For reporters, it feels demoralizing to be attacked repeatedly by the president of the United States; some feel physically threatened. But the best way to respond to this is to make a stronger case to the American people as to why Trump’s attacks are unacceptable, rather than expecting it to be self-evident, or hoping that pity and sympathy will elicit public support. Rather than explaining why the president attacking the media is bad for the media, the media need to appeal to the public’s self-interest and explain why it’s bad for them.
Most Americans disapprove of the president—but most of them disapprove of the press as well. Just a third of Americans trust the media. Two-thirds believe the media are politically biased. Forty-five percent say the media “abuse” their First Amendment rights, versus just 35 who say they use those rights responsibly. Other presidents have faced implacably hostile press corps, but none of them have had the benefit of so unpopular a press. Trump is trying to press that advantage, and simply appealing to the public to take the side of the press on grounds of reasonability is unlikely to find much traction.
Besides, Trump has been assailing reporters for months: There were his repeated attempts at bullying NBC’s Katy Tur; his attack on Megyn Kelly, then of Fox News, for having “blood coming out of her wherever”; and more general bashing that was a staple of campaign rallies. This had little impact on his ability to win almost half of the votes in the November election. Even when Republican candidate for Congress Greg Gianforte physically assaulted Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs in May (don’t take my word for it: Gianforte pleaded guilty), he was easily elected. And reactions to Gianforte’s assault, instead of reflecting moral principles, quickly split along partisan lines, with Democrats outraged and many Republicans rationalizing the assault.
The press, and the nation, can ill-afford for condemning physical attacks on reporters to become a partisan issue, and yet so many responses to Trump have fallen into the trap of encouraging precisely such partisan reactions. Take the statement that CNN’s public-relations team put out over the weekend. “It is a sad day when the President of the United States encourages violence against reporters,” it began. Fair enough. Next: “Clearly, Sarah Huckabee Sanders lied when she said the President had never done so.” This is a little dodgier. Some precincts of the press are more nervous about calling White House officials liars than others, but it’s hard to see what purpose dragging in a silly claim by a deputy spokeswoman serves here. And then the coup de grace:
Instead of preparing for his overseas trip, his first meeting with Vladimir Putin, dealing with North Korea and working on his health care bill, he is involved in juvenile behavior far below the dignity of his office. We will keep doing our jobs. He should start doing his.
Of course the video is juvenile; of course the president should be spending more time staffing his administration, learning what’s in the Senate health-care bill, and boning up on policy. But what purpose does this snark serve? It only encourages the view of Trump—and many of his supporters—that the media are out to get him and view him as the enemy.