You could be forgiven for not making it through the entire transcript of Donald Trump’s recent interview with the Associated Press. The conversation is dizzying and at times incoherent.
In a series of astonishing statements, Trump underscores the extent to which his worldview—and his sense of himself—is shaped by what he sees on television. Yet at the same time, his media literacy is questionable.
References to the news media surface repeatedly throughout the conversation. “I used to get great press,” Trump says at one point. “I get the worst press. I get such dishonest reporting with the media.”
Trump is known for being a voracious viewer of television news and punditry, which may help explain why he’s so rattled by coverage he doesn’t like. Television clearly shapes some of his thinking. He frequently borrows the language of TV—like his obsession with ratings as a metric for popularity—as a way to describe his presidency. Trump has been known to tweet in response to what’s being broadcast on Fox News at any given time. On Saturday, instead of attending the White House Correspondents Dinner, he’s holding a rally in Pennsylvania to mark 100 days in office—a rally that’s not just an event, but also competing programming: a way of upending the spotlight on the press.
But for someone with a preternatural instinct for the kind of tension and drama that makes for compelling television, Trump has little appreciation for the guiding principles of journalism. In his conversation with the AP, the president seems unable to disentangle his perceptions of accuracy, fairness, and favorability in coverage. His measure for all three, it seems, comes down to whether a story makes him look good.
“[Y]ou know, when I won, I said, ‘Well the one thing good is now I'll get good press,’” he said. “And it got worse. (unintelligible) So that was one thing that a little bit of a surprise to me. I thought the press would become better, and it actually, in my opinion, got more nasty.”
At one point in the interview, he seems to conflate his own perception of whether he is “treated very unfairly” with a report's accuracy, a standard that suggests all negative news is untrue.
“I have learned one thing, because I get treated very unfairly, that's what I call it, the fake media,” Trump said. “And the fake media is not all of the media. You know they tried to say that the fake media was all the, no. The fake media is some of you. I could tell you who it is, 100 percent. Sometimes you're fake, but—but the fake media is some of the media. It bears no relationship to the truth. It's not that Fox treats me well, it's that Fox is the most accurate.”
He then goes on to contradict himself on Wikileaks, referring to them as “just information,” and Wikileaks as an entity he neither “support[s] or unsupport[s].” Almost immediately after that, he adds: “And the other thing that we should go after is the leakers,” though it’s not clear if he’s referring to Wikileaks.
As usual, Trump spends time in the interview showcasing his fixation with television ratings. In this case, however, it takes an especially bizarre turn. He compares his ability to draw huge television audiences with television viewership following the collapse of the World Trade Center in 2001:
“I have all the ratings for all those morning shows,” Trump said. “When I go, they go double, triple. Chris Wallace, look back during the Army-Navy football game, I did his show that morning... It had 9.2 million people. It’s the highest they've ever had. On any, on air, (CBS "Face the Nation" host John) Dickerson had 5.2 million people. It’s the highest for "Face the Nation" or as I call it, "Deface the Nation." It’s the highest for "Deface the Nation" since the World Trade Center. Since the World Trade Center came down. It’s a tremendous advantage.”
As odd as it is for the president of the United States to measure his own popularity in reference to the nation’s attention to the news following a terrorist attack, there’s an even more telling statement Trump makes, toward the end of the interview: “I never thought I had the ability to not watch.”
Trump describes not watching TV as a new skill, “an ability that I never thought I had.” He elaborates: “I never thought I had the ability to not watch what is unpleasant, if it’s about me.”
“I don’t watch things that are unpleasant. I just don’t watch them...” he continues. “I don’t watch CNN anymore. I don’t watch MSNBC anymore. I don’t watch things, and I never thought I had that ability. I always thought I’d watch.”
This portion of the interview takes place as the conversation is winding down, and a reporter asks, “Do you feel that one of the things with cable is there’s such real-time reaction with everything you say?”
“Yeah,” Trump replies.
The reporter then wanted to know whether Trump could separate his decision-making from the noise of real-time reaction, from the many voices on TV.
That question, however, Trump never directly answered.