done. Some travellers had already lost their visas. Trump defended himself, as he usually does, on Twitter, sounding hurt that the order was being described, accurately, as a ban. “Call it what you want, it is about keeping bad people (with bad intentions) out of country!”

It was a disturbing and even heart-stopping episode, complete with images of bewildered and fearful travellers, some fleeing danger in their homelands, others returning from abroad to resume well-established lives in the US. And there was the spectacle of American citizens thronging airports and courthouses in solidarity with the detainees. And yet polls showed a comfortable plurality was on his side (48 per cent to 41). To them, Trump was simply fulfilling his campaign promise of “extreme vetting” of refugees. Besides, the order was “only temporary,” as one Trump supporter pointed out to the New York Times. Trump’s detractors should “just take a breather,” he added. “Take a little time out. Let’s get the smart people in here and formulate a plan.”

The calm words pointed up a curious reversal in the passions of American politics now that we have entered the age of Trump: the fresh currents of protest are coming almost entirely from the left. The opposite was true all through the Obama years, when the great dissident force was the Tea Party movement. Much ridicule was heaped on them at the time, presumed back-country Yahoos egged on by Fox News ranters, showing up angrily at “town halls” with concealed firearms or at rallies, wearing tricorns and waving crudely lettered anti-Obama placards. Today, progressives look back at them with new respect—as pioneering citizen-activists, “whose grassroots savvy I think the left is trying to replicate,” as a distinguished journalist recently suggested to me. She added hopefully, “Some of the Trump opposition has a fervour that on the left we may not have seen since the 60s.”

The message has reached Congressional Democrats. Some are poised to exact vengeance, remaking themselves as the combative “party of no,” changing places with the Republicans whose “obstructionism” they heartily denounced only a few short months ago. It’s a defensible tactic—and at times the only one available. “The duty of an Opposition is to oppose,” Randolph Churchill said, long ago; and at the same time offer “opposition and criticism,” as a hero of the American right, Senator Robert Taft, counselled. But if saying “no” becomes mere reflex, it could backfire. The public wants the government to work, no matter who is in charge. “We are embarked in a great natural experiment that will show whether the United States is a nation of laws or a nation of men,” the political scientist Francis Fukuyama, no fan of Trump, recently pointed out. The election of Trump, “an American strongman... is actually a response to the earlier paralysis of the political system,” the paralysis, that is, of the system’s locked gears.

Indeed Trump, for all his many anomalies, fits into the pattern of change that began a quarter of a century ago, when the Cold War ended—and with it the unifying conceit of America as an anti-Communist beacon to the rest of the world. No subsequent cause has united the two parties, and the public, in so sustained a way. Clinton governed from the centre, tried to be heir to both Lyndon B Johnson and Ronald Reagan, but unleashed the furies of the right, energised by the culture wars. George W Bush briefly rallied the country after 9/11, and might have done it, but it all fell apart in Iraq. Obama tried a JFK-style technocratic “post-partisan” politics, and won two elections handily, but in the end seemed to hover too far above it all and failed to convert his own personal popularity into a lasting majority.

The trouble, in all these cases, wasn’t just failures of programme and policy, but also something beyond each man’s control: the incurable polarisation of the electorate, which is divided evenly but not amicably. The Nixon-Trump, Buchanan-Bannon axis gets one big thing right. There are—and long have been—two Americas, each driven by its cartoon idea of the other. Their mutual antipathy obscures much else and leaves us only with the see-sawing of power. Of the last seven presidential elections, the Democrats have won four, the Republicans three. Meanwhile, there has been a steady alternation of control in Congress. The Republicans now enjoy a majority in both houses, but it could prove as short lived as the Democrats’ majority when Obama was elected in 2008. Then we would be back with the gridlock which will, perhaps, be America’s natural lot until the grip of polarisation out in the country eases.

The only people who can unlock it are the ones we elect. And these representatives are also captives who serve at our whim. All this enlarges Trump, no matter how far he goes: blustering at allies like Australia and Mexico, making vague threatening noises to Iran, even as powerful adversaries like China and Russia lean back and take full measure of the opportunities he opens up for them. What they will discover, if they haven’t already, is that Trump is the first truly post-Cold War president—the less hawkish of the two choices in 2016. It was Clinton, not Trump, who perpetuated the archaic myth of America as the “exceptional” and “indispensable” nation.

Which is not to say he can’t do harm abroad—and at home. Americans are discovering, with a shock, just how much a president can do—and undo, thanks to the Caesarist reach of the office. Trump didn’t invent this. It dates right back—“We elect a king for four years,” Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William H Seward, explained in 1860, “and give him absolute power within certain limits, which after all he can interpret for himself.”

Lincoln himself would assume dictatorial powers under conditions far more perilous than today’s. He had to be sneaked into Washington amid plausible rumours of a murder plot, following the secession of seven Southern states. He would soon order the blockading of the port at Charleston, South Carolina, and raise an army of 40,000 volunteers, and even suspended habeas corpus. He did each of these things with a decidedly non-Trumpian calm-. Lincoln achieved his grand purpose, keeping the Union intact, but it came at the expense of his life (“sic semper tyrannis!” cried his assassin as he pulled the trigger) and sowed hatreds that continue to shape, or misshape, our politics to this day.

Trump too seems capable of misshaping the republic, but for no cause greater than himself. That cause is now America’s own, whether we like it or not.