Criticism of the media by a president is not necessarily a bad thing
Depending on your perspective, one of President Trump’s real talents, or one of his most baleful traits, is his knack for the zinger label, pinned on a political or institutional foe. “Crooked Hillary,” “Lyin’ Ted,” “The Swamp” — the labels often stick . . . and sting.
But who exactly is “the enemy of the people”? Trump maintains that he is not referring to the entire press, only to “fake news” coverage by mainstream-media outlets. Is such line-drawing appropriate? Even if the public at large may validly make such distinctions, should they be drawn by a president of the United States, or does that specter imperil constitutional free-press protections?
.. Before Trump zapped our politics with his lightning rod, it was a commonplace in conservative circles to complain about that most pernicious practice of the political press: the pretense of objectivity. No, we did not begrudge the New York Times and Washington Post their editorial pages, nor resent opinion pieces and programs clearly advertised as such. Our objection was to patently biased news coverage that was presented as if it were dispassionate, just-the-facts-ma’am reporting. The bias is seen and unseen, but pervasive. It is found in the reporting itself. It is intimated in the description of sources (e.g., conservatives always described as “conservative”; left-wing sources — the ACLU, SPLC, CAIR, etc. — described as civil-rights groups with no partisan agenda). Most important, it is concealed in editorial decisions about what gets covered and what does not, camouflaged by the thread that gets emphasis and the “lede” that gets buried... By reporting this way, the media inculcate in the public the assumption that there is no other side of the story. The Left’s Weltanschauung is not presented merely as a worldview; it is portrayed as objective, inarguable fact, and any other way of looking at things is subversive, cynical, or psychotic... Nietzsche was right that we are hard-wired to exaggerate when speaking about what ails us. That goes double for political discourse. To limn one’s political opposition as “the enemy” is common. It has been throughout history, and I’m sure I’ve done it myself. No more thought goes into it than into a sportscaster’s use of “warrior” to laud some running back who just gained 100 grueling yards. It’s just rhetoric. When we resort to it, we’re not intentionally trivializing the danger posed by actual enemies or diminishing the courage of real warriors... Still, the older one gets, the easier it is to see why referring to partisan opponents as “enemies” is unhelpful. Over time, political coalitions shift. Notions about friend and foe change. To coexist and govern, we have to compromise, and casual condemnations of our opposite number as “the enemy” make compromise harder. When I was a prosecutor, I had genial relations with most of my defense-lawyer adversaries. We fought hard but saw that letting it get too sharp-elbowed, too personal, could rupture the working relationships needed to get through the case . . . and the next one. The stakes were high, but it was markedly less polarized than politics has become... This president runs hot and cold in a nanosecond, so it’s probably a fool’s errand to analyze his rhetoric too closely —
- one minute you’re “rocket man,” the barbaric dictator;
- the next minute, you’re the “funny guy” with the “great personality” who really “loves his people,
not that I’m surprised by that.”
.. Topsy-turvy, to be sure, but Trump’s mercurial outbursts, his cavalier resort to words like “enemy” — words other presidents have been circumspect about — does not mean he perceives no difference between Jim Acosta and Osama bin Laden.
So . . . what does the president mean by “the enemy of the people”? More specifically, to whom is he referring? Well, there was an interesting exchange about that last weekend, during Trump’s sit-down interview with Fox News’s Chris Wallace.
.. In the discussion, Trump several times tried to clarify that when he refers to “the enemy of the people,” he is not speaking of all journalists; he is referring to a large subset of journalists that he calls “the Fake News.” According to the president, these are the mainstream-media outlets that align with Democrats and treat him as a partisan opponent, resulting in dishonest and inaccurate coverage of his presidency.
.. Now, you can agree or disagree with him on that, but he is entitled to his opinion. To my mind, there has been plenty of dishonest and inaccurate coverage of Trump. To be sure, there has also been plenty of honest and accurate coverage of the president saying things that are dishonest or inaccurate. Nevertheless, the sheer contempt in which this president is held by journalists is manifest. Even for those of us old enough to remember the coverage of Nixon and Reagan (as well as the Bushes), it is something to behold.
.. For one thing, the effort to delegitimize Trump’s presidency by claiming that he “colluded” in the Kremlin’s 2016 election-meddling has been tireless, and apparently effective. The effort was fueled by selective intelligence leaks and the modern media melding of opinion journalism with news reporting. After over two years of digging, investigators have lodged no collusion allegation; to the contrary, the indictments that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has filed tend to undermine any theory of a Trump–Russia criminal conspiracy. Yet the president remains under suspicion and the media routinely insinuate that Mueller’s mere issuance of indictments validates that suspicion — even though the indictments have nothing to do with Trump.
.. As Power Line’s John Hinderaker relates, recent polling by The Economist and YouGov found that nearly half of American women (48 percent) and fully two-thirds of Democrats (67 percent) actually believe that “Russia tampered with the vote tallies in order to get Donald Trump elected President” — notwithstanding that investigators have never even suspected Russia of tampering with vote tallies, for Trump or anyone else. (The investigation involves allegations that Russia hacked Democratic email accounts.)
.. As Wallace framed the matter, there is only one press, all the journalists are part of it, and no distinctions may be drawn. “We are all together . . . we are in solidarity, sir,” he told the president, adding that, for these purposes, there is no difference between CNN, the New York Times, and Fox. Even though Wallace acknowledged that some coverage of Trump is “biased,” he maintained that the press is a monolith; therefore, the argument went, to condemn a subset of journalists is to condemn the whole of journalism.
.. While he did not air them fully (it was, after all, an interview of the president), I imagine he worries that the “enemy of the people” formulation is a case of Trump wrongly conflating opposition to Trump with opposition to America. Perhaps the issue is not so much the drawing of distinctions between worthy and unworthy journalism, but rather that the president of the United States should not be doing the drawing. The president, clearly, is not just anyone. He is the highest official of a government that is constitutionally obligated to respect freedom of the press, to refrain from threatening it. If people hear an analyst decrying media bias, that is one thing; if they hear the president decrying “the media,” they may not grasp that he intends to rebuke only a subset of the media. They may not be so sure that the rebuke is good-faith criticism, as opposed to despotic intimidation. They may conclude that free-press principles are imperil
.. The fact that Trump’s bombast makes many of us wince — “enemy” — is a style point. If you don’t like it, do a better job running against him next time. After all, when vivid language is directed at conservatives, rather than at themselves, journalists are quick to tell us that life and progress in a free society require thick-skinned toleration of objectionable language and transgressive gestures. What’s sauce for the goose . . .
.. Before President Trump started using the phrase “the enemy of the people,” fair-minded people acknowledged media bias. Conservatives complained bitterly about it. These were not attacks on journalism; they were cris de coeur for real journalism. The president’s “fake news” and “the enemy of the people” epithets are best understood as a reiteration of these longstanding complaints in the barbed Trump style. This is no small thing. While the complaints are getting more of an airing than they have in the past, the president’s manner is off-putting to many people who were once sympathetic to the point he is making.
.. The mainstream press, meanwhile, is becoming more unabashedly hostile. At least that means there is more transparency, but is that a good thing? I don’t know. It would be good to be rid of the pretense of objectivity. But there are many reporters who do not pretend to be objective; they actually are objective, even if they have strong political views, even if they dislike the president for reasons of substance or style. We need those pros. We need to appreciate what they do, not reject real news because it may be news we don’t want to hear.
.. I do not lose much sleep over a president’s lashing out at what he perceives as, and what often truly is, biased reporting. This is not Turkey; a president would be impeached before a journalist spends an hour in prison for unflattering coverage. And I don’t worry much about whether criticism of a readily identifiable portion of the media harms the entire media as an institution. If journalists are worried about that, they should police their profession better. Jim Acosta hurts journalism more than he hurts Trump, and if the president is really as awful as many journalists contend, then simply asking his administration straightforward questions, rather than posing as “The Resistance,” should expose that.
One of the current complaints of the Trump right concerns the treatment given to Alex Jones by Facebook, which has temporarily banned the Internet radio host for videos that violated “community standards.” According to Lou Dobbs of the Fox Business Network, “freedom of speech [is] under attack.” Fox News television personality Tucker Carlson has also come to Jones’s defense, saying sarcastically, “I know we’re supposed to think Alex Jones is way more radical than, like, Bill Maher.”
.. Well, yes, that is precisely what we should think. At various points, Jones has promoted the belief that
- 9/11 was an “inside job,” that
- Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of a pizzeria, that
- NASA had built a child slave colony on Mars in order to harvest blood and bone marrow, that
- the Oklahoma City bombing,
- the Boston Marathon bombing and the
- Sandy Hook school shooting were government “false flag” operations, that
- some shooting survivors were “crisis actors,” that
- “globalists” are intent on committing genocide and that
- Democrats are on the verge of launching a second civil war.
.. President Trump has made a great many unpleasant things unavoidable. He has appeared on Jones’s Infowars program and assured Jones that his “reputation is amazing.” The White House briefly gave Infowars a press credential. And Donald Trump Jr. has retweeted Infowars stories.
.. It represents not only a certain approach to political strategy but also a certain approach to morality, pressed to its logical extreme. Trump is not a dogmatist; he is an egotist. He judges others not by their convictions, or even by their hold on reality, but by their fidelity to his person. It is a form of identity politics in which all that counts is one man’s identity. So Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), being faithless to Trump, is an enemy. And the revealer of child slavery on Mars is a friend.
.. Remember when a white man in Boston, spouting Trump slogans, beat up a homeless man outside a subway station? Trump responded: “People who are following me are very passionate. They love this country and they want this country to be great again.”
.. Remember when a Trump supporter punched an African American man at a rally? Trump said that his follower “obviously loves his country.”
.. Remember when the alt-right provoked violence in Charlottesville? Trump pronounced some white nationalists to be “very fine people.”
.. The president has a nearly impossible time criticizing his fans, even when they are guilty of hate crimes and violence. In Trump’s own private creed, they are absolved of guilt by their loyalty to him.
.. This commitment
- transforms their cruelty into the proof of passion; their
- prejudice into an expression of patriotism; their
- lawlessness into the embrace of his higher order. ‘
Just ask former Phoenix area
- sheriff Joe Arpaio, pardoned after his abuse of Hispanic migrants. Or
- Oregon cattle ranchers Dwight Hammond and his son Steven, pardoned after defying the federal government.
All were justified and sanctified by their devotion to Trump.
.. Any political movement is defined not just by what it aspires to, but also by whom it excludes. And the alt-right, the Alex Jones right, the white nationalist right know that they are fully included in Trump’s definition of his movement.
.. They know that their loyalty to him has been rewarded with a legitimacy they have craved for decades. And they are full, enthusiastic partners in the Trump project — to delegitimize any source of authority and information but his own.
- .. Genuine populists are discredited by consorting with people who accuse elites of arming for mass murder.
- The religious right is caught in bed with a diseased, seeping moral relativism. And
- Fox anchors come to the defense of a man who verbally defiles the graves of murdered children.
Character, not collusion, best explains the president’s bizarre deference to Vladimir Putin.
Last week, I wrote that the best way to think about a Trump Doctrine is as nothing more than Trumpism on the international stage. By Trumpism, I do not mean a coherent ideological program, but a psychological phenomenon, or simply the manifestation of his character.
.. During a joint news appearance with Russian president Vladimir Putin, Trump demonstrated that, when put to the test, he cannot see any issue through a prism other than his grievances and ego... Trump made it clear that he can only understand the investigation into Russian interference as an attempt to rob him of credit for his electoral victory, and thus to delegitimize his presidency.’.. For most people with a grasp of the facts — supporters and critics alike — the question of Russian interference and the question of Russian collusion with the Trump campaign are separate. Russia did interfere in the election, full stop. Whether there was collusion is still an open question, even if many Trump supporters have made up their minds about it. Whether Russian interference, or collusion, got Trump over the finish line is ultimately unknowable, though I think it’s very unlikely... Among the self-styled “resistance,” the answer takes several sometimes overlapping, sometimes contradictory forms.
- One theory is that the Russians have “kompromat” — that is, embarrassing or incriminating intelligence on Trump. Another is that
- he is a willing asset of the Russians — “Agent Orange” — with whom he colluded to win the presidency.
.. their real shortcoming is that they are less plausible than the Aesopian explanation: This is who Trump is. Even if Russia hadn’t meddled in the election at all, Trump would still admire Putin because Trump admires men like Putin — which is why he’s praised numerous other dictators and strongmen.
.. The president’s steadfast commitment to a number of policies —
- animosity toward NATO,
- infatuation with protectionism,
- an Obama-esque obsession with eliminating nuclear weapons, and
- his determination that a “good relationship” with Russia should be a policy goal rather than a means to one
— may have some ideological underpinning. (These policies all seem to be rooted in intellectual fads of the 1980s.)
More than any president in living memory, Donald Trump has conducted a dogged, remorseless assault on the press. He portrays the news media not only as a dedicated adversary of his administration but of the entire body politic. These attacks have forced the media where it does not want to be, at the center of the political debate.
Trump’s purpose is clear. He seeks to weaken an institution that serves to constrain the abusive exercise of executive authority.
.. Rosen observed that the history of right-wing attacks on the media
extends back through Agnew’s speeches for Nixon to Goldwater’s campaign in 1964 and winds forward through William Rusher, talk radio, and of course Fox News, which founded a business model on liberal bias.
Trump is not just attacking the press but the conditions that make it possible for news reports to serve as any kind of check on power.
.. From undue influence (Agnew’s claim) to something closer to treason (enemy of the people.) Instead of criticizing ‘the media’ for unfair treatment, he whips up hatred for it.
.. Trump has some built-in advantages in his war on the media. Confidence in the media was in decline long before Trump entered politics
.. in September 2017 that 37 percent of the public had a “great deal” or “fair amount” of confidence in the mass media, down from 53 percent in 1997.
.. The Trump administration, with a rhetoric that began during the campaign and burgeoned in the earliest days of Donald Trump’s presidency, has engaged in enemy construction of the press, and the risks that accompany that categorization are grave.
.. Insofar as Trump succeeds in “undercutting the watchdog, educator, and proxy functions of the press,” they write, it
leaves the administration more capable of delegitimizing other institutions and constructing other enemies — including
- the judiciary,
- the intelligence community,
- immigrants, and
- members of certain races or religions.
.. Trump is signaling — through his terminology, through his delegitimizing actions, and through his anticipatory undercutting — that the press is literally the enemy, to be distrusted, ignored, and excluded.
.. motivate it to want to call out the changing norms that it sees around it, and to defend the role of important democratic institutions when they are attacked. But when the press is itself one of those institutions, it finds itself a part of the story in ways that it is unaccustomed to being, and it has to weigh the potential loss of credibility that might come with an aggressive self-defense.
.. “The best way for the press to react to Trump’s undemocratic behavior is to continue trying to do their jobs the best they can,”
.. Ladd specifically warned against “reacting to Trump by becoming more crusadingly anti-Trump.”
Trump has successfully “put the mainstream media in a difficult position,” according to Geoffrey Stone, a law professor at the University of Chicago:
If the media directly address the accusations of fake news, they ironically run the risk of dignifying the accusations. But if they ignore the accusations, they miss the opportunity to prove their professionalism to those who have grown skeptical.
.. Trump’s disdain for the First Amendment is an integral part of a much longer series of developments in which both parties have demonstrated a willingness to defy democratic norms, although the Republican Party has been in the forefront.
For a quarter of a century, Republican officials have been more willing than Democratic officials to play constitutional hardball — not only or primarily on judicial nominations but across a range of spheres. Democrats have also availed themselves of hardball throughout this period, but not with the same frequency or intensity.
.. Fishkin and Pozen cite the work of Mark Tushnet, a professor at Harvard Law School, to define constitutional hardball as “political claims and practices”
that are without much question within the bounds of existing constitutional doctrine and practice but that are nonetheless in some tension with existing pre-constitutional understandings. Constitutional hardball tactics are viewed by the other side as provocative and unfair because they flout the ‘goes without saying’ assumptions that underpin working systems of constitutional government. Such tactics do not generally flout binding legal norms. But that only heightens the sense of foul play insofar as it insulates acts of hardball from judicial review.
Republicans on the far right, in particular, Fishkin and Pozen write, have been willing to engage in constitutional hardball because they are drawn to “narratives of debasement and restoration,” which suggest
that something has gone fundamentally awry in the republic, on the order of an existential crisis, and that unpatriotic liberals have allowed or caused it to happen.
The severity of the liberal threat, in the eyes of these conservatives, justifies extreme steps to restore what they see as a besieged moral order.
.. As with so many things about President Trump, it strikes me that he didn’t start the fire. He got into office because it was already burning and now he’s pouring on gasoline.
.. Accusations that the press has a political agenda can, perversely, help create an agenda which is then said to corroborate the accusations.
.. Pozen described Trump’s denunciation of the press as “the culmination of several decades of comparable attacks by media pundits, such as Rush Limbaugh” and he argues that Trump’s calls
to lock up one’s general election opponent, encouraging online hate mobs, lying constantly, attacking the press constantly, contradicting oneself constantly, undermining the very idea of truth are individually and in common potentially profound threats to the integrity and quality of our system of free expression.