Yesterday afternoon, Donald Trump tweeted “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” This is a turning point in Trump’s criticism of the Press. It is no longer just unfair to him, it is our collective enemy. We knew it was coming. All the signs were there. Throughout the campaign Trump claimed he was running against a “rigged press.” His supporters adopted a powerful and despised German term, the “Lügenpresse” or lying press, to describe the news outlets that brought down Richard Nixon. Since his inauguration, he has called those same outlets “Fake News.” Yet still, even if it isn’t surprising, it is still shocking that Donald Trump, as an American President, is running Play #4 in the Dictator’s Playbook, and acting to discredit the Free Press as an institution of our democracy. Here’s what we can expect, the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The American Press is pretty resilient, and at its best it has been heroic. Recently, our major news outlets have been running down every lead they can to hold Washington accountable, and they have been careful to substantiate each new bombshell story. But for the Press to be most effective, reporters aren’t the only people who have to demonstrate heroism. The great thing about our current situation is that we have an ample supply of the secret ingredient to Press effectiveness – whistleblowers . From the unexpectedly bold National Park Rangers to the many members of the intelligence community leaking to the Press, the material is there for brave reporters and leakers to expose the Trump Administration.
People on the inside of a corrupt and dangerous administration are the ones who have to expose it, and that is happening. The reams of information seeping out of the executive branch have provoked comparisons to Nixon White House during Watergate. It’s a great comparison, and it’s important to remember that Woodward and Bernstein could not have become Woodward and Bernstein without Deep Throat (Mark Felt) and their many other informants. The New York Times and the Washington Post, in particular, have been delivering the hard, unbiased, factual reporting they delivered during the Pentagon Papers and Watergate stories. They are rising to the occasion. The problem is, 20 years of the scandal-ridden, unfocused 24 hour news cycle started discrediting the press corps before Donald Trump ever put on a red cap.
On the day Trump took office, the credibility and effectiveness of the Press was already in pretty bad shape. This problem started before “fake news.” In fact, I would argue that fake news only took hold because the public had already lost faith in the Press. This loss of faith is dangerous, as any possible impeachment scenario will likely rely on evidence discovered by the Press. Two primary factors have left us in a position where the Press is one of two institutions that can hold the Republic together, but it may lack the credibility and effectiveness to do so.The first is the 24 hour scandal cycle, which dulls the public’s ability to separate a real threat from a minor political misstep and the second is the media’s alienation of individuals on the Left, Right, and Center of the ideological spectrum.
The first problem is that the salacious details of Bill Clinton’s sex life started a new Press paradigm of seeking out and manufacturing scandal. Gotta keep those ratings up! We impeached a President because he perjured himself over a blowjob. The Press reported George W.Bush’s use of cocaine as if it were a major scandal. Howard Dean whooping at a rally brought down his campaign. To some extent, during Bush’s second term, the scandal manufacturing slowed down because actual scandals about the invasion of Iraq and Hurricane Katrina emerged, but the public as a whole paid less attention to the severity of those problems because every “scandal” was reported with the same seriousness and severity. This got even worse under Obama. The IRS “scandal” went on for months and the Benghazi reporting went on for years. The public becomes numb to endless outrage.
The second problem is that since the 90s, almost everyone on the ideological spectrum has lost faith in the Press. In the scandal industrial complex the news has become, people with different ideological beliefs want to pick the scandals they hear about. The Right hasn’t trusted mainstream outlets since the Drudge Report broke the story of Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress. During the Bush Administration, the Left began to seek out media that would report on issues like Bush’s attacks on gay rights and abortion. Finally, the center lost faith in the Press when, during the run up to the Iraq war and invasion, it traded its integrity for government approved access, and failed to expose the Bush Administration’s use of faulty evidence to lead the American People into a costly war, the consequences of which are still haunting us. The Press put itself in its present position. As Radiohead says, you do it to yourself.
If the Press is or becomes truly discredited, and Trump really wants to seize power, he will likely act to limit its ability to disseminate information. For some would-be Dictators this takes the form of legally rescinding the freedom of the Press, as Hitler did in the Reichstag Fire Decree of February 1933. Others restrict content by opening a state media outlet, as Vladimir Putin did with RT, or purchasing hostile media while requiring transmission of government statements, as Nicolás Maduro has done in Venezuela. Often, emerging autocrats muzzle the Press by simply murdering journalists, as Putin has unquestionably done. Knowing that Trump admires and consistently defends Putin casts Putin’s tactics vis-à-vis the Press in an alarming light. It is not inconceivable that Trump sees Putin’s tactics as a model. However, the Ugly hasn’t happened yet, and until it does, we have to read, support, and share reliable, fact based articles from reputable sources like the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the Economist. In a very real way, the ability of the Press to hold Trump accountable, as it did Nixon, depends on each of us, and our willingness to believe that it can.