February 27, 2017

OUTSIDE THE MAINSTREAM | Trump’s War with the Media

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Last week, Donald Trump did something that broke decades of history and infuriated much of the media. It was also one of the least surprising decisions of his presidency.

When Trump prevented several media outlets from attending a private White House briefing with Sean Spicer, he simply followed through on a campaign promise. After all, Trump engages in a self-declared “running war” with the media. In order to win his war, he seeks to limit the effectiveness of certain publications in covering him by cutting off their access and delegitimizing their sources. The outlets he blocked included The New York Times, BBC, The Guardian, The Hill, Politico, Buzzfeed, Daily Mail and, of course, “fake news” CNN. Some of the pushback certainly emerges from reporters investigating his ties with Russia and, in the case of the Daily Mail (a very conservative paper), animosity, may arise from an ongoing lawsuit with Melania Trump. However, much of this stems from his ideological view of a media that clings to notions of “absolute truth,” which Trump does not recognize at all. This behavior is not new. Trump infamously “blacklisted” several media outlets that criticized him during a large part of his campaign including Univision, Buzzfeed, and Politico. This practice, on a larger scale, seems to have become normal as part of his presidency. Trump even pulled out of the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. While the dinner remains just an excuse for the press to pat itself on the back and hang out with the President, the symbolism of Trump’s decision remains clear. Trump’s war on the Washington media has only begun.

Of course, this perhaps overstates the importance of White House correspondents. There are some outlets that report what the President says, without really acknowledging how the Press Secretary spits out well-crafted propaganda. Other outlets ask questions, but look for emotive responses. In a study of White House press briefings under Obama, researchers from Columbia University concluded, “reporters ask questions not to get information, but to get a reaction. And even with that strategy, they rarely succeed.”

While the current white house briefings seem inadequate, this does not mean that there should not be response from the administration about its action. The media must change what it deems newsworthy events. While there are some important issues that need to be addressed immediately as they break, other issues can be ignored. The truth is that the press should spend more time checking up on issues that do not make the news. Finding out how the President tackles issues of poverty, income inequality, environmental protection, LGBT rights, and policing could improve our country more than randomly reacting to a random event such as the demeanor of the President as he met with some foreign leader. In fact, the Obama administration often went around the press, releasing news through social media and in other manners. They felt that the press would not cover some issues, and that engaging with the public outside of traditional media would allow them to be more effective.

In this sense, two trends have hampered the ability of the press to create reporting that can help and inform people. First, the Trump administration devalues the meaning of the “truth” and wishes to fight the recognition of the media as a trustworthy source of information. Second, the press concerns itself with emotional reactions and quick stories over needed coverage of marginalized people and long-term trends. As I talked about in another blog, the press certainly has not accomplished the latter. The press will take a more “activist” approach in confronting Trump’s lies, because it hurts their ability to speak the truth as “authority.” Yet fighting for groups of people on ignored issues does not really improve their status or their profitability as news organizations.  

I expect the press to fight back. I expect them to cover Trump and attack him with a diverse set of means. Especially organizations such as CNN and The New York Times, who envision themselves as fundamental informers of truth. Yet in a way, Trump may win his war with the media. If he can distract the media from reporting on how people are harmed by his policies and investigating how he hurts people who do not have as visible a voice, then his war on the press remains profitable. If news media do not stand up for and give voice to the people who Trump harms, with long-term and in-depth stories, then it does not matter if Trump only allows his friends to cover his presidency. After all, the one thing the press cannot understand is that Trump’s real war is not with the media. Trump fights millions of Americans he wishes to harm through his travel ban, immigration policy, cutting off contraception and abortions and “law and order” policing strategy. He only hates the media because they undercut his rationale for his policies, depleting the hate he fuels towards others. Trump wrestles to take control of the truth as a weapon, one with dangerous consequences for people across the country. If the media cannot understand this, and see themselves as the only victims, then Trump’s strategy has already won.