South Africa

Trump v. The Media

The Press and the Presidency – a relationship forged in centuries of mistrust

The Press and the Presidency – a relationship forged in centuries of mistrust
President Donald J. Trump speaks to the media about Syria, Nancy Pelosi, and his proposed border wall as he departs the White House for Dover Air Force Base, 19 January 2019. EPA-EFE/JIM LO SCALZO

While the antipathy between Donald Trump and the media is a characteristic of the Trumpian mindset, it also has some surprisingly deep historical roots.

Sometimes a casual discussion triggers some deeper thoughts about a topic, such as the nature of the modern presidency and its problematic relationship with the modern media. Talking with a colleague recently, I had been asked why so much of the American media seems to spend so much of its time berating and picking on the president.

(After all, it is not as if he had seized the office in a quasi-coup with the help of secret foreign agents and illicit cyberhacking and bot attacks aimed against his opponent; or spent the past two years threatening the country’s allies over the trade and budget priorities and then cozying up up to one of the country’s main foreign antagonists and its president; or then picking potentially dangerous squabbles with friends, allies and antagonists over a range of trade issues, many of them more imaginary than real.)

But buried in my colleague’s question is whether there really is something deeply wrong and unbalanced in American society such that the country’s media has become deeply riven between those (a minority) who are fervent presidential supporters, and those (a majority) who are fierce antagonists who seemingly will only be happy when the president has been tarred and feathered, then ridden out of town on a rail. And, further, is this something new, troubling, and noteworthy, or is it from something rooted deeply in the American psyche?

First, some brief historical background. Even before there even was the United States, when there was just a collection of fragile, new societies spread from New England in the north to Georgia, the southernmost and newest colony, there was already a media in opposition. (This was at a time when the entire population of the 13 colonies/states had barely surpassed three million inhabitants at the nation’s independence.)

In fact, the first stirrings of an obstreperous press had come with the trial of John Peter Zenger, an American printer and journalist in the then modest town of New York City. In 1734, after he published critical comments in his weekly newspaper about the royal governor, Zenger was accused of libel by the governor. But, in the ensuing trial, the jury acquitted Zenger, thus turning him into an enduring symbol of freedom of the press, even if the now-familiar, broadly supported ideal of freedom of the press still took years to take hold firmly, after the new Constitution’s free press/free speech guarantee was in place in the new document’s now-revered First Amendment.

In the early days of the nation, the media was routinely partisan without that mantra of “objective, free, and fair”, as the BBC reporter told President Trump in an early news conference in 2017. Instead, back in those early days of America, the press was often hyper-partisan, especially after the country’s nascent political parties began to take shape, once the seeming unity of the country’s senior political leadership had broken down into bitter, increasingly partisan wrangling over what the future of the country should become. Newspaper editors felt free to publish purloined, leaked correspondence to embarrass those they opposed, and in their columns, they freely attacked political opponents in the harshest possible terms.

Thomas Jefferson, America’s third president (after George Washington and John Adams), was decidedly favourable to a free, unfettered press, except when it was covering him. Jefferson had famously written, while he was still serving in Paris as the country’s minister to France:

Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

But, then, after he became president, having been savaged by some of those editors, he wrote bitterly, in some of his letters to friends and political allies:

Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”

Thus the beginning of the charge of “fake news”, it would seem.

In the midst of the growing split between those one-time allies, Jefferson and John Adams, each man infamously made use of the power of the press to attack the other. Jefferson-allied papers accused then-President Adams of being a hermaphrodite and a hypocrite, while Adams’ camp attacked Jefferson’s racial heritage, accusing him of being “the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father” as well as an atheist and libertine.

Go on, imagine Donald Trump flailing away with something like that in an interview on Fox News (or even in one of his infantile but corrosive tweets) at all of his putative 2020 presidential campaign opponents, while the New York Times and MSNBC offer up the other insults on behalf of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke, JoeBiden, AOC, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker et al. In such a circumstance, Trump might well have used such characterisations against all his unnamed editorial opponents, in addition to those eager to replace him in the Oval Office.

Students of history are also aware that anti-Abraham Lincoln newspapers in the North, right in the middle of the Civil War, in the years following their unbalanced coverage of the 1860 election, continued to criticise Lincoln intensely, offering editorial cartoons that portrayed him as remarkably dark complected and very simian looking, with an apeish face and long, hairy arms. An orangutan in a badly fitting suit. Newspapers in the rebelling southern states, meanwhile, simply called him a bloodthirsty tyrant.

More recently, in the early part of the 20th century, President Woodrow Wilson had wanted to take extraordinary, even extra-legal steps during World War I to seek the “authority to exercise censorship over the Press to the extent that that censorship… is absolutely necessary to the public safety,” although Congress never acquiesced. But after Congress had declared war on Germany in 1917, Wilson issued an executive order creating the Committee on Public Information, designed to create propaganda for newspapers and cinema newsreels (the new, hot social media of its time), aimed at military draftees and the public, and designed to explain the country’s involvement in the war and sway advocates of continued neutrality to support for the war. The agency even established its own pro-war newspaper. Positively Trumpian.

Forty years later, encapsulating Harry Truman’s contentious relationship with much of the media, a few years after he left the White House, he had famously written:

Presidents and the members of their Cabinets and their staff members have been slandered and misrepresented since George Washington… when the Press is friendly to an administration the opposition has been lied about and treated to the excrescence [sic] of paid prostitutes of the mind.”

Except for some of the bigger words Truman used, that sounds rather familiar and like a certain current president, now doesn’t it?

Of course, the poster child for collecting some seriously bad press and having even worse overall media relationships almost certainly must be Richard Nixon. (Although it should also be noted that a majority of major American newspapers endorsed Nixon in the 1968 race.) Nevertheless, by the early 1970s, driven by a growing sense of paranoia over anti-Vietnam War protests — and then, amplified by the growing embarrassments of his role in the metastasizing Watergate scandal — Nixon and his close aides created a media “enemies”list, and carried out activities such as politically motivated tax compliance audits of such enemies and carried efforts to strip The Washington Post of its licence to operate a profitable local television station, stemming from the actions in which that paper had investigated and reported on the Watergate scandal, as well as its earlier publication of key parts of The Pentagon Papers.

By this point, it should be clear that American media-presidential relationships often are (and have historically often been) fraught ones. It comes from a fundamental constitutional dichotomy between the two spheres. The one has presidents determined to do what they want to achieve, regardless of or in spite of media criticism. But on the other side, the media is determined, competitively, to dig up “the goods” on bad behaviour by a national leader – any leader – in carrying out the principle enshrined in the First Amendment to the country’s constitution.

But, crucially, the structure of the modern communications environment has now changed the structure of this boxing match, going hand in hand with the incumbent’s use of social media to reach beyond the mass media, to find a few allies among the media, and to excoriate the rest as purveyors of that infamous fake news.

The 24/7 news cycle, the endless looping of breaking news stories on cable, satellite and online, and the increasing reliance by many on hyper-partisan social media for their diet of news, taken together, means that the effective lock on national reporting by three major television networks, a few papers of record, and the wire services that smaller regional and local papers largely relied on for national and international news, has effectively been sundered. The old days, when Walter Cronkite could announce at the end of an evening news broadcast on CBS, “And that’s the way it is,” and then give the date, are over. At least for those Americans self-identifying as Republicans. Modest majorities among Democrats and independents still prevail in trusting the media. But it is nowhere near the levels of a generation or two ago.

Of course, the splintering of news consensus has also meant that the so-called national audience now has a cluster of niches of the like-minded – each niche audience watching the same cable channels, listening to the same talk radio shows, and hunched over their screens reading the same conspiracies. This echo chamber effect is so pronounced that politicians like the incumbent president have successfully worked out how to motivate a sector of the population to stay supportive, almost regardless of what happens in the real world.

Addressing this development, Jonathan Greenberg, a Washington Post financial investigative reporter, wrote:

Truth is the greatest threat to Donald Trump. He despises the transparency and accountability that flows from a free press. He continually attacks the media as ‘the enemy of the people’, despite increasing violence against journalists by some of his supporters, repeating the phrase in a Wednesday tweet in reference to the Times. Gabriel Sherman, national affairs editor at New York magazine, described Trump’s use of this term as ‘full-on dictator speak’. For opponents of Joseph Stalin, being branded an enemy of the people was a death sentence. In Nazi Germany, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels also favoured the term, arguing in 1941 that ‘each Jew is a sworn enemy of the German people’.”

Even without the explicit comparisons to Joseph Goebbels, the Trump modus operandi seems predicated on keeping the bulls-eye on the vast majority of the media as the enemy of the people as the country moves towards the 2020 election, and keeping those same people hardwired to their niche echo chamber. If they could have seen the possibilities, there is a chance some earlier presidents might even have looked with envy on such behaviour, if they had dared. DM


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