At this early stage in the Trump administration, my biggest disappointment doesn’t concern the gaps of varying sizes between the president’s campaign rhetoric and policy moves. Sure, I’m concerned – though less (so far) about his decision to use cruise missile strikes to punish Syria’s dictator for alleged chemical weapons use in that country’s chaotic civil war than about his linkage of China trade ties with Beijing’s willingness to help rein in North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Instead, my biggest disappointment concerns Mr. Trump’s dealings with the Mainstream Media.
For the president gave his supporters and the nation at large every reason to believe that he was going to take badly needed steps to reduce the bloated and increasingly harmful role played in American democracy lately by political reporters for America’s leading national news organizations and the failed bipartisan ruling class they tend to shill for. Yet three months into his administration, it looks like same-old-same-old — at least regarding the fundamentals — even though there’s no shortage of unusually sharp-edged exchanges between individual reporters and individual administration officials.
The president and his aides looked to be off to a strong start, as I reported in this post on the mold-breaking press conference he held just before his inauguration. Moreover, Press Secretary Sean Spicer has followed through on his stated intention to enable new news organizations and voices to take part in his daily White House press briefings, rather than defer to the arguably self-serving standards of the White House Correspondents Association (WHCA). Perhaps most stinging to the establishment press, in terms of discrete events, the entire administration decided to skip the WHCA’s increasingly narcissistic, celebrity-drenched, and off-putting annual dinner. On an ongoing basis, the president kept slighting the press several times per day with tweets that went over their heads and directly to his tens of millions of followers.
But at least to date, the administration has missed two opportunities genuinely to cut the Mainstream Media down to size and thereby introduce some desperately needed accountability into their cosseted world. The first has to do with the daily press briefings. Spicer clearly has been more combative at these events than his predecessors – for a time, the sessions were treated by networks as must-see TV.
As has become all too obvious, however, “combative” doesn’t necessarily mean “effective.” Indeed, Spicer’s numerous gaffes have made him an object of ridicule even among many outside national chattering class ranks. Yet what should be most upsetting about his performance – even for Americans who are not die-hard Trump-ers – is how plainly it shows the weakness of Spicer’s command of substantive issues and, at least as important, how slow he actually is on his rhetorical feet.
As a result, Spicer is conspicuously ill-equipped to carry out what should be one of the highest priority missions of Trump spokesman: using the press briefings to expose how politically partisan, childishly shallow, and downright ignorant so many Mainstream Media journalists and their breathlessly voiced questions tend to be.
The main purpose here wouldn’t be payback. The main purpose would be public education. Although the media’s poor trust and approval ratings indicate that few Americans still view them as reliable sources of information, the impact of daily broadcast humiliations can’t be overemphasized, especially given the matchless megaphone of social media. And because fostering the image of omniscience is obviously much more central to the Mainstream Media’s reputation (and profitability) than its by-now-shredded image of impartiality, a steady stream of comeuppances could well lead to the mass firings or demotions and infusion of new, untainted blood that the news business urgently needs.
The second media opportunity the Trump administration is missing has to do with access. Proximity to power is another key to the Mainstream Media’s disproportionate power (and pro-establishment bias). Love them or hate them, these journalists and the organizations they work for enjoy their still huge audiences largely because they can plausibly claim to be in the know. Because of the connections these correspondents and pundits have developed with America’s most important political leaders and other movers and shakers, they have nurtured the entirely credible impression that they’re privy to the real views of The Deciders and their advisers, and to the principal reasons (both genuine and those created for public consumption) behind their decisions. That is, following these news people was rightly seen as a good way to figure out both what American leaders were actually trying to do and why, and what these leaders wanted the public to think they were trying to do.
Unfortunately, as has been widely noted, the price for this access almost invariably has been independence that is all too easily compromised in far too many ways. Most obviously, a reporter who’s too difficult to manipulate, and/or too harshly critical, simply isn’t going to have the kind of contact with the figures that count the most as a reporter who eagerly plays this game.
More subtly, ongoing exposure to top leaders in government (and other spheres) tends to socialize journalists in innumerable ways that generate strong pro-establishment and status quo-oriented leanings. Understanding this process entails first and foremost understanding that journalists operate on the fringes of power. They lack the ability to shape events directly, but their choice of profession logically indicates a deeply felt interest in these events. Access to top leaders brings them tantalizingly close to this power – and to its biggest secrets (at least in theory).
Shrewd power-holders know how to capitalize on this journalistic weak spot by pretending to bring news people into their confidence, and on a regular basis actually doing so – usually in minor or superficial, but always self-serving, ways that at the same time can be dramatic and/or colorful enough to undergird an entire hard news story or feature. Sometimes, leaders also flatter journalists by asking for their counsel, and even acting as if it’s valued. After years of such treatment, it’s easy for a journalist to imagine that they and leading policymakers are ultimately on the same team.
Don’t forget that the aesthetics of Washington, D.C. (and other power centers) play a big role in this socialization process, too. It’s no accident that government office buildings, for example, are usually built at least in part from the same kind of marble favored by the Roman emperors and the classical Athenians. Nor is it an accident that individual offices at the uppermost levels of government are so beautifully and luxuriously appointed. Enter them and it’s difficult to imagine that anyone but the truly Best and the Brightest could occupy such regal quarters.
Access matters crucially to journalists in two other ways that disincline them to “afflict the comfortable.” First, by publishing leaks intended to advance certain policies or personalities, or block them or undermine them, media types can actually shape events themselves. In other words, they can actively engage in the arena, rather than simply observe it passively. Not surprisingly, many of these would-be movers and shakers regard these chances as prizes to be preserved at practically any and all cost.
Second, a reputation for enjoying big-time access to power-holders can translate into tremendous prestige both within the profession’s ranks and without. And the latter kind of prestige can easily turn into big bucks – in the form of lecture fees and book contracts. The bigger the bucks, moreover, the likelier a journalist is to gain entree to the power-holders’ social circles. As a result, the most successful mainstream journalists become even less inclined than ever to question in any fundamental way leaders who become neighbors, dinner-party companions, and even genuine friends. Moreover, although income levels are never sure-fire predictors of political and policy leanings, the rich rarely become populists, and considerable wealth and status surely don’t make journalists likelier to view promises to “drain the swamp” dispassionately.
So nothing would have dealt the Mainstream Media as damaging a blow as actions making clear that its access was going, going, and just about gone. As noted above, then-President-elect Trump and Press Secretary-designate Spicer were moving for a time in this direction. And few obstacles seemed to stand in their way. What, for example, could be easier than not returning phone calls from Trump-hating pundits like George Will or Charles Krauthammer, or comparably hostile beat reporters from The New York Times or Washington Post? Just as easy would have been to spread the word that these journalists actually are on the outs, and that their days of trafficking in inside information are over. Their remaining professional lives – at least at the national level – would have been measured in minutes. After all, it’s not as if their writing styles or expertise or analytical skills have ever been anything special.
Yet not only have at least some Trump loyalists and populists apparently been speaking with them on the sly. (What other explanation could there be for the sheer volume of reports about various personality and policy feuds inside the White House?) These figures have been speaking with them on the record – at length – not to mention showing up dutifully for those Sunday morning talk shows that have degenerated into little more than chortle-, sneer- and eyeroll-fests. Yet weirder, so has President Trump – even to New York Times correspondent Maggie Haberman, whose political reporting was considered so dependably biased toward Hillary Clinton that her Democratic party supporters labeled her a “surrogate.”
This CNN story purports to explain Mr. Trump’s views of Haberman and his willingness to keep talking with her. In fact, it explains nothing – unless you think that the president is unaware of the hacked Democratic National Committee emails outing her prejudice. If he did, would it be remotely plausible to think that “he knows that she matters, that she will not treat him with kid gloves but not be unfair either, that she commands the respect of the political communities in both Washington and New York”?
I’ve heard other explanations for Trump’s views of The Times – that he believes he can gain or keep the upper hand through the force of his personality, that he has an out-of-control wish to be loved by all, that it’s his hometown paper, that no native New Yorkers can resist the impulse to court it. Those last arguments appeared especially convincing when, not two weeks after his election, Mr. Trump visited The New York Times‘ offices for a long interview with many staffers – including columnists and editorial writers – who had pilloried his presidential run. Was he trying to rub the paper’s hostility in its collective nose? Maybe. But in that case, shouldn’t he have demanded that the Times staff traipse over to Trump Tower if it wanted some of his precious time? Was Mr. Trump trying to kill the publication with kindness? Perhaps. But why bother – and inevitably convey the impression that it’s still in the loop?
With the president apparently tacking to the center on policy, it may be inevitable that he’ll continue treating the Mainstream Media ever more conventionally. In which case, his supporters’ best hopes for a revival of authentic Trump-ism — and the country’s best hopes for encouraging the Mainstream Media to play a genuine watchdog role — could be the chief executive’s richly deserved reputation for about-faces.