Trump’s disdain for the press
has a silver lining

Media in the Age of Trump

Photo by Noam Galai (Getty Images)

Trump attacking a journalist at his first news conference. The White House press secretary lying to the media at the first post-inauguration press briefing. Trump attacking the media in his speech to the CIA. None of it is surprising. Yet the result has been a mainstream media in a state of wounded pride and downright hysteria that I haven’t seen since the advent of Gawker.

It is yet another irony in this moment of proliferating ironies that the billionaire responsible for the destruction of Gawker, Peter Thiel, has helped to create a president whose street-fighting tactics resemble those of the erstwhile website, which during its first years stunned the well-heeled, clubby, super-entitled, piety-sharing media elite with its naked insults, insinuations, and verbal assaults. The media’s response then was to engage in soul-searching with regard to its status in the digital age, much as the media’s response now is to engage in soul-searching with regard to its status at a time of “alternative facts,” and a president who daily showers contempt on the press.

It is incredible, and incredibly depressing, to see the media turn on itself even as Trump is turning on the media. Responding to BuzzFeed’s publication of the Trump-Russia memos, Jim Rutenberg wrote admonishingly in The New York Times:

Every journalistic misstep gives more fodder to people who want to stop the efforts against “fake news” by turning the tables and labeling those efforts—or any other solid journalism they don’t like—as “fake news” as well, corrupting the term for their own purposes (a classic case of “no, you are!”).

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At a moment when we are in entirely uncharted territory, when the rules and conventions of politics and the media and the relationship between them have been upended, Rutenberg is warning journalists to be careful not to make a “misstep.” And his definition of a media “misstep” is anything that can be used by the media’s powerful adversaries against the media. In other words, it is Trump and his cronies who decide what the misstep is. It is they who define journalistic malfeasance.

 

Helping to create an atmosphere where caution is the dominant approach is not the most effective response to a situation in which the incoming president and his associates possess no caution at all.

 

Yet you can hardly imagine a situation in which the partisans of so-called fake news are more aggressive than they are now, or a situation in which attacks on and hatred of the mainstream press could be more intense. Helping to create an atmosphere where caution is the dominant approach is not the most effective response to a situation in which the incoming president and his associates possess no caution at all.

Not once in the eight years that George W. Bush was president did he handle the press with the derision and contempt Trump displayed last week. He gave frequent news conferences. He never publicly sought to undermine the fundamental credibility of the media. He and other members of his administration cultivated close relationships with many media figures. Not once during Bush’s two terms as president did I read, or even hear, any rational expression of a fear that he posed a real threat to the media as a legitimate institution, or to free speech as a democratic principle. Instead, the media in the Bush era relied on access and sources to assimilate the most catastrophic lie in American history.

Bush was a uniquely bad president. But even at the height of TV and internet assaults on him and his administration, Bush never tried to curb the press’s prerogatives, or to curtail its access to him and the people around him in any unconventional way. He did not publicly spew contempt at the media. He was not outrageously rude to reporters. There he was, year after year, yukking it up with the media at the White House Correspondents dinner. (And there he was, giving a sardonic thumbs-up to Hillary Clinton at Trump’s inauguration.)

Compared to Bush and Cheney’s smooth, respectful manipulation and subjugation of the media, Trump and his regime’s snarling hostility and barefaced lying to the press–i.e., their openness about their motives–are a gift to the republic.

 

Nero might have fiddled while Rome burned, but he didn’t tweet about it. Trump, however, wants everyone not only to be in awe of his presence and pronouncements, but also to lavish attention on his random thoughts.

Clues to how he will govern–if he does govern–are all over the trail of tweets and public pronouncements he has left behind him like so many bird droppings. One boast he repeatedly made during his campaign was that he was spending only a fraction of what his opponents were for advertising and publicity. The gist of the reason he gave for this was that, unlike his opponents, he was a fascinating, larger-than-life personality who knew how to put on such a good show that the media would find it irresistible.

One glimpse of the decor of Trump’s penthouse apartment on Fifth Avenue, half Hollywood mogul, half Versailles–its gold hues now transported by Trump to the interior of the White House–and you can see how he conceives of himself with regard to the media. He does not expect a press pool or a mass of reporters shouting questions at a press conference. He wants, demands even, an entourage, in the same way that a celebrity has an entourage, or a monarch has a crowd of courtiers.

 

Even at the height of TV and internet assaults on him and his administration, Bush never tried to curb the press’s prerogatives, or to curtail its access to him and the people around him in any unconventional way.

 

In the manner of a celebrity, Trump will amuse himself by giving praise or attention to one media figure while denying it to others, or by singling out some reporters for taunts and insults. In the manner of a monarch, he will confer favors on some media people and deny them to their rivals, thus causing the entourage to fight over every crumb of favor or attention he tosses to them. In the media’s current precarious financial condition, such desperate internecine strife is not hard to stir up. 

This divide and conquer strategy, recognized and denounced by the media, is already working beautifully for Trump. In an interview in the Times, Thiel explained why Silicon Valley executives, previously hostile to Trump, dutifully attended an off-the-record meeting with Trump the moment they were summoned by the president-elect.

“I think, early on, everybody was worried that they would be the only person to show up,” Mr. Thiel says. “At the end, everybody was worried they would be the only person not to show up.” This is Trump’s strategy with the media. The insecure, status-anxious, financially unstable Trump has, if nothing else, a visceral grasp of the media’s insecurity, status-anxiety, and financial instability.

How else to account for the bizarre meeting at Condé Nast, off the record, between Trump and the editors of The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Vogue, among others? The strangest presence at the meeting was David Remnick, who the very night of Trump’s election wrote an impassioned piece for The New Yorker‘s website in response to the astounding turn of events. Whether you agreed with Remnick’s alarmist tone or not, his essay was an eloquent cri de coeur, raw and deeply felt. In the course of the essay, Remnick twice warned that the media would try to “normalize” Trump, and that this tendency should be resisted. Yet you could hardly imagine a more normalizing event than the editor of The New Yorker attending an off-the-record meeting with the president-elect.

 

Compared to Bush and Cheney’s smooth, respectful manipulation and subjugation of the media, Trump and his regime’s snarling hostility and barefaced lying to the press–i.e., their openness about their motives–are a gift to the republic.

 

When Graydon Carter was asked how he felt about the meeting being off the record, Carter replied, “Not my preference. But I will abide by that.” Explaining why he attended the meeting, Carter later told Politico, “I try to be a decent host. I went to Anna Wintour and I said, ‘Listen, I don’t want to make [Trump] feel uncomfortable.’” On the one hand, a media howls and cries about an impending constitutional crisis in which the media will be essentially abolished. On the other hand, a prominent media figure expresses his desire not to make the president-elect fidget.

Agreeing to meet off the record with a man who has placed himself beyond the pale of what is accepted in American political and public life has the simultaneous effects of confirming people’s conviction that the media inhabits an opaque bubble of privilege, and of helping Trump in his attempts to silence the media.

If Trump refuses to be transparent with the American public about his tax returns, his business entanglements, and his relationship with Russia, why are these powerful and prestigious media actors abetting Trump in his lack of transparency in these matters by agreeing to, essentially, talk with him in secret?

 

What if Trump gave a press conference and nobody came? What if the press stopped reporting on his every tweet and utterance? Trump’s principal means of upending robust and protective social and political conventions would immediately come to a halt.

Instead of publishing lengthy, fluffy profiles of social media billionaires, the media might now want to press the social media giants that more and more control our national life on their policies with regard to the most divisive and least qualified president in American history. The media’s diffidence in the face of new forms of communication that pose threats both to the media and to democracy is as worrisome as its accommodation, when push comes to shove, of our incoming president.

It would be invigorating for prestigious media outlets and figures to make the argument that the way things stand now, Twitter is aiding Trump in driving the country toward dark and dangerous places. His strident, deceitful, inciting Tweets, reported on by a media determined to hold him to account, yet at the same time eager to draw readers, are destroying the possibility of rational, patient public discourse.

 

On the one hand, a media howls and cries about an impending constitutional crisis in which the media will be essentially abolished. On the other hand, a prominent media figure expresses his desire not to make the president-elect fidget.

 

In the end, the social media companies, behind their democratic rhetoric, are about money and power. But we live in strange new times, in which shame, expressed across social media platforms, is a powerful tool. Instead of succumbing to outrage and hysteria, the media should–along with adapting to the new situation and holding Trump to account without vindictiveness or spite–be reexamining the forces that have, over the past two decades, helped cripple the media.

In the meantime, I hope Trump and his people keep wearing their thuggishness on their sleeves. On Sunday, as the media was reporting that the Republicans were planning to reinstitute high-risk pools that would enable health insurers to once again deny coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, Trump tweeted about the demonstrations against his presidency, “Peaceful protests are a hallmark of our democracy. Even if I don’t always agree, I recognize the rights of people to express their views.”

His appearance of rationality and political decency, even as policies sponsored by him that will ruin countless lives were beginning to take shape, sent chills down my spine.

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Lee Siegel is the author of five books and the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Reviews and Criticism. His forthcoming book, The Draw: A Memoir, will be published in April.