Terra Incognita: Trump’s book of journalist martyrs

Trump’s message to the old boys’ network of the White House Press Corps is: “I don’t need you.”

White House Press Secretary and Communications Director Sean Spicer holds the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington (photo credit: REUTERS)
White House Press Secretary and Communications Director Sean Spicer holds the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Never have so many complained so much about not being invited to cram into someone’s office.
On Friday the Trump administration barred several major publications, such as The New York Times, from a “gaggle” in the office of White House press secretary Sean Spicer. In solidarity with these martyrs, some other publications fell on their swords and boycotted the event.
It’s the latest skirmish in the epic battle in the US between the media and the Trump administration, waged on both sides with jihadist zeal. On February 24 The Hollywood Reporter claimed that Bloomberg would cancel its “annual, exclusive gala at the French ambassador’s residence on April 29th” at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. That followed the decision by Condé Nast to “back out of the event earlier this month.” The New Yorker also punished the Trump administration by forgoing a party at the W Hotel in Washington, DC.
Trump, meanwhile, is hunkered down in his West Wing bunker, ostensibly under siege by the media enemies he has played a major hand in creating. According to The Boston Globe, CNBC, The New York Post and numerous other media, Trump is subsisting primarily on meatloaf. (Yes, the headlines “Christie says Trump made him order meat loaf” and “Why Trump was right to make Christie eat meat loaf” actually appeared in American media.)
What’s really going on here is that the American people, and the world, are being taken for a ride. Meat loaf doesn’t matter, and no one cares who attended what posh dinner party in Washington. Trump has outmaneuvered the American media; while CNN and others flood their readers with stories about Trumpism, the president has been speaking to his supporters at CPA C and in Florida, to the same cheers he got during the campaign, the ones Hillary Clinton’s boosters never seemed to notice until it was too late.
Let’s go back to November 5 when The Huffington Post claimed that “HuffPost Pollster is giving Clinton a 98 percent chance of winning and the New York Times’ model at the Upshot puts her chances at 85 percent.” It’s a good thing these pollsters and journalist don’t gamble. Remember on November 6 when The Hill told readers, “final newspaper endorsement count: Clinton 57, Trump 2.”
Uh-oh. Trump must surely lose.
Only then, oddly, he didn’t.
Following his victory, Trump and his team understood the meaning of the fact that his campaign, whether by luck or design, had successfully used new media, such as Twitter, to reach voters, and that even those voters unreachable by such methods had supported him in the rural areas he needed to tip the electoral college in his favor. In other words, he did not need the mainstream media. Many media outlets, on the other hand, mostly did not understand what had transpired, despite the fact that Politico reminded us back in October 25 that while only six newspapers in the US had endorsed Trump, studies had shown 70% of Americans claim newspaper endorsements have “no impact” on their vote. Distrust of media and adoration for “strait talk” preexisted Trumpism, but he has thrived under it. He encouraged media to take his insults personally, then when they play into his hands in a vicious cycle he gains from it. What does the American major media gain from it?
After his victory many thought he would tone down his rhetoric, but since taking office his criticism has ramped up to new levels. On February 17 he called the New York Times, CNN and NBC “the enemy of the American people” and then revised the tweet to include ABC and CBS, which he deemed to be “failing.” His tweet was designed to do exactly what he had done on the campaign trail: increase the cleavage between his followers and his opponents.
Veteran journalist Bob Woodward told MSNBC on Friday that the more media makes the war with Trump personal, the more it may lose. “We shouldn’t whine, and if we sound like we are an interest group only concerned with ourselves, it doesn’t work with the public,” he said. He thought ruffled feathers could be smoothed, because “it’s not in Trump’s interest to have this war.”
The problem is that for many journalists, it’s already personal. And it shows in their comments, some of which have crossed the line. Jacob Bernstein of the New York Times apologized after actress Emily Ratajkowki tweeted that he had told her “Melania [Trump] is a hooker” at a party. The Daily Caller reported that writer Monisha Rajesh tweeted “it’s about time for a presidential assassination.” Another writer compared the inauguration to 9/11 and Pearl Harbor. Julia Ioffe, then writing for Politico, apologized in December after tweeting that “either Trump is f***ing his daughter or he’s shirking nepotism laws. Which is worse?” Notice that the visceral hatred for Trump on display in these comments is not about his policies, or even about the numerous offensive comments he made during his campaign, but extends to include his family, his young son and his wife.
TRUMP SEEMS to have a knack for this type of fight. When his supporters were panned as believing in “fake news” after the election, he embraced the term, applying it to his enemies in the media. Jake Tapper at CNN took the bait, called it “un-American” and claimed Trump doesn’t value an independent press.
Correct, Mr. Tapper – but is the logical response to make the story about yourself? That’s what many journalists have done. The more Trump lashes out, the more they describe the weight and style of the lash, to the point they have whole panels discussing the method and manner of the whipping. The theory in journalism circles is that they are in danger, like in authoritarian states. Yet the reality is that in countries where the free press was eroded by an authoritarian regime, whether it is Iran, Venezuela, China, Russia, Turkey or an endless list of other places, the press doesn’t disappear.
How do authoritarian regimes erode the free press? They gather around themselves a populist, supportive press of their own. They then weaken and break down the independent or opposition media. And they tend to be successful. The major media bodies in the West that talk about press freedoms, such as CNN, report from North Korea almost as if it’s a free state. No, really, CNN did run the headline “What do North Korean citizens think of President Donald Trump,” on February 21. And how many minders from Kim Jong-un’s regime were present as CNN interviewed these “citizens” who supposedly spoke openly? Well, we don’t know for sure. But what we do know is that the same media that speaks about the rise of authoritarian threats to free media in America often is willing to report from authoritarian regimes abroad, too often peddling and laundering their message uncritically. Just follow the next time a film crew goes to Iran or Saudi Arabia.
What’s actually happening in America is the exploitation by Trump of a dangerous erosion of public trust in the media and the further division of Americans into two major sub-cultures. James Madison argued that “faction” would undermine democracy. When we see how Trump exploits the media’s natural tendency to be self-centered and intolerant of criticism, we see how factionalism in fact is eroding trust in information – and that endangers democracy. Politicians used to fear being at “war with anyone who buys ink by the barrel,” but new media has allowed politicians to address the people directly and exploit the kulturkampf. At the same time, traditional media channels are declining in revenue and influence. The American people have moved from the Watergate era’s distrust in government to the Trump era’s distrust in their media.
Trump’s message to the old boys’ network of the White House Press Corps is: “I don’t need you.” Just as he ran roughshod over the “never Trumpers” in his own party in the same way, crushing the doyens of neo-conservatism and anyone else who got in his way, he hopes to do the same with the elite media.
None of this means that Trump will last or that he will win. Richard Nixon didn’t win. But regardless, it will leave the country more divided. In the long run, as Woodward noted, it is not in the interests of anyone that this continue, but so long as both sides profit from it, it will.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman