US President Donald Trump has cast the press as a deceitful villain in the soap opera of American politics, and the press have cast him as a blundering bully.
Trump and the media are in the same business, trying to gain the trust of an audience. In that sense, they are in competition for the hearts and minds of Americans, and using the same tools to fight for them – cable television and Twitter. To do this, they call each other lying scoundrels, which is normally how rival news outlets compete. The difference between Trump and his competitors is the competition bring evidence to back up their claims. Another difference is Trump relies on the public’s ignorance of how journalism works, and the media struggles to pry the public away from trusting the president.
In 2017, the Information Age has helped create the Age of Outrage, when the amounts of data we encounter on a daily basis seem to break our ability to consider current events in a calm, orderly fashion. Maybe we never were able to, but no longer are the tirades of total strangers kept secret from us by distance. They're blaring on our Twitter feed, our Facebook wall and the fiery speeches of world leaders trying to rise above all the fiery speeches of your uncle and cousins posts.
And this is the battlefield in which Trump and the rest of news media compete. Both sides deserve blame for putting headlines over human reason, and the fate of millions of people hangs in the balance, in danger of being destroyed by technological devices that seem to broadcast hatred at least as much as they do humanity.
I can’t think of a single human in the United States that I know who trusts both the president and the media.
Trump fans and defenders, as well as the paid, professional media, are in the same basic business: drawing people to their to content. What that content is, however, is a different story. But anyone with a smartphone, an opinion and a social media account today participates in the expanding arena of journalism – unless they choose to log off. And who ever does that?
On Saturday, Trump held a campaign-style rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, an enclave of strong support nestled between the blue, Democratic-party splotches of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. At the same time, in Washington DC, the White House Correspondent’s Association was throwing its annual charity dinner, attracting the very people Trump told the rally-goers to revile, and Trump tells to boo. Unless there’s some national calamity, the president always attends, but this time Trump decided to preach to the choir.
TRT World spoke to one video journalist who covered the Harrisburg rally and another cable news correspondent who attended the White House Correspondents Dinner. Both asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorised by their employers to give interviews. What they said reveals how both the media and Trump, in their own ways, are failing to serve the American public.
“By the time the dinner was over, there was a palpable divide between the press and the president, just based on the awkward timing, where, as the president is saying in Harrisburg the media is the enemy of the people, the media, without directly saying it many times, was basically saying the president is the enemy of the people,” said the cable correspondent who had attended the black tie event in Washington DC.
“The average American is on one side of this question: do you trust the president or do you trust the media? I can’t think of a single human in the United States that I know who trusts both the president and the media,” he said.
The dinner involves the president and the press making fun of themselves and each other. This time, the correspondent’s dinner took on a remarkably earnest tone, and featured an Indian American comedian who celebrated the American free speech law, the First Amendment, that gives him the right to stand up on national television and tell scathing jokes about the president as he sits just seats away. That doesn’t sound like Trump’s idea of a pleasant spring evening in Washington.
In some alternate, parallel reality, Trump was at the dinner himself, but as the blustery editor-in-chief of a bloody-knuckled daily tabloid. And in this reality, he really enjoys the job. He can pursue vendettas against celebrities he dislikes, as tabloid editors do, and advocate for whatever brand of politics sells the most papers. But above all else, the role of a tabloid is to lambaste and insult other rival papers, to keep commuters picking up their paper.
The former reality-TV star turned president is, after all, a talented screen performer, and he has more than once said he’d make a good reporter. Here’s an excerpt from an NBC transcript a press conference in February:
“I'd be a good reporter, but not as good as you. I know what's good. I know what's bad ... So it's very important to me. Look, I want to see an honest press. When I started out today by saying it's so important to the public to get an honest press. The public doesn't believe you people anymore ... Maybe I had something to do with that, I don't know. But they don't believe you.”
It seems likely that he does. During the rally in Harrisburg, Trump reminded his supporters from the region, the kind of struggling post-industrial territory Trump has vowed to protect from free trade and restore to dignity, that news media’s “priorities are not my priorities, and not your priorities,” the New York Times reported in a story saying Trump had “savaged” the media at his own event.
“Trump spent a good ten minutes getting everybody in the audience to yell at us, scream at us, chant ‘CNN sucks’ at us, boo us. When you get booed by these people it starts as regular booing and as Trump sits and basks in the booing, everybody starts shouting out random individual things that they’re pissed about with the media. This is like nothing changed since the election. Even the campaign soundtrack was literally identical when he was running for campaigning,” said the video journalist who has covered Trump for more than year.
After these events, Trump’s fans come up to the press pen and harangue the media.
“They are angry because they are misinformed. One person came up to me to tell me how bad I was, and, after listening, I told him, ‘Not everybody you see on TV is paid by the TV channel that they’re appearing on. Most people that are on TV are showing up as unpaid guests.’ And that was a shock to them,” he said.
Trump supporters “cannot tell the difference between an unpaid conspiracy theorist that CNN found to come on air by asking them nicely on Twitter, and Jim Acosta, CNN’s Senior White House correspondent. It’s an education problem. People don’t understand how the media works,” said the videographer.
But Trump understands exactly how the media works, the videographer said, and that’s why he’s replaced their role in the hearts and minds of so many Americans.
Trump hasn’t just cut the media out of how he connects with supporters, replacing the main anchor with himself, a kind of surrealist’s Walter Cronkite, he’s actually created a whole parallel journalism universe. This universe includes men like certain big Twitter celebrities as his chief editors, as well as literally millions of die-hard fans who are “cub” reporters and op-ed writers. Social media serves as their global printing press.
“This is not Trump’s fault. This is the fault of the American education system. We failed. Our education system failed miserably. We have not taught anybody how to process information for the internet age. He’s not exploiting people’s fears of Islam he’s exploiting people’s inability to process information in order to fear Islam. He uses their inability to understand information as a tool, and not the end itself,” the videographer said.
The media has also done its part in eroding the critical thinking skills of the American public, said another reporter, who was at the White House Correspondents Dinner. He said that wall-to-wall coverage of certain issues has made it so that cable news doesn’t consider strongly enough whether it has enough facts to present to the public before reporting a story.
But the pull for ratings means that news outlets will do things like air nonstop coverage about a missing air plane, with no real new information to present. By the same token, cable networks also aired unbroken live feeds of Trump speaking during the election campaign, which drove up ratings but didn’t provide context, much less fact checking, to what Trump was saying.
It’s an education problem.
Because Trump has Twitter, he has so far been able to deliver his message to his legions of fans relying on the traditional news media less and less. There are signs that Trump may not be able to hold on to this habit for long, as a recent analysis by the Associated Press shows that fewer and fewer people online are engaging with his tweets. He has also done wide-ranging interviews, an apparent acceptance that he needs the news media even if he pretends he doesn’t.
Over time, it appears likely that the press and Trump will reach a kind of truce. Only his most die-hard supporters will want to keep hearing about how they shouldn’t trust the media.
For both Trump and the press, it’s publish or perish.