How Does Donald Trump Think His War on the Press Will End?
Adrienne LaFrance writes in the Atlantic:
American presidents have often clashed with the press. But for a long time, the chief executive had little choice but to interact with journalists anyway.This was as much a logistical matter as it was a begrudging commitment to the underpinnings of Democracy: News organizations were the nation’s watchdogs, yes, but also stewards of the complex editorial and technological infrastructure necessary to reach the rest of the people. They had the printing presses, then the steel-latticed radio towers, and, eventually, the satellite TV trucks. The internet changed everything. Now, when Donald Trump wants to say something to the masses, he types a few lines onto his pocket-sized computer-phone and broadcasts it to an audience of 26 million people (and bots) with the tap of a button.
It may be banal to point out how dramatically the world wide web democratized publishing. But to understand Donald Trump’s war on the press, you have to consider what has happened to American journalism since August 6, 1991, the day the first website launched. With that first website, the thick layer of mediation that once existed between the president and the masses began to evaporate. The influence of all those former intermediaries would undergo a profound cultural shift as a result.
Before, you couldn’t get the news without publishers, producers, editors, reporters, camera operators, technicians, truck drivers, and kids with paper routes. Today, any president can bypass all that. And he can say whatever the hell he wants.Incidentally, 1991 wasn’t a great year for Donald Trump. It was the year of his first major bankruptcy. The Trump Taj Mahal casino was $3 billion in debt. Trump faced a staggering $900 million in personal liabilities. His spectacular financial woes made countless front pages. The bankruptcy was legitimate news. But also: Schadenfreude sells. He was eviscerated in the tabloids and trashed on late-night television. Newspaper columnists described him as a “poor little rich boy,” and a clueless confidence man responsible for the tailspin that brought him down.
That same year, the World Book Encyclopedia promoted the fact that Trump had been axed from its latest edition, “beaten out by former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega,” according to newspaper reports at the time. Trump “makes interesting newspaper copy, but so far he lacks lasting significance for a World Book article,” World Book’s executive editor told The Chicago Tribune. The encyclopedia was promoting its product based on the fact that Donald Trump wasn’t in it. And for the first time since he’d become famous, Trump shunned publicity. His silence, as much as anything, seemed to signify how serious his troubles were. But it didn’t last.
There would be three additional bankruptcies, but none prevented Trump’s famous (then really famous) comeback. Once mocked by the New York City tabloids for exploiting his 15 minutes of fame in the 1980s, Trump is now the most newsworthy figure on the planet. His reputation for attention seeking hasn’t waned, but now that he is the president of the United States, he doesn’t have to appeal to news organizations to get the spotlight.So here we are. Trump has used the ease of modern publishing technology—and his influence as president—to lead a full-on anti-press crusade. Since December of last year, when Trump first started tweeting about “fake news,” he’s been using every platform within his reach to attack journalists and news organizations.
No one has ever accused Trump of being overly nuanced, but his vitriol for the media is brazen—even for him. This brazenness seems to be the point.
Trump has long been masterful at commanding attention from tabloids and television stations. Declaring a “running war” with the media, turning “fake news” into a catchphrase, doubling down on his characterization of journalists as the “enemy of the people”—all of this is part of a larger strategy. “I want you to quote this,” Stephen Bannon, one of Trump’s top advisors, said in an interview with The New York Times in January, “The media here is the opposition party.”
The “opposition party” bit made headlines, naturally, but Bannon’s insistence that it be quoted is just as telling. It’s clear the Trump administration wants people to focus on its disdain for the press. What’s less clear is how the president believes his war on journalism will end. But if you pick apart the strategy, it has all the earmarks of a classic Trump publicity blitz—the kind of campaign he has used in the past for financial, personal, and political gain.
First, there’s the appeal to emotion. Trump has picked an easy target by tapping into existing distrust for American journalism. Although it is shocking for a U.S. president to threaten a free press the way Trump has, his criticism may resonate with Americans—few of whom have a lot of confidence in information from professional news outlets, according to a Pew Research Center study last summer. One way to win people over: . . .