Photo courtesy of Google Images.
By Colton Williams
The American media is in dire straits. The President routinely denounces and vilifies the free press, decrying every piece of information not to his liking as “FAKE NEWS,” and he has succeeded in getting a good portion of the country to believe him. In spite of this, the mainstream media has continued to produce quality journalism.
The primary issue, of course, is the President’s authoritarian refusal to allow criticism and inquiry. Secondarily, the issue is not in the journalism but in the journalists’ response to these attacks.
I hope to make three broad points here. First, the press is not biased, reality is; second, Trump’s rhetoric and behavior is both practically and theoretically dangerous, and third, the media needs to respond in a way that matters.
First, the mainstream media does have a left-leaning bias. However, just because the mainstream media is left-biased, this does not mean it’s “fake.” News that portrays Trump as stupid and incompetent is not fake, but instead a pretty clear depiction of reality, as he routinely behaves stupidly and incompetently.
Fake news was a term that originally applied to legitimately made-up stories from bogus websites and blogs that bounced around on the Facebook pages of media-illiterate people. Now, Trump dispatches the term “fake news” to anything he doesn’t like.
The fact of the matter is that quality reporting has brought to light some of the more outlandish and reprehensible stories of the Trump administration, and these things are undeniably true. The indictments of Trump officials and associates in the Special Counsel investigation are things that have actually happened. The payments Trump made through his attorney to a porn star he had an affair with actually happened.
The ethical issues that caused Tom Price and Scott Pruitt to vacate their cabinet posts were things that actually happened. The recent firing of Jeff Sessions and the obvious implications thereof are actually unfolding. And the list goes on.
Recently, in his post-midterms press conference, Trump hit on a common theme of his presidency: that the media is the enemy, nothing they say can be trusted, and the only reliable information is that which comports with his view. Trump berated CNN White House Correspondent Jim Acosta as a “rude, terrible person” for daring to ask questions about the President’s immigration fear mongering prior to the election and the Special Counsel’s Russia investigation. “When you report fake news, which CNN does a lot,” Trump said, “you are the enemy of the people.”
Trump told Acosta “that’s enough” and an aide came running to wrestle the microphone from Acosta’s hands. Acosta said, “Pardon me, ma’am,” and continued his questioning. Later that day, the White House revoked Acosta’s press pass and Press Secretary Sarah Sanders issued a statement that was－ and this is important － an outright lie.
The White House said that Acosta was banned from the press pool for “placing his hands” on the aide, which is irrefutably not what happened.
Soon after, the White House released a doctored video that was slowed down and then sped up at the moment Jim Acosta’s hand falls against the aide’s arm in order to make it look like some sort of karate chop. I want to make it clear that this is not just my framing － that is what happened. There is a reality to what happens. At some point there has to be a reality we can agree on.
But the issue is much more serious than a distortion of the truth. The rhetoric of Trumpworld has actual real-life consequences. Trump and his allies repeatedly call CNN “the enemy of the people,” and then what happened? On October 25, bombs showed up at CNN delivered by a deranged Trump nut.
In mid-October, Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian national and American permanent resident, was strangled to death and dismembered at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul.
What did Trump have to say? He took the side of the Saudis, amplifying their laughable statement that they had nothing to do with the murder, and then mocked Khashoggi as “our Saudi Arabian citizen.” It’s not a hot take to say Trump is a bad person (again, undeniably true), but it is important to highlight the ways in which he has demonized the press and how that has, at the very least, given an implicit endorsement for violence against the media.
It’s not hard to see why Trump hates the media. He knows the influence it has, and he knows how to work it. That’s why he worked with NBC for so many years, loved the tabloid attention he got in his private life, still compulsively watches CNN and Fox, and reads The New York Times. He seeks to suppress the media for the same reason any wannabe autocrat would, in order to bend the narrative toward his liking.
And that brings me to my third point. The media is very often complicit in this narrative-framing. Trump, of course, makes news and has to be covered. But the cable channels and other media sources know Trump gets clicks and views and cover him to the point of obsession. They have done this since he announced his candidacy and it has only helped him.
For example, the Great Migrant Caravan of 2018 was covered wall-to-wall on cable news, even though the group of asylum seekers were hundreds of miles away and would easily be handled by the federal, state, and local agencies already in place. Trump was obviously using this to stir up his voters, and after the midterms there hasn’t been a word out of Trump on the caravan. The media fed into his narrative, perpetuated it, and made it worse.
So what should the media do? For one, I think more time needs to be spent covering political stories outside of Trumpworld, stories that are Trump-adjacent but not Trump-centric, that do not feed into his narrative.
Second, everything he does is not news and doesn’t need to be covered. At this point, we’re used to his stupid tweets. If he says something really noteworthy and dangerous – so only about once a week – let’s cover it then, instead of 24/7.
Additionally, the press needs to stop worrying about the traditional rules for covering traditional politics. Trump is not a normal politician. He has all of the worst qualities of a leader and none of the good ones. The media must question him in a way that does not allow him to gain the upper hand and denounce them as “fake” or the “enemy of the people.”
When Acosta was berated by Trump, NBC’s Peter Alexander stood up for Acosta, but only in the most polite, decorous way possible. On TV news, this simply does not work. This president has sacrificed decorum and civility.
If Trump calls you a “rude, terrible person,” throw something right back at him. Play by his rules, as unfortunate as it may be, because he sure isn’t playing by yours. That’s the ballgame now, and it may be the only foreseeable way forward.