Will Trump’s War On The News Media Work?

With President Trump’s “fake news” crusade now turned up to eleven, we are left little choice but to assume it is part of a broader de-legitimizing strategy. And strategy is the job of Steve Bannon, Trump’s White House Chief Strategist. Bannon told the New York Times in January that the “media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.” Bannon was talking about how the media was wrong about the 2016 election, never mind that the polls were not all that far off from the popular vote tally. “The media here is the opposition party,” said Bannon in the Times interview. “They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States.” If it is a blueprint, Trump’s anti-media bombast is a plan likely architected by Steve Bannon.

The method is simple. Define the media as an adversary early and often. When the media then reports a story casting Trump in a negative light, even if true, it works to confirm Trump’s narrative that the media is out to get him. Trump is assuming the role of the populist fighting for the people, and the media are part of the elite machinery who, in Trump’s words, are the “enemy of the American people.” By doing this, Trump is priming the pump of animosity for his supporters. He’s creating an environment where his supporters will hold his administration blameless for their failings, because Trump was set up to fail by the news media. In the meantime, before the inevitable Trump administration cluster fuck, President Trump can say the media and elites are obsessed with him, and that’s why they cannot be trusted. And Trump just invoked this when speaking to Breitbart News about the now infamous best picture Oscars mistake, saying, “They were focused so hard on politics that they didn’t get the act together at the end.” In other words, had they not focused on me [Trump], that mistake would not have happened.

Will Trump’s war on the news media work? In the near-term, it’s almost certain it will capture the minds of his supporters, but it seems unlikely it will do anything to change the minds of anyone already skeptical of Trump. The long-term view is less certain. When Trump’s economic promises are revealed as the bluster of a counterfeit populist, he is likely to lose some of his less than steadfast supporters. In the meantime, Trump’s anti-media evangelism has resulted in unintentional financial aid to traditional print journalism, with the New York Times and other outlets seeing a surge in subscriptions. Trump is reminding people how important these institutions are to a strong and thriving democracy.

Even former president George W. Bush gets it. “We need an independent media to hold people like me to account,” said Bush to Today Show host Matt Lauer. “Power can be very addictive and it can be corrosive, and it’s important for the media to call to account people who abuse their power.” Speaking of dictators like Vladimir Putin, Bush added, “It’s kind of hard to tell others to have an independent free press when we’re not willing to have one ourselves.” A lesson for Trump supporters giddy in the wake of Trump’s First Amendment aggression.

Although it should be noted President Bush had a different view while in office.

The Bush administration’s objective appeared not simply to contain or counter criticism from these quarters, but to blot it out. In April 2004, at a White House barbecue for the press, Ken Auletta of The New Yorker wrote, a reporter asked the president how he could know “what the public is thinking” if he did not read newspapers or watch the TV news, as he had earlier claimed. Without missing a beat, Bush replied, “You’re assuming that you represent the public. I don’t accept that.”

While it’s not clear how Trump’s “enemy of the people” plot plays out, if I had to place my bet now, I’d put all my chips on a stronger Fourth Estate.

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