American presidents have often clashed with the press. But for a long time, the chief executive had little choice but to interact with journalists anyway.
This was as much a logistical matter as it was a begrudging commitment to the underpinnings of Democracy: News organizations were the nation’s watchdogs, yes, but also stewards of the complex editorial and technological infrastructure necessary to reach the rest of the people. They had the printing presses, then the steel-latticed radio towers, and, eventually, the satellite TV trucks. The internet changed everything. Now, when Donald Trump wants to say something to the masses, he types a few lines onto his pocket-sized computer-phone and broadcasts it to an audience of 26 million people (and bots) with the tap of a button.
It may be banal to point out how dramatically the world wide web democratized publishing. But to understand Donald Trump’s war on the press, you have to consider what has happened to American journalism since August 6, 1991, the day the first website launched. With that first website, the thick layer of mediation that once existed between the president and the masses began to evaporate. The influence of all those former intermediaries would undergo a profound cultural shift as a result.
Before, you couldn’t get the news without publishers, producers, editors, reporters, camera operators, technicians, truck drivers, and kids with paper routes. Today, any president can bypass all that. And he can say whatever the hell he wants.
Incidentally, 1991 wasn’t a great year for Donald Trump. It was the year of his first major bankruptcy. The Trump Taj Mahal casino was $3 billion in debt. Trump faced a staggering $900 million in personal liabilities. His spectacular financial woes made countless front pages. The bankruptcy was legitimate news. But also: Schadenfreude sells. He was eviscerated in the tabloids and trashed on late-night television. Newspaper columnists described him as a “poor little rich boy,” and a clueless confidence man responsible for the tailspin that brought him down.
That same year, the World Book Encyclopedia promoted the fact that Trump had been axed from its latest edition, “beaten out by former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega,” according to newspaper reports at the time. Trump “makes interesting newspaper copy, but so far he lacks lasting significance for a World Book article,” World Book’s executive editor told The Chicago Tribune. The encyclopedia was promoting its product based on the fact that Donald Trump wasn’t in it. And for the first time since he’d become famous, Trump shunned publicity. His silence, as much as anything, seemed to signify how serious his troubles were. But it didn’t last.
There would be three additional bankruptcies, but none prevented Trump’s famous (then really famous) comeback. Once mocked by the New York City tabloids for exploiting his 15 minutes of fame in the 1980s, Trump is now the most newsworthy figure on the planet. His reputation for attention seeking hasn’t waned, but now that he is the president of the United States, he doesn’t have to appeal to news organizations to get the spotlight.
So here we are. Trump has used the ease of modern publishing technology—and his influence as president—to lead a full-on anti-press crusade. Since December of last year, when Trump first started tweeting about “fake news,” he’s been using every platform within his reach to attack journalists and news organizations.
No one has ever accused Trump of being overly nuanced, but his vitriol for the media is brazen—even for him. This brazenness seems to be the point.
Trump has long been masterful at commanding attention from tabloids and television stations. Declaring a “running war” with the media, turning “fake news” into a catchphrase, doubling down on his characterization of journalists as the “enemy of the people”—all of this is part of a larger strategy. “I want you to quote this,” Stephen Bannon, one of Trump’s top advisors, said in an interview with The New York Times in January, “The media here is the opposition party.”
The “opposition party” bit made headlines, naturally, but Bannon’s insistence that it be quoted is just as telling. It’s clear the Trump administration wants people to focus on its disdain for the press. What’s less clear is how the president believes his war on journalism will end. But if you pick apart the strategy, it has all the earmarks of a classic Trump publicity blitz—the kind of campaign he has used in the past for financial, personal, and political gain.
First, there’s the appeal to emotion. Trump has picked an easy target by tapping into existing distrust for American journalism. Although it is shocking for a U.S. president to threaten a free press the way Trump has, his criticism may resonate with Americans—few of whom have a lot of confidence in information from professional news outlets, according to a Pew Research Center study last summer. One way to win people over: Tell them something they already believe. Trump doesn’t have many targets who are more unpopular than he is, but the media might be one of them.
Second, there’s the muscle flexing. Trump’s anti-press campaign is a way of simultaneously putting journalists on the defensive and exerting his own power—and there’s plenty of evidence that Trump relishes public demonstrations of might. (See also: The role he played on his popular gameshow The Apprentice, his taste for military parades, that intense handshake yank of his.)
Trump’s strategy operates on multiple levels: He attempts to undermine credible yet unflattering news reports by calling them “fake” or “dishonest.” Then, by provoking an alarmed response from journalists, he’s poised to brush them off further as hysterical. At the Conservative Political Action Conference, he chastised professional news organizations for not calling themselves fake. That, he explained, was proof that they were.
Similarly, calling the press “the opposition party” makes every unflattering story seem like confirmation that journalists are acting against him—rather than merely reporting the news and holding him accountable as an elected official. Trump is taking the naturally adversarial role between the press and the government, and attempting to recast it as a fight between political rivals. In this way, he is setting a stage so that any of his or his administration’s potential missteps can be recast as politically-charged criticism or outright lies.
As a bonus to him, Trump’s hostility toward the press is a distraction from the actual work of the Trump administration. Which means Trump successfully leaves the impression that the press is busily focused on itself—rather than concerned primarily with the issues of the people. (Never mind that journalists have covered his administration doggedly, and will continue to do so.)
All of this is about making Trump appear strong and successful, no matter what. And that’s essential for a person who wants to stay in power. As my colleague Vann Newkirk wrote, “dogged by unprecedented public disapproval, confronting questions of legitimacy, relying on a base fueled by partisan conflict, and facing extensive grassroots opposition, Trump’s campaign will be indefinite.”
Trump is a master provocateur, perhaps because he has a reputation for being thin-skinned himself. He knows how to needle people. He knows which buttons to push. It’s why people adore him and despise him, because he knows how to get to them. He seems to have intuited that journalists, who believe deeply about the importance of their own work, will leap to defend the significance of what they do. Journalists writing about their own indispensability run the risk of underscoring the perception that they are elite, privileged, and somehow separate from “the people.”
It’s no mistake that Trump describes “the media” as a monolith, despite his recent insistence that only some news is fake news. This has a dehumanizing effect: These aren’t your fellow citizens questioning the people in power on your behalf, he suggests, they’re the media.
At the same time, Trump’s list of objectionable outlets appears to be expanding. With the exception of Fox, he has called every major TV news network “fake,” including ABC, NBC, CBS, and CNN. The New York Times, in particular, has been an obsessive target of his lately.
Three months ago, Trump complimented the paper. “I have great respect for The New York Times. Tremendous respect. It’s very special,” he said in a November meeting with the newspaper’s leadership. (Trump also complained that the Times was “the roughest of all” in what he saw as unfair media treatment toward him, but concluded that the Times was a “great, great American jewel. A world jewel.”)
Today he refers to the paper as “the failing @nytimes,” on Twitter, evoking the nicknames he bestowed on political rivals like “crooked Hillary” Clinton and “lyin‘ Ted” Cruz. News organizations that were blocked from attending an off-camera White House press briefing last week included The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, BBC, CNN, Politico, and BuzzFeed News. “As you saw throughout the entire campaign, and even now, the fake news doesn’t tell the truth,” Trump had said earlier that day in his remarks at Conservative Political Action Conference. “...it doesn’t represent the people. It never will represent the people. And we’re going to do something about it, because we have to go out and we have to speak our minds, and we have to be honest.”
The absurdity of using the First Amendment as justification for repeated attacks on a free press raises a lingering question in all of this about whether Trump himself is faking it. It’s not such a stretch to see bluster against journalism as the ultimate Donald Trump performance—the product of a cultural convergence that includes pro-wrestling, reality television, conspiracy theories, and Trump’s singular talent for making up sophomoric catchphrase-insults. The temptation to see things this way is dangerous.
Because when you’re the president of the United States, you can’t pretend to tear down an institution without risking its actual destruction. And you can’t speak like an authoritarian and expect to avoid the suggestion that you are one.
“I love the First Amendment,” Trump told the CPAC crowd. “Nobody loves it better than me. Nobody.”
“I mean, who uses it more than I do?” he added
He uses it all right, but to what end? Freedom of the press is not an institutional right, it’s a Constitutional one. It belongs to all American people—to you, and to me, and to Donald Trump. And no matter what the president says, no matter who he calls fake, the best journalists will be doing what they must. They’ll be reporting. Fearlessly, fairly, truthfully, and relentlessly. And nothing the president says will stop them.