The Trump offensive – in both senses of the word – against the media continues unabated. The already fraught relationship now appears to have taken a more sinister turn with the news that six journalists who were arrested while covering anti-Trump protests in Washington during the inauguration have been charged with felony rioting and could face lengthy jail terms.
Let me say at the outset that I do not believe that the arrests – ironically including two reporters from the Trump-supporting Russian media – were, in any sense, a result of direct orders from the White House. But in a country where the First Amendment (which guarantees freedom of speech) has an almost religious status, the arrests are indicative of a change of public mood towards journalists – a change arguably inspired by Trump’s constant attacks on the media, throughout the campaign and now into his presidency.
The latest round of hostilities included Trump refusing to take questions from CNN during a press conference after he had accused the network of “peddling fake news” and his spokesman, Sean Spicer, scolding the assembled journalists at an extraordinary press briefing after the inauguration, calling them liars and refusing to take any questions. There have also been threats from the administration to kick the White House press corps out of the White House and there has been talk of new restrictions on the ability of key government agencies – such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the departments of the Interior, Transportation and Health – to communicate with the press and public.
“A uniquely toxic relationship,” is how Reuters columnist, Peter Apps, describes the current impasse. He argues that the fault lies not just with one side, saying that in reporting a relatively low turnout for the inauguration the press corps ignored the fact that Washington is largely a (black) Democrat city. This, he wrote, could be the simple reason why there were fewer people than at Obama’s inaugurations – a reason largely ignored by most of the mainstream media.
But this mild re-tilting of the balance cannot disguise the fact that we are witnessing extraordinary – indeed, unprecedented – attempts by the Trump administration to undermine the mainstream US media. So what is behind it? Are we simply witnessing the public manifestation of President Trump’s genuine sense of grievance against the “liberal media” – or are there other explanations?
One factor clearly in play is that – as we saw time and time again during his rather unpleasant election campaign – Trump is a bully and for the most part his bullying has worked. He has cowed the Republican leadership and tamed parts of the media. It’s a technique we have seen used effectively elsewhere – admittedly it’s a milder version, but some of New Labour’s media handling comes to mind. In terms of winning better coverage, bullying can work – but only in the short term.
Another consideration by Trump and his team is probably that attacking the media appears to be very popular with his base. They like seeing “The Donald” making those establishment liberal media types pay for the ordure they have been heaping upon their hero over the past year or so.
An alternative explanation can be found in the notion of “gaslighting”. This is an idea based on the 1944 film Gaslight in which when a scheming husband seeks to drive his wife mad by doctoring her reality by, for example, making the gaslight in their home go off and on seemingly without cause.
Some are now arguing that this is Trump’s “grand plan” – to neutralise the media by making the American public so confused by false news, alternative facts and post-truth politics, that they become totally befuddled. The hope is that this, combined with the general mood of distrust in the press, makes people refuse to believe anything that the so-called “liberal” media – or any other media for that matter – says.
One further explanation might be found in the “hitting head against brick wall” school of media management. This involves initially making life absolutely miserable for the media and then switching to making it only a little bit miserable. The result is that journalists are so pleasantly surprised that the extreme pain has stopped that they roll over and allow their tummies to be tickled, fearful that the extreme pain might recommence if they don’t play ball.
Truth to power
But, removing tongue from cheek, the evidence to date is that nothing so Machiavellian is happening – what you see is what you get and what you see is that Trump doesn’t like the media and the media, for its part, is none too keen on him. And as amusing as this sometimes might be for onlookers, there is a real danger. In the US – and many other Western-style democracies – disillusionment with politics (and the media) has become a potent force and is playing an important role in the rise of populist solutions and populist politicians.
Although just before we get too holier than thou, it is worth observing that when issues of media freedom come up, there is a tendency in the West to focus on the obvious offenders: China, Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia among them. Here is a sharp reminder that even in the “Land of the Free”, media freedom is not a given – and has to be constantly defended.
In his classic Public Opinion, the pioneering media scholar, Walter Lippman, wrote that the press was, “like the beam of a searchlight that moves restlessly about, bringing one episode and then another out of darkness into vision”. This is the imperative for American journalists today: they must continue to shine that beam of light and even if those in power turn away, or worse, try and snatch the searchlight away, they must prevail – because speaking truth to power has never been more important.