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.
what the trial reveals is something very damning, in the ethical if not legal sense: namely, what kind of people Trump surrounds himself with.
There was no secret about Manafort’s record as an influence-peddler on behalf of corrupt dictators and oligarchs when he went to work for Trump. On April 13, 2016, Bloomberg columnist Eli Lake wrote a prescient article headlined: “Trump Just Hired His Next Scandal.” Trump couldn’t have cared less. His whole career, he has surrounded himself with sleazy characters such as the Russian-born mob associate Felix Sater, who served prison time for assault and later pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges, as well as lawyer-cum-fixer Michael Cohen, who is reportedly under investigation for a variety of possible crimes, including tax fraud.
.. These are the kind of people Trump feels comfortable around, because this is the kind of person Trump is. He is, after all, the guy who paid $25 million to settle fraud charges against him from students of Trump University. The guy who arranged for payoffs to a Playboy playmate and a porn star with whom he had affairs. The guy who lies an average of 7.6 times a day.
.. And because everyone knows what kind of person Trump is, he attracts kindred souls. Manafort and Gates are only Exhibits A and B. There is also Exhibit C: Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), the first member of Congress to endorse Trump, is facing federal charges of conspiracy, wire fraud and false statements as part of an alleged insider-trading scheme. Exhibit D is Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who has been accused by Forbes magazine, hardly an anti-Trump rag, of bilking business associates out of $120 million.
.. In fairness, not all of Trump’s associates are grifters. Some are simply wealthy dilettantes like Trump himself
.. Among the affluent and unqualified appointees Trump has set loose on the world are his son-in-law Jared Kushner and his former lawyer, Jason Greenblatt, who are somehow supposed to solve an Israeli-Palestinian dispute that has frustrated seasoned diplomats for decades. No surprise: Their vaunted peace plan remains MIA.
.. ProPublica has a mind-boggling scoop about another group of dilettantes — a Palm Beach doctor, an entertainment mogul, and a lawyer — whom Trump tasked as an informal board of directors to oversee the Department of Veterans Affairs. None has any experience in the U.S. military or government; their chief qualification was that they are all members of Trump’s golf club, Mar-a-Lago.
.. Beyond the swindlers and dilettantes, there is a third group of people who have no business working for Trump or any other president: the fanatics. The most prominent of the extremists was Stephen K. Bannon, the notorious “alt-right” leader who was chief executive of Trump’s campaign and a senior White House aide. He may be gone, but others remain. They include Peter Navarro, who may well be the only economist in the world who thinks trade wars are a good thing; Stephen Miller, the nativist who was behind plans to lock immigrant children in cages and bar Muslims from entering the United States, and who is now plotting to reduce legal immigration; and Fred Fleitz, the Islamophobic chief of staff of the National Security Council. They feel at home in the White House because, aside from being a grifter and a dilettante, Trump is also an extremist with a long history of racist, sexist, nativist, protectionist and isolationist utterances
- Be wary of family businesses. Dictatorships can indeed evolve into democracies, with Taiwan, South Korea, and Chile being perhaps the three most prominent examples. But rarely, if ever, has a dictatorship changed when it was still governed by its founder or his family. In those cases, the dictatorship is interwoven with a cult of personality, and reform would mean a repudiation of that cult. The Castros and the Kims might allow small openings in their systems for, say, foreign investment, but they will have to leave the scene before there are more meaningful changes.
- Be wary of ideological dictatorships. Military dictatorships and other varieties seem more susceptible to peaceful evolution than Communist dictatorships. Absent a governing ideology or a family commitment, the government can be more receptive to change as the leadership grapples with economic and societal pressure.
- Dictators are dictators for a reason. They are not unaware of their countries’ impoverishment; they just have other priorities. Regardless of how many Kitchen Debates they participate in or how many movies they are shown, checkbook diplomacy will have limited effect and can even be seen as a sign of U.S. weakness.
- Use your experts. Nobody knows better than the North Korea desk officer at the Pentagon that the North Korea government does not honor international commitments it deems not to be in its interests. Nobody knows better than the Venezuela desk officer at the State Department that Cuban support for repression in Venezuela has increased since the U.S. started engaging Cuba.
- Don’t fall in love with your initiative. Trump, like Obama before him, believes he has a key to developing a better relationship with a dictator that other presidents lacked. Perhaps — times change and dictators sometimes change with them, so we have to be opportunistic. But perhaps not. Tyrannical regimes are superb at manipulating U.S. public opinion and playing on outside hopes of liberalization. Any U.S. president has to start with a willingness to break off talks. If he cannot walk away from the table, the dictator is incentivized to behave badly. Remember that Kim moved to Trump when Trump wrote Kim to postpone the Singapore summit.
- Sometimes no movement might be the best answer. The Kims have frustrated every president since Truman, and the Castros every president since Eisenhower, but not for a lack of ideas or initiative from the White House. If neither regime wants to change, the best the U.S. can do is maintain pressure, minimizing the harm done to ordinary Cubans and North Koreans and the citizens of neighboring countries.
- Allies. Allies. Allies. Every U.S president needs to work in an international framework in which our alliances can enhance the likelihood of a successful outcome. Trump should consult closely with South Korea and Japan to ensure there is an allied consensus on North Korea. Obama should have worked with the E.U. on Cuban human rights. When E.U. foreign commissioner Federica Mogherini visited Cuba without a public mention of human rights, the broader American engagement strategy was weakened.
- Move incrementally and test repeatedly. Grandiose rhetoric grabs the headlines, but smaller steps allow you to calibrate your moves to the other party’s performance. The U.S. needs to put the other country’s intentions to the test on an ongoing basis. A mixture of carrot and stick will get the best results.
- Find the right mix of goals and values. The U.S. values human rights, and we also have core geopolitical interests. We want to stop Cuba from supporting violent revolutionary movements across the western hemisphere, and we want to stop North Korea from enhancing its nuclear capabilities and delivery systems. Keeping human rights in the discussion is important, and stopping the military threat these regimes pose all the more so. Not dying in a nuclear attack is also a human right, after all.
- Be careful of the ratchet. The ratchet effect is a phenomenon that can only move one way, or more easily move one way. For example, once the U.S. opens up and staffs an embassy, it is expensive and embarrassing to close it. Once we shut down joint military exercises with South Korea, they cannot easily be restarted because of annual budget and planning requirements. Be careful of making moves that cannot easily be undone.
If you’re a murderous dictator, this is a joyous time to be alive.
No one will make much of a fuss if your opposition leader is jailed, if an annoying journalist goes missing or if, as happened in Congo, a judge who displeases the dictatorial president suffers a home invasion in which goons rape his wife and daughter.
.. The U.S. has abandoned a bipartisan consensus on human rights that goes back decades.
.. I’m back from Myanmar, where leaders are finding that this is also the optimal time to commit genocide.
The army conducted a scorched-earth campaign against the Rohingya ethnic minority, with soldiers throwing babies onto bonfires as they raped the mothers.
.. In the past, human rights was at least one thread of our foreign policy.
.. Trump defended Vladimir Putin for killing critics (“What? You think our country’s so innocent?”), and praised Egypt’s brutal president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, for “a fantastic job.” Trump hailed the Philippines’s president, Rodrigo Duterte, whose dirty war on drugs has claimed 12,000 lives, for an “unbelievable job on the drug problem.”
.. when Trump visited Manila, he laughed as Duterte called reporters “spies” — in a country where aggressive journalism has landed people in the morgue.
.. A record number of journalists are in prison worldwide
.. Trump has met with the leaders of each of the three top jailers of journalists — China, Russia and Turkey — and as far as we know, has never raised the issue of press freedom with them.
.. “What’s completely gone is the bipartisan consensus that was a cornerstone of our foreign policy, that if you imprison journalists and restrict the media, there will be consequences,”
.. In Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen approvingly cited Trump’s attacks on fake news as a precedent for closing down radio stations and the much admired newspaper Cambodia Daily. After the crackdown, in November, Trump posed for a photograph with Hun Sen, flashing a thumbs-up — and Hun Sen praised the American president for his lack of interest in human rights.
.. “Your policy is being changed,” Hun Sen declared gratefully, and he lauded Trump for being “most respectful.”
.. Trump told the king of repressive Bahrain, “there won’t be strain with this administration.”
.. the government responded a few days later by killing five protesters
.. sentencing Rajab himself to five years in prison for his tweets.
.. Trump’s soft spot for authoritarianism goes way back. He has spoken sympathetically of the Chinese government’s massacres of pro-democracy protesters in 1989, and of Saddam Hussein’s approach to counterterrorism.
.. Periodically, Trump does raise human rights issues, but only to bludgeon enemies like North Korea or Venezuela. This is so ham-handed and hypocritical that it simply diminishes American standing further.
.. approval of the United States has collapsed to a record low of 30 percent. Indeed, more people now approve of China than of the United States. Russia is just behind us.
.. “Trump has been a disaster for U.S. soft power,”
.. “He’s so hated around the world that he’s radioactive. So on those rare occasions when he does something about human rights, it only tarnishes the cause.”
.. In Myanmar, a young Rohingya man pleaded with me: “Please don’t let us be treated as animals.