Fake. Fraudulent. Dishonest. Disgusting. Corrupt. Sleazy. Scum. Losers. Enemies of the people. I could fill up this column with quotes from the so-called leader of the free world denouncing . . . the free press. The sheer volume and intensity of his rhetorical assault on the Fourth Estate is unprecedented. “No president has ever established as volatile a relationship with the American media as quickly as Donald Trump,” observed the media historian Mark Feldstein in April.
Forget Isis, North Korea, even the Democrats. For the US president, the media is Enemy Number One. “I have a running war with the media,” he has proudly proclaimed. In his first full day in office, Trump used a visit to the CIA headquarters to berate journalists for being “among the most dishonest human beings on earth”. In his first solo news conference as president, in February, he spent more than an hour inveighing against media “lies” and “fake news”, claiming the press was “out of control”.
And in recent weeks, with his approval ratings in freefall and his domestic agenda stalled, Trump has ramped up his attacks on his critics in the media via a series of increasingly personal and angry tweets. He called MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski “low IQ” and “dumb as a rock” and (falsely) claimed she was “bleeding badly from a facelift” on a visit to his Mar-a-Lago resort. He posted a doctored video in which he can be seen physically attacking a man with a CNN logo digitally imposed on his face. (Incitement to violence, anyone?)
“To President Trump,” began a recent front-page news story in the Washington Post, “no place is more comfortable than the middle of a fight”. Yet his growing and bitter conflict with the media is all the more bizarre given Trump would not be residing within the White House today were it not for the media. His unorthodox presidential campaign was aided and abetted, wittingly and unwittingly, by journalists and news organisations across the political spectrum.
How quickly we forget the way in which a property mogul and reality TV star with zero political experience dominated the news cycles in 2015 and 2016. The normal rules were in no way applied to him. His speeches and campaign rallies were aired uninterrupted on CNN; his brazen lies and smears broadcast live with only the occasional on-screen fact check. He was invited to do interviews over the phone, rather than in person, on NBC’s flagship Sunday morning politics show Meet the Press.
When he did bother to turn up for the odd sit-down, on-camera interview, he tended to get asked softball questions. MSNBC’s Brzezinski and her co-host Joe Scarborough were caught on a hot microphone agreeing to go easy on him, while CNN’s Anderson Cooper and NBC’s Matt Lauer allowed Trump to claim repeatedly, unchallenged, that he opposed the Iraq War (he didn’t).
Trump’s policy positions were left unscrutinised, his connections to the Mob unexamined, his ties to Russia downplayed – the New York Times, which obsessed over Hillary Clinton’s emails, published a piece less than a fortnight before the election headlined: “Investigating Donald Trump, FBI Sees No Clear Link to Russia”.
Lucky, lucky Donald. Meanwhile, CNN employed Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, as a commentator on the election even though he was still being paid by the Trump campaign. NBC refused to release unaired footage from The Apprentice in which Trump is alleged to have made racist remarks. In a nod to the Trump-induced boost in ratings and ad revenues, CBS chairman and CEO Les Moonves admitted that the former’s candidacy may “not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS”. Fox News, throughout the Republican primaries, was run by a CEO, the late Roger Ailes, who was secretly providing campaign advice to Trump.
Fox’s fawning coverage of Trump since the inauguration would make Pravda proud. Host Greg Gutfeld has gleefully called Trump “the Fox News president! Everything that he says, we’ve said”, while host Peter Hegseth began a recent and rare interview with the president by asking him these three curveballs: “Who’s been your biggest opponent? Has it been Democrats resisting? Has it been fake news media?”
Pro-Trump conservatives pretend not to notice any of this. They point to a recent study by Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, which found that the tone of the news coverage of Trump’s first 100 days in office was 80 per cent negative, and scream “liberal bias” – even though, as the study itself points out, the early days of his presidency were “marked by far more missteps and miss-hits, often self-inflicted, than any presidency in memory, perhaps ever.”
Those same conservatives also conveniently ignore two previous studies of media coverage from the Shorenstein Center, published in 2016. One revealed that “over the full course of the election, it was Clinton, not Trump, who was more often the target of negative coverage”. The other study noted how Trump was “high enough in the polls” at the start of the Republican primaries “to get the coverage expected of a frontrunner. But he was lifted to that height by an unprecedented amount of free media.”
Those free media mentions for Candidate Trump were worth $5bn according to a study by tracking firm mediaQuant – more than the value of media mentions for Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio combined. So shouldn’t the president be offering a vote of thanks to members of the US media who helped him across the finish line and into the White House, rather than vilifying and demonising them? And isn’t it time that those members of the media, and their bosses, offer the rest of us an apology?
This article appears in the 05 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn mania