For two years I have been tracking a speech pattern among American journalists, in which they try to explain to us — and perhaps to themselves — why Donald Trump’s campaign to discredit them is not what it seems, why it’s no big deal.
In this post, I am going to show you the pattern (mostly) and comment on it (a little bit.) It started during the 2016 campaign…
1. Jack Shafer, media writer for Politico, June 6, 2016
Donald Trump’s Phony War on the Press.
Some journalists—dare I say it?—are overreacting to Trump’s bile and bluster. It’s not that his outbursts are merely for show. He obviously gets steamed at direct, prodding questions that he can’t evade. But his eagerness to insult the press—it was by his choice that the press-damning press conference went on for 40-minutes—perversely signals his passion for the labors of the fourth estate. The Trump vs. the press story is like a rom-com sit-com, only it airs on the news channels!
Truth is, he loves us! He lives and dies by what we say about him.
The anthropologist in me views the Trump-press contretemps as the endemic and persistent warfare associated with the stylized combat sometimes observed between tribes in the Papua New Guinea Highlands: The two sides pair off, shouting insults and derision at one another, claiming the other side started it. Much noise and many insults are traded, grudges are captured and preserved. Skirmishes break out here and there, followed by temporary truces until the cycle begins anew. A lot of people pay attention. Only rarely does anybody die.
To the uninitiated it may look like a fight. Actually, it’s a dance.
2. Matthew Yglesias, senior correspondent, Vox.com, Apr. 5, 2017
Though during the campaign it was suggested at times, including by Trump, that he would seek to enact actual, specific legal and policy changes that would be bad for the media, Trump has never gone there as president. He enjoys the political pretense of a war with the press, and much of the press has used the pretense of conflict with the Trump administration as a marketing gimmick. But the whole conflict has a kayfabe aspect to it, in which the appearance of a feud is entertaining for the audience and mutually beneficial to the practitioners.
It appears as one thing. To the savvy observer it’s really another.
3. Glenn Thrush of the New York Times on CNN, April 23, 2017.
On CNN’s Reliable Sources, Thrush said: “I never bought the shtick in the first place, that he hated the media.” The “slap and tickle” approach, as Thrush called it, has been standard operating procedure for Trump from the days when they were all coming up together in the New York tabloids: Maggie Haberman, Glenn Thrush, and Donald Trump.
The experienced pros see through the bluster and show a sense of humor about it.
4. Ben Schreckinger and Hadas Gold of Politico April 23, 2017.
Trump’s Fake War on the Fake News. “The president puts on a big show of assaulting his ‘opposition’ in the news media. But inside the White House, it’s a different story.”
On the campaign trail, Trump called the press “dishonest” and “scum.” He defended Russian strongman Vladimir Putin against charges of murdering journalists and vowed to somehow “open up our libel laws” to weaken the First Amendment. Since taking office, he has dismissed unfavorable coverage as “fake news” and described the mainstream media as “the enemy of the American people…” Not since Richard Nixon has an American president been so hostile to the press— and Nixon largely limited his rants against the media to private venting with his aides.
But behind that theatrical assault, the Trump White House has turned into a kind of playground for the press… The great secret of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is that Trump’s war on the media is a phony one, a reality show that keeps his supporters fired up and distracted while he woos the constituency that really matters to him: journalists.
It’s a “playground” because starting with the man at the top they all care desperately about how they are depicted in the news media, because the different factions are always knifing each other by going to the press, because the leaking is like nothing anyone has seen before, and because they’re incompetent at almost everything they try to do.
5. Peter Baker, White House correspondent for the New York Times in Politico, Nov. 29, 2017.
“Every president to a greater or lesser degree is unhappy with the coverage, and has an adversarial relationship of sorts with the people who cover him every day, so that goes with the territory. This one happens to be more vocal about it,” Baker said. “Where I think we as reporters ought to be concerned is if that kind of sentiment is translated into tangible actions that restrict our ability to do our jobs.”
Trump is not so different from other presidents. Just louder.
6. Matt Yglesias, Vox.com, January 9, 2018.
Donald Trump’s phony war with the press, explained “A genuine — but mutually beneficial — antagonism.”
The marketing pitches [“Democracy dies in darkness”] underscore that in concrete dollars-and-cents terms, Trump has been very good to the mainstream news media — driving clicks, ratings, and subscriptions at a time when the broader economics of the industry have grown difficult, due to Facebook and Google hoovering up a rising share of advertising revenue… What matters to Trump isn’t any actual crushing of the media, but simply driving the narrative in his core followers’ heads that the media is at war with him. With that pretense in place, critical coverage and unflattering facts can be dismissed even as Trump selectively courts the press to inject his own preferred ideas into the mainstream.
The war is phony because both “combatants” get something from it.
7. Peter Baker, Feb. 21, 2018.
New York Times reporter on Trump’s media attacks: ‘It’s just theater’
“The people who say this has a broad impact on society and the credibility of the media and so forth and so on, I get their point,” said New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker at a Tuesday night event hosted by the White House Correspondents’ Association. “I don’t dispute that. In terms of my job, worried about working as a reporter in the White House, it doesn’t have that much impact. I mean, it’s just theater.” Baker said he would get “more worked up” if the name-calling “leads to specific limitations on access or our ability to do our jobs.”
Note the comparisons: Theater. Professional wrestling. Tribal ritual.
Baker highlighted the gulf between Trump’s pronouncements about the media and his personal approach. When the president does his rallies, said Baker, he’ll blast the media and generally create an atmosphere of intimidation toward the people who cover him. On the plane ride home, Trump will say, ‘Hey, everybody, how’s it going? Everybody have a good time?’ He’s like the valet at his resort; he wants to make sure everybody’s having a good time,” recalled Baker.
“It’s like he’s two different people sometimes…”
8. John F. Harris, editor-in-chief of Politico, April 27, 2018 in conversation with James Bennet, editorial page editor at the New York Times.
Trump’s attack on the legitimacy of institutions including the free press— how seriously should we take it? There seem to be two schools of thought. One is that this is one of those historic moments where core values are under attack and that we’re going to be judged historically by how well we defend and vindicate those values, and that the Trump threat is serious. I think the other school is, “It’s just so much bluster and bullshit that’s not even meant by him to be taken seriously, and it really pales in comparison to places around the world where journalists actually are executed or opposition politicians are executed or jailed over these issues. So we shouldn’t delude ourselves that we’re really on the barricades of the front lines of freedom here in the United States.
Drama queens, inflating the threat so they can feel important.
Harris: In the news media context, I don’t think it’s an assault on democracy. Personally, I feel like Trump’s bombast is not meant to be taken seriously and not intended to be taken seriously even by him.
Bennet: You mean he doesn’t intend it to be an assault on journalism?
Harris: That’s right. And I don’t think journalists in this country face any real obstacles to our task of getting information and telling the truth as best we can ascertain it. I think it seems especially frivolous compared to lots of countries where there are real genuine obstacles—there’s government surveillance; there’s government censorship; there’s government punishment for challenging authority. And so, I think it makes us seem a little frivolous to be portraying ourselves on the front lines as though we’re freedom fighters.
9. Hiawatha Bray, a reporter for the Boston Globe business section, April 26, 2018, reacting to John Harris at my Facebook page.
So far, all Trump has done is utter a flood of dishonest and stupid insults, culminating in, well, nothing. This really is, so far, just a lot of noise. Sticks and stones, everybody. Call me back when they start slapping the cuffs on reporters. Till then, fasten your seat belts and remain calm.
So that’s the pattern I wanted to show you. What are we to make of it? First, the speakers in this post make valid points. Among them are:
* In Turkey journalists are being arrested. Independent media has been absorbed into the state. Nothing like that is happening in the U.S.
* Journalists can still report freely and publish what they find. As far as we know, Trump’s worst threats on that score have not materialized.
* The civic emergency created by Trump’s election has been good for the media business, and good for writers who wish to be read.
* Reporters on the White House beat find sources eager to talk and an almost unlimited supply of big, important stories to chase.
* Trump is desperate to be liked. He craves press attention. He is a media animal. These facts modify his public expressions of disdain for journalists.
I do not contest the truth of these observations. Journalists are right to point them out, and we should factor them into our understanding of events.
But I do dissent from the larger theme of a “phony war.” Something quite dangerous is happening. I have put my arguments for that proposition into an essay for New York Review of Books. You can read it here. It begins, “There is alive in the land an organized campaign to discredit the American press. This campaign is succeeding.”
To my thoughts in that essay I would add a few headlines.
AP: “President Donald Trump’s campaign to discredit the news media has spread to officials at all levels of government, who are echoing his use of the term ‘fake news’ as a weapon against unflattering stories.”
All for show?
Buzzfeed reporter Anne Helen Peterson:
Spent the last 2 days at the Range Rights Conference in Modesto, CA, where Rep. Devin Nunes made a surprise appearance and told the crowd:
“The media that’s here, they’re here to mock you and call you a bunch of people in cowboy hats.”
“I think we need a free press, but 90% of publications are owned by hard left billionaires”
“The media is totally corrupt, if you don’t think 90% of the media is totally corrupt, you’re fooling yourself.”
What Nunes is doing there: akin to professional wrestling?
Axios, Dec. 10, 2017. How Trump is spreading the “fake news” virus around the world.
Politifact, Jan. 22, 2018 Donald Trump’s ‘fake news’ epithet emboldens despots around the world.
CNN, Jan. 29, 2018 Asia’s strongmen follow Trump’s lead on fake news.
Last night at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, WHCA president Margaret Talev said: “We reject efforts by anyone, especially our elected leaders, to paint journalism as un-American, to undermine trust between reporter and reader.”
To undermine trust between reporter and reader is one thing Donald Trump definitely aims to do. Contrary to what Margaret Talev said, the journalists who speak in this post do not “reject” that project. Their response is cooler than that, more distanced. They are fixed on the irony of it all. Actually he loves reporters! He wants them to enjoy their time on Air Force One. He craves the attention too. Undermine trust? It’s just for show! Stop being so dramatic. He hasn’t put anyone in jail yet… has he?