Media outrage over press pool access plays right into Trump’s hands

Media in the Age of Trump

Donald Trump speaking with the media at a hangar at Mesa Gateway Airport in Mesa, Arizona on December 16, 2015. Photo by Gage Skidmore, via Flickr

Saul Alinsky, the legendary community organizer, has long figured in the radical right’s conspiracy theories about contemporary liberal politics. Hillary Clinton wrote her honors thesis on Alinsky when she was an undergraduate at Wellesley College, and Barack Obama worked for a community-organizing group that based its approach on Alinsky’s methods when he first arrived in Chicago after law school. For people on the right, this was prima facie evidence that the two technocratic liberal centrists were secret revolutionaries burning with the desire to overthrow the republic. 

Just as the radical right has long been obsessed with the radical left’s successes in the 1960s and early 1970s, it has also been obsessed with Alinsky. One of the figures whose efforts have now had the result of bringing the alt-right into the mainstream, Andrew Breitbart, was particularly fixated on Alinsky. This is significant in light of the fact that Breitbart’s  protege, Stephen Bannon, has been anointed by Donald Trump as his senior adviser.

Before his death in 2012, Breitbart wrote at length about what the radical right could learn from Alinsky in his book Righteous Indignation. Riffing on the famous Alinsky quote that “the real action is in the enemy’s reaction,” Breitbart spins the idea this way:  “If you do a good enough job, you can force them to make a mistake. When they do, you must be ready to exploit it.” 

Trump and his entourage have been pursuing this strategy, with great success, from the beginning.  On the day that Trump announced his candidacy, he declared that he was going to build that wall on the US border with Mexico. This created a great deal of laughter and derision on the right, but also outrage among liberals.

The pattern was established. Trump outraged his opponents. His opponents’ outraged response proved that they were every bit as intolerant as Trump made them out to be. This proof of fury and intolerance on the other side added to the certainty of Trump’s supporters that they had chosen the right man.

Related: Eight steps reporters should take before Trump assumes office

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Now that Trump has been elected president, his practice of Alinsky’s precept has intensified, especially with regard to the press. Trump knows that his supporters want a revolution, so he has adopted the style of a revolutionary. You think of Lenin’s terse definition of politics as “Who-Whom”: as the practice of one group or faction or social class acting against another. Trump is the “Who.” The media is the “Whom.” More often than not, Trump has been playing his media adversaries like a salmon.

Trump makes mostly nice on 60 Minutes then tweets something nasty about the media and the media responds full-throatedly, an example of wounded pride that Trump can then display, like the head of a moose, to his followers.

The furor in the media serves as more proof to Trump’s followers, who have been accused of intolerance, that the intolerance is all on the other side. After feeling like “Whoms” for so long, Trump’s supporters can feel like “Whos”–like people doing to rather than being done to. Trump can claim that he is not even the president yet–and look at all the outrage and opposition.

The dark irony is that the media is getting all the transparency it ever asked for. Trump could just as well have hidden Steve Bannon’s twisted influence and kept him as a private consigliere, a sort of Clark Clifford of the extreme right, as he may well do in the end. Instead he chose to use Bannon to incite the liberals, a tactical provocation that will keep inspiring and fortifying his supporters.

 

Revolutions–the imposition of martial law, the gradual curbing of precious liberties–are led by the lean and the hungry, not by comfortable, corpulent white males in their sixties and seventies.

 

Forced into the role of enemy, compelled to play the role of reactor, the media is caught in a dilemma: If they refuse to take the bait and allow Trump and his cronies to get away with inflammatory rhetoric and dangerous decisions, they risk allowing democracy to slip further into the gutter. But if they continue to take the bait and rise up in outrage and opposition, they add to Trump’s legitimacy in the eyes of his supporters.


A lot of journalism
now is, understandably, being led by various scenarios, the worst of which play right into the hands of the impending administration. Perhaps the media should resist its tendency the follow the darkest master narrative, and contemplate a brighter future. Here is my stab at a chain of events that might temper the media’s hysterical reaction to Trump’s and his associates’ every word and move.

As other people have pointed out, Trump has no ideology. Without ideology, there is no impetus or rationale for an authoritarian instinct to become an authoritarian program–to become, in other words, a revolution.

Revolutions–the imposition of martial law, the gradual curbing of precious liberties–are led by the lean and the hungry, not by comfortable, corpulent white males in their sixties and seventies.  And revolutions are made by dispossessed people with nothing to lose who are swept up into a vision of an ideal future, not by hard-pressed people trying to hang on to what they have who are lost in a memory of an ideal past. 

In contrast to Trump, Reince Priebus, his new chief of staff, does have an ideology, but it is not a fervent vision. He wants to achieve the goal that has driven the American right since the New Deal, which is to virtually abolish the income tax and remove every regulation and social entitlement standing in the way of the accumulation of wealth.

Priebus, Ryan, and Mitch McConnell, guided by Vice President Pence, will quickly adapt to Trump’s inflammatory style because it both conceals their low-keyed revolutionary aims and makes their objectives look moderate compared to Trump’s rhetoric and symbolic gestures. Trump will quickly adapt to their genial fiscal extremism because it serves his lifelong greed.

In many ways, Trump is their hostage. That could be why he is now seeking counsel from people like Chuck Schumer, and even Mitt Romney. The images of Trump being escorted by Ryan through the Capitol building days after the election gave the impression of a wolf being led to slaughter.  

In the end, this fragile entente of crazily conflicting interests and personalities will come crashing down, torn apart by its own self-defeating momentum, the way Trump’s competing casinos in Atlantic City drove each other out of business.

In the meantime, as the new regime’s policies, again and again, disappoint and betray Trump’s supporters, Trump will rely on people like Bannon and other extremist proxies, and on inflammatory gestures, in hopes of stirring the media pot in order to create “the enemy’s reaction.” If this happens, the enemy’s reaction will convince Trump’s supporters, despite the evidence to the contrary, that they have, at least, been vindicated.


The issue of how the press
should react to Trump and to what degree is no small thing, especially at a time when the mainstream liberal media–up until the advent of Trump, anyway–has been on the verge of implosion. Its own crisis has the effect of making the media turn, against its will, into itself more than it ever has.

Lately it seems that the establishment media are pouring an inordinate amount of energy into addressing charges that it waited much too long to take a genuine, committed interest in the suffering part of the country that has made Trump president. Surely these resources are better spent on digging into every aspect of a Trump presidency, and on its associations, funding, and enablers. By dramatically responding to accusations of ignoring the rest of the country and spending time reporting on it now, the media makes its own shortcomings the story and turns its sudden new awareness into a virtue that is nevertheless irrelevant.

The media’s peculiar complaints about how Trump is limiting access to him and his team are another way the media, almost unconsciously, ease back into the center of whatever story they are telling. The days after Trump met with Obama in the White House were full of indignant reports of Trump, unlike previous president-elects, not allowing a pool of reporters to accompany him on his visit.

 

It’s not clear, however, that access to a president who holds the press in utter contempt would be more productive than no access at all.

 

It’s not clear, however, that access to a president who holds the press in utter contempt would be more productive than no access at all. What, exactly, would access to Trump and his inner circle achieve? The lies would come fast and furious. The contradictions would reach seismic proportions. The media would go from being an enemy whose reaction is a tactical blessing to a sometime friend, subject to all the manipulations and predations of an enemy. In this case, preserving the “Who-Whom” relationship that Trump has created with the press would provide a bracing clarity.

Related: Journalism’s moment of reckoning has arrived.

The complexities and the ethics of access are issues that journalists have wrestled with seemingly from time immemorial. In the case of George W. Bush, access facilitated the sowing of disinformation that had a fatal and still-reverberating effect in the Iraq War.         

With Obama, the vaunted access and transparency of his administration seemed to induce semi-paralysis, at least for Obama’s first two years, in many of the journalists who were covering him. It’s surprising to read some journalists saying now that Obama’s administration was opaque. Obama was the subject of countless interviews and profiles, and at least two long, loving books about him and his presidency.

There Obama was, with both houses of congress controlled by Democrats and most of the country nearly brought to its knees by the events of the Bush years, ready to give him what he wanted. Yet as Obama withdraw from his healthcare initiative, seemingly stunned and disheartened by the militant opposition to it, refusing even to appeal to his fellow Americans on the subject from the Oval Office, the access-soaked journalists around him wrote eloquent, sometimes beautiful, tributes to his virtues, and to his place in history. 

In that instance, access was an obstruction to clarity. In the case of Trump, a lack of access could turn out to be the strongest motivator behind great and consequential journalism.  Think of Gay Talese’s profile of Frank Sinatra in Esquire, for which he never met or spoke with Sinatra, and multiply the free play of unmasking and demystification in that piece one thousand times.


We are living in a moment
when, thanks to the Internet, words take on the aspect of worlds. Someone in West Virginia writes something ugly about the Obamas on social media, it gets picked up and the “enemy”–the opposition to Trump–loses all perspective, broadcasting the sentiment as if it were widely held and, in the process, making it part of the political discourse. In the 1930s, the far right, which portrayed FDR as a pernicious Jew and called him “Roosenfelt,” spread a rumor about Eleanor Roosevelt being given syphilis by a black man. But this atrocious slur never made its way out of the fetid swamps of fringe malice and paranoia. 

Now, thanks to the digital echo chamber, similar linguistic atrocities are not just widely circulated rumors, they have the potential to become “fake news.” Even if they don’t end up in that category, because of the fact that they live on your screen, seen by millions of people, such sentiments can create the illusion of a collective movement when they are held by a relative small crowd of people. The effect, once again, is to incite hysterical reaction on the part of Trump’s adversaries, which will bring more and more supporters to Trump’s side, and increase the fervency of people already behind him.

It is another conundrum facing journalists now. On the one hand, Trump has been exposed, time and again, as a liar. On the other hand, a few words from his mouth or on his Twitter feed can abruptly change the news narrative for days.

 

In the eighties, people spoke of the “Reagan Revolution.” In terms of Reagan’s radical tax cuts, and draconian cuts to social programs, that’s exactly what it was. 

At the same time, Reagan, as previous conservative administrations had done, wielded the specter of communist influence to great effect. American involvement in Latin America, especially El Salvador and Nicaragua, captured the American public’s imagination and dominated the evening news. Most Americans didn’t pay much attention to Reagan’s social policies. Trump will use the war against ISIS and wild, toothless gestures at curtailing civil liberties, in the same way.

In the case of Trump, a lack of access could turn out to be the strongest motivator behind great and consequential journalism.

 

On many levels, the media response to Reagan was patient, conscientious, relentless, and revelatory. But behind that was the creation of an oppositional culture which became so excessive that it gave conservatives ever new cultural pretexts to continue their reductive economic policies. The 1980s saw the birth of a politically correct thinking at the universities that, to some extent, made its way into mainstream culture.

The result was Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind, William Bennett’s The Book of Virtues, and the beginning of the so-called culture wars. The toxicity of this adversarial culture, created in opposition to Reagan, had, among other effects, the unlikely result of helping to bring about, after eight years of Reagan’s Republican presidency, the election of yet another Republican to the White House, George H. W. Bush.

The media became so caught up in the culture wars that many mainstream journalists failed to keep hammering away at the big stories of their time: Reagan’s fatal combination of massive tax cuts and massive defense spending; the increased radicalization of Muslims in the Middle East as a result of Bush’s first Gulf War;  Clinton’s transformation of the criminal justice system into mass incarceration, as well as his fateful repealing of the Glass-Steagall Act, which had prevented financial monoliths. As all this was unfolding, the rise of atomized identity politics in response to the conservative assault on vulnerable social groups justified, in the eyes of many people, the conservative claim to be defending the common good. 

“The real action is in the enemy’s reaction.” We, as journalists, had better take extra care these days to strike the right balance between reacting and overreacting if we don’t want to be used as pawns in someone else’s strategy. Sometimes it seems that all the press wants is for Trump to agree not to set up concentration camps–even as he confers with Republican leaders on how to completely dismantle what’s left of America’s public spaces, public institutions, and protections for the poor and the vulnerable. We will have our civil liberties, but nothing else.

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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.