Over the weekend, Mark Weinberg, former assistant press secretary to Ronald Reagan, became the latest prominent figure to denounce President Trump’s treatment of the press. Ripping Trump’s description of the media as “the enemy of the people,” Weinberg wrote:
We all know why Trump attacks the press as he does. He wants its credibility to be so broken that whenever it reports negative stories about him it will not be believed. That has ominous implications. If the President succeeds in his effort to discredit the press, then from whom will the people get the truth?
Weinberg wrote the piece for CNN, which has been at the center of Trump’s WWE battle with the press. This issue has been brewing for a while, but came to a head on Trump’s recent trip abroad. Things got really hot when the president ostentatiously refused to call on CNN’s Jim Acosta during Trump’s recent trip to Europe. His Orangeness sneered:
“I don’t take questions from CNN. Fake news. Let’s go to John Roberts of Fox. A real network…”
The pundit response was swift and furious. CNN’s Chris Cillizza, fast becoming the leading prominent-but-uninteresting voice of this generation (similar to the George Will of my youth), warned of something like an all-Fox future:
If you are cheering this, ask yourself what your life would be like with a media that only did things the president liked https://t.co/xkN2DvAcS6
— Chris Cillizza (@CillizzaCNN) July 13, 2018
CNN reporter Hadas Gold went a step further:
The U.S. president doing this abroad is like giving authoritarian leaders around the world, who put reporters in jail, who try to quash a free press, a green light. https://t.co/JxANJ42YJa
— Hadas Gold (@Hadas_Gold) July 13, 2018
Score was kept at the already-infamous Trump-Putin presser, as CNN’s Oliver Darcy tweeted:
Outlets called on during Trump-Putin press conference: Interfax, RT, Reuters, and the Associated Press.
— Oliver Darcy (@oliverdarcy) July 16, 2018
At that event, the AP’s Jon Lemire stepped into the breach and asked the tough “who do you believe?” question, from which Trump is still backpedaling. It was a great example of how attempts to control or narrow the narrative usually backfire on politicians.
Trump’s war on the press has been portrayed as more of a catastrophe than it may be in reality. Being frozen out by any politician, much less one like Trump, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It may even help in the long run. (This does not excuse Trump’s behavior. Not only should the president regularly answer questions, but government agencies, in general, should be more transparent. )
The backdrop of Trump’s escalation with CNN (and other outlets) includes years of the hollowing out of the Freedom of Information Act, as well as a protracted effort across multiple presidencies to expand the scope of classification.
The idea of presidents freezing out individual reporters or outlets is not new; those in power just usually don’t gloat about it in the nakedly reptilian way Trump does.
The George W. Bush administration was infamously petty with the press. Bush’s people once – over some idiotic perceived slight – reassigned Time, Newsweek and US News and World Report from the second row to what Slate called “the Siberia of the sixth.”
Bush spokes-clowns were also said to have frozen out Post reporters Mike Allen (now of Axios) and Dana Milbank, as well as Houston Chronicle reporter Bennett Roth (the latter for asking a question about Bush’s daughter).
In an incident that reflected horribly on both the media and the White House, Bush once took a surprise Thanksgiving trip to Iraq and conspicuously disinvited much of the usual press corps. The Bush-serving-turkey-to-troops trip was transparently a PR ploy, and vengeful Bush folk snubbed anyone who was considered a threat.
That included The New York Times, which didn’t get a seat on the plane. The paper should have simply not covered the event, but it instead caved and published a report by one of Bush’s “approved” reporters, Terrence Hunt of the Associated Press. The piece described Bush in mythical tones. Note the melodramatic tear and the heroic language (“strode forth” etc.):
At that moment, President Bush strode forth from the wings in an Army track suit emblazoned with a First Armored Division patch. The bored crowd shot from their seats and whooped. As he surveyed the crowd, a tear dripped down the president’s cheek.
This was a textbook case of a president getting what he wanted by acting like a baby. The incident was a continuing source of tension between press and presidency, as it birthed a subsequent absurd controversy over whether or not the turkey was plastic. Conservatives for years pointed to the “fake turkey” story as evidence of liberal media bias.
Obviously, the Obama White House had its own struggles with the media, particularly the racially charged coverage on Fox. This included everything from claiming Obama had attended an Islamic school in Indonesia, the broadcast of Trump’s birther theories, and the infamous “hip-hop barbecue” incident.
Beyond that, though, the Obama administration had a lengthy record of prosecuting leakers and whistleblowers (sometimes availing itself of the Espionage Act to go after officials who talked to reporters) and had a menacing war with then-Times reporter James Risen in an effort to suss out Risen’s sources.
Presidents as a rule come to believe that certain outlets have moved across the line from press to propaganda. Virtually all of them come to hate reporters as a class with the kind of unbridled loathing usually reserved for the worst divorces.
From Dick Nixon (the press were “bastards” who were “trying to stick a knife in our groin”) to Hillary Clinton (who was profoundly affected by the “vast right wing conspiracy”), presidential figures have given reporters pet names that at least rival “fake news” or “enemy of the state.”
Trump is a distinct new low, of course. He seems to despise the entire idea of a free media and doesn’t appear to have any way of understanding reporters except in terms of how much or how little they suck up to him.
Trump’s dream media scenario probably involves a press corps made up entirely of Fox creatures – kept leashed and in a pen in the Brady briefing room, on a floor covered with birdseed. It’d be like if Caligula had state TV.
If that’s our future, so what? So long as the real press can still work somewhere, being expelled from the royal court is no disaster. We can do the job just the same from the outside looking in.
Politicians have always used the little perks and trappings that come with press tags to seduce the media. It’s easy to scramble reporters’ brains just by giving them catered meals and chartered flights and allowing them to walk across the tarmac with a Cabinet member. They want us to get high on having a seat behind the rope line.
I had a conversation once with a presidential campaign aide who talked openly about how the more food you give the press, “the more they shut the fuck up.”
In the pre-Trump era, you could buy adoring coverage basically for nothing, just by letting reporters take a picture with the president and/or by whispering an off-the-record secret or two.
Trump has simplified everything. He is too dumb to buy the press with honey and is doing us a favor by returning us to our cheap-seats roots. He’s also done a hell of a job of reminding us that presidents can be idiots, too, and that it’s not our job to look up at people in power with credulous awe.
Trump isn’t just trying to discredit the media. He’s also running against it. As he did during the 2016 campaign, Trump uses the unpopularity of national reporters as a political crutch, recasting his various damning scandals and controversies as battles between himself and snobbish, upper-class, city-dwelling weasels who have it out for the little guy – the press.
It’s a mistake to underestimate how successful this tactic can be. Despite everything, Trump’s approval rating has actually been rising steadily, as much as 6 percent since late 2017. There are a lot of factors here, but turning negative press attention into a positive is classic Trump, and surely part of the picture.
A lot of the big network types who complain about not having access now forget that alternative and/or local media has mostly always been on the outside. The non-corporate press has never been able to afford to go on most campaign trips, or attend White House junkets, or be called on in pressers.
Denied official passes and cozy lunches with Senatorial aides, legit-but-small outlets have had to find stories elsewhere, in day-to-day life. Which isn’t so bad.
The public has grown to hate the national press over the years because they see media celebrities as elite supplicants who’d rather be up there than down here. So being kicked off the Olympus may be a blessing in disguise. Let Fox reporters demean themselves with their front-row seats at the daily presidential tongue-bath. Back on the outside, in our natural adversarial role, we might finally get our mojo back.