By Seth J. Frantzman
Everyday brings a new Donald Trump media scandal. After you wade through the stories of “Neo-Nazis cheer after Trump shuts down Jewish reporter,” and “Trump exchange with black journalist sparks outrage” and “Sweden terror attack, what has Trump been smoking,” then you get to the outrage over a tweet that called major media the “enemy of the American people.”
Senator John McCain was on CNN responding, “we need a free press, it is vital, if you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and at many times adversarial press.” CNN asked “dictators get started with tweets like that?” McCain didn’t leap for the bait, he responded that Trump wasn’t necessarily becoming a dictator, but that we need to be careful about these kinds of incendiary statements. After the exchange CNN had an entire segment on the important of the “fourth estate” and how it is a “check and balance” on the government.
Trump is big business for the press. Some websites have headers leading readers to whole sections on Trump. The more media claims that their free speech is threatened by Trump’s tweets, the more media ratings thrive on endlessly debating every quote and tweet of the US President. Never have times been so good for most media outlets than in the last month since Trump took office. Instead of focusing on news stories, such as driving around South Sudan or talking to refugees from Burma, major US media and foreign media have turned their websites, newspapers and news shows into debates about “what the President said about us.” Everyday brings new media martyrs to the fore, like the story of “Twitter users show Trump exactly why media is #Nottheenemy,” with a hashtag that each journalist can use to burnish their credentials while feigning persecution.
The more you watch media personalities swoon over themselves, talking about how they are the last defenders of free speech and how if not for them and their “speaking truth to power” the world is on the brink of fascism, the more you realize what you are watching is not so much “speaking truth to power” but speaking power to truth. The more Trump berates the media the more it makes the story about itself, and the more the two gorillas in the room become Trump v. the Media. Since media is the filter through which the public is supposed to get its news, the public has become a captive audience to this endless cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy and self-adulation as the president, who was a media hound and celebrity before he was a president, and the media build themselves up through their battle. It’s like one of those superhero-villain battles where each one takes the energy from the other, growing increasingly strong as they fight. Let’s admit the truth, the greatest thing most people in the major media fear is a US President akin to Calvin Coolidge, boring and quiet. Trump is a gift that keeps on giving. No one will admit that “we love covering Trump,” but they do. They run to the White House press room to ask questions, just so they can be shut down and become victims. Was BBC correspondent Jon Sopel distressed when Trump mocked him and the BBC at his infamously long press conference? Hardly. It’s good show.
The problem with this whole contretemps is that it goes beyond just providing media with an avenue to be self-congratulatory and play the victim, while at the same time profiting. It has also led to near-constant exaggeration. Consider the exchange Trump had with April Ryan. We are often shown a 27 second clip of her trying to ask a question and Trump asking her to set up a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus. But the 27 second clip is only the last part of a long exchange Trump had with her. Watch the video in full. Go to minute 1:10 and watch from there. The actual exchange with Ryan was several minutes long, so why was only 27 seconds of it part of the news story? Because that suited a need to create a “scandal” and a “story.” It’s not that the focus on that is “fake news” but it is skewed news.
We rely on the major media to provide context and information to the days events. The average person can’t go out and collect information on every accident and crime and problem that happens and the average person doesn’t have access to the sources that most media organizations have. So when there is a complicated discussion about a budget in Congress, the average person wants to know the highlights. They want the controversies boiled down and filtered for them. And they want the media to challenge powerful officials on their behalf and root out corruption and ask tough questions.
But what has happened under the Trump administration increasingly is not a media that often provides filtering and context, but a media that seeks short talking points, simplistic stories and searches out scandals to build into stories. I’m often shocked when I go back and see the entire tape of a press conference and find out how misleading the final boiled down product is. An hour speech and the headline is “fake sweden terror attack.” What else was said? When one newspaper claimed “Neo-Nazis cheer” after a Jewish reporter received a curt reply, it wasn’t even clear that there was any huge evidence of Neo-Nazis doing anything. Fake news? Well it certainly is a misleading headline. The same was true with the “Muslim ban.” Several major news outlets claimed that the seven countries on the list had been chosen because Trump didn’t have business interests in them. This was an entirely fabricated story. The seven countries, as most media finally admitted, were chosen from an existing list. There was no evidence or connection to business interests. Yet the Bloomberg headline “excludes countries with business ties,” is still there because it makes for a nice narrative. This doesn’t speak truth to power, it impoverishes the public, it misleads the public and makes the public more ignorant.
John McCain is correct that a free media is essential to democracy. Even a scandal-obsessed media with juicy headlines is essential to democracy. But one shouldn’t pretend that what is going on today is good coverage or that major media is doing all they can with their resources. The public is not becoming more enriched and educated and being shown context and nuance and learning from the recent jihadist zeal with which Trump and the media are going head to head. The public losing out. When organizations such as Bloomberg that have the resources to investigate the origins of the travel ban suffice with entirely false information based on no evidence, that is a shame. It’s misleading, yes. But it’s also simplistic, stupid, ignorant. It’s worse reporting than takes place at a college newspaper. At least college reporters go out to the streets to get interviews. When organizations worth hundreds of millions don’t even leave the newsroom or make any calls or do any research before typing a click-bait headline, that’s shoddy and pathetic.
The third problem with the kulturkampf in America today is that it is leading to mass distrust of major media. The “fake news” label backfired badly. After Hilary Clinton lost the election there was an accusation that “fake news” had helped drive Trump to victory. But now Trump and his supporters have come to “own” the fake news brand and use the term against major media such as CNN.
This has eroded half of the American public’s trust in most media. Rather than drive them away from fake news, it has turned all news into “fake news.” That means that they may rely on fake news as well, but for them the fake news becomes real and the brand of centrist and institutional news becomes so eroded that it is seen, often correctly so, as so biased that it cannot be trusted. That means national news networks such as NBC, MSNBC and CNN are all castigated as untrustworthy. The fifth estate, of online media, now dominates, but even many of its best brands are seen as “fake.”
This is a cultural war that may be difficult to make peace with. America has often been divided between various cultures, whether the Bible Belt and urban areas or other issues, but it has become increasingly so. Consensus in watching news at night has ended. When one sees Trump supporters at rallies and their visceral distrust of major media that isn’t a good thing, it’s part of the divisions that led to Trump winning in the first place. It isn’t just that major media is out of touch, due to class and socio-economic and cultural reasons, it is that media doesn’t have a path to get itself repositioned again as an institution that is trusted.
Trump is at fault for stoking the fires of distrust, but major media doesn’t need to play into his hands, which is what it has been doing. Instead of staying on message most media have made themselves the story, a classic journalistic mistake. Mainstream media also fails to admit how powerful it is and adopts a strange inferiority complex. It stoops down to the level of critique it receives and says, “ok, you’ll insult us at a press conference, so we’ll get back at you by having non-stop coverage of you insulting us.” This feeds a nasty cycle and harms democracy in the long run.
When McCain talked about democracy he missed this key point. Even when authoritarian leaders triumph they do so with their own media. We sometimes view fascism or other countries that have become authoritarian as being media vacuums, as if the absence of media is what creates dictatorship. But that’s a false reading. Often it is populist media that drives fascism, and authoritarian regimes rely on friendly media. They elevate their own media, they don’t disappear media, they cultivate it and control it. Media can be a check on power or a driver of power. When there is too much distrust of centrist media and when that institutional media becomes too biased, it leads to a break between itself and the public and the divided public can pitch a country into a dangerous anti-democratic consensus. Instead of reading the attacks on media as the problem, it is important to see the deeper problem which is distrust of mainstream media. Erosion of trust is a seed that does not die. It grows and with it grows division in society and the factionalism that James Madison and other American founders feared. A rabid press that stokes extremism is what destroyed the French Revolution and other societies, not a centrist, thoughtful, press. Rather than praising all the media for its false martyrdom and its salacious headlines against Trump, it would be better to demand a return to consensus and healing in America, not more hatred and division. Trump deserves to be judged for the things he says and challenged. That’s clear. But not to the point of abandoning basic standards and reporting every scandal as if it is the only thing happening.