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Media Ban! Making Sense of the War Between Trump and the Press

Photo by existentist | CC BY 2.0

Photo by existentist | CC BY 2.0

On Friday, February 24th, the Trump administration issued a “gaggle” against reporters from the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CNN, and Politico, prohibiting them from gaining access to the White House press briefing. The ban was quickly followed by a boycott of the press meeting by Time magazine and the Associated Press. To their credit, these two outlets did what White House reporters should have already done – stop attending press conferences dominated by obvious fabrications, distortions, and propaganda. If MSNBC’s Morning Joe can divorce itself from the lies of Kellyanne Conway, certainly the New York Times can too, right? But losing access is the ultimate kiss of death in corporate journalism. The core of this system is based on maintaining access to high-level officials, so being blacklisted from press briefings is a devastating blow to establishment reporters.

The loss of access could be interpreted as the best thing to ever happen to papers like the New York Times. Instead of amplifying every absurd utterance out of the mouth of a carnivalesque tabloid president, they could be focusing instead on hard-hitting investigative journalism that would benefit the public. But in a media system where official sources are king, it’s unlikely the editors of major news outfits will see things this way. Predictably, they have expressed anger at being cut out of the loop of the Washington political power structure.

The full-on meltdown of the relationship between the Trump administration and the press had been steadily building late in the campaign cycle and into the first month of this presidency. The relationship between Trump and the press has grown increasingly conflicted with the issuance of the press ban. Trump himself rhetorically declared he was “at war” with the press upon taking office. His press secretary, Sean Spicer, took advantage of his first press conference to actively berate the press, refusing to take questions, and lambasting reporters for supposedly underestimating the size of the crowd attending Trump’s inauguration on the National Mall.  Non-partisan fact checkers dismissed Spicer’s claims as false because of photographic evidence that Trump’s attendance was smaller than Obama’s 2009 inauguration crowd. The manufactured inauguration controversy has come to symbolize a Trump presidency that routinely provides false information to the press and the public. The administration quickly lost much of its credibility with the press establishment after White House counselor Kellyanne Conway asserted on NBC’s Meet the Press with Chuck Todd that “alternative facts” were just as good as real ones. Conway is far too obvious in expressing her contempt for the truth. It’s one thing to engage in subtle propaganda and manipulation; it’s quite another to rub reporters’ faces in it.

Watching the relationship between the press and Trump administration play out in real time has been interesting and at times highly entertaining. Never in my life have I seen reporters regularly accuse the president in story after story, day in and day out, of distorting information and lying. The New York Times has run many stories suggesting the Trump administration is pushing lies, and offering “inaccurate,” “wrong,” or “false” claims, and outlets such as CNN, the Washington Post and others have followed suit. The Washington Post concluded that, in his first month in office, Trump “averaged four falsehoods or misleading statements a day…There hasn’t been a single day of Trump’s presidency in which he has said nothing false or misleading.”

The dispute between journalists and Trump centers on numerous issues. To name a few, reporters have criticized Trump for making false claims about voter fraud in the 2016 election, for referring to numerous non-existent terror attacks in Atlanta, Georgia, Bowling Green, Kentucky, and Sweden, for erroneously claiming the media invented the rift between his administration and intelligence agencies over Russia’s alleged role in the 2016 election, for falsely stating the media do not report on violent terror attacks, and for inaccurately asserting that the violent crime rate in 2017 reached a record high for the last half-century. Extraordinarily, these controversies all occurred within the first month of Trump’s presidency.

Are we entering a new era of media-governmental relations? Trump supporters don’t seem to think so. They’ve long lambasted the press for a “liberal bias,” and are surely celebrating the Trump administration’s media ban. But the liberal media claims were always a red herring. The clear majority of scholarly studies fail to find any evidence of a consistent liberal bias in the news. Reporters are not one-dimensionally liberal in their attitudes. They hold liberal views on social issues, and conservative ones on economic policies. Furthermore, the segments of the media that are openly biased lean heavily to the right. Talk radio is more than 90 percent right-wing, and the most heavily watched cable outlet by a large margin is Fox News, not MSNBC.

Furthermore, most of the empirical work in the social sciences identifies an official source bias, rather than a liberal bias, as characterizing the news. In my own research, I’ve found that news reporting fluctuates depending on the structure of government over time. When Republicans control the White House and Congress, reporters predictably direct most of their attention to Republican officials. When Democrats control these two branches, coverage shifts toward the Democrats. And in periods of divided control of government, reporters devote regular attention to “both sides.” In short, while the “liberal media” line is red meat for Trump’s base, it has little relevance to reality.

Reporters’ conflict with Trump is real, but it has nothing to do with a fictitious liberal bias of journalists. So, what gives? Reporters are clearly treating the Trump administration much more skeptically than they did Obama. Does the conflict between the press and the president suggest a changing dynamic in the relationship between the media and government? I would argue yes, to some degree, but we should be careful not to oversell the extent to which media are independent of government. Journalists are not opposed to the neoliberal, bipartisan consensus in Washington. Rather, they are opposed to a specific individual who they believe represents a threat to the political-economic status quo.

Trump is widely seen by journalists as far outside the “mainstream” of American political culture. This characterization is true in some ways. I can think of no precedent to Trump’s media ban in my lifetime. He has demonstrated a contempt for the press since he began campaigning, when he promised to “open up libel laws” – aka the First Amendment – to allow the president to sue journalists for writing “horrible” stories – aka stories that are unflattering to Trump. Even during the years of media-press relations following September 11, President Bush was not as draconian as Trump in dealing with the press. He blacklisted UPI reporter Helen Thomas, refusing to answer her questions, in punishment for her many challenges to the administration’s credibility regarding the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But Bush maintained a “carrot and stick” approach to managing the press. Journalists who fell in line behind administration propaganda were rewarded, allowed to ask questions in White House Press Briefings and invited to join U.S. military forces as “embeds” on the ground in “reporting” the 2003 Iraq invasion. Journalists like Thomas who questioned the party line were told to go to hell.

But Trump didn’t even offer the carrot upon taking office; rather, his administration offered only a metaphorical hatchet to the skull. His press secretary’s first conference was an all assault on reporters, and Trump’s own declaration of war made it clear there would be no effort to cultivate support from the press. Trump’s ban on multiple news outfits, while shamelessly inviting the reactionary Breitbart “news” into his inner circle, is a step beyond anything the Bush administration attempted. This ham-fisted news “management” technique will surely backfire, further pushing journalists to challenge administration misinformation.

Political spin, deception, and lies have always been integral to U.S. politics and governmental communication. But I can think of no other president who was ever so crude or clumsy in pushing obviously false claims as Trump. He’s painted reporters into a corner via his administration’s absurdist, straight-faced lies and “alternative facts.” Even Karl Rove knew to voice his contempt for the “reality-based community” off the record. To not challenge fictitious terror attacks, false statistics about crime rates, and bogus claims about voter fraud would be a serious risk to reporters’ credibility. To allow blatant falsehood after falsehood to go unchallenged would mean reporters have abandoned their already limited commitment to accuracy in reporting. Before readers attack me for suggesting that corporate reporters are committed to reporting the truth, consider the following: Trump’s lies operate on an entirely different level than previous official misinformation, which was at least more difficult to identify without serious investigation.

George W. Bush’s claims about Iraqi WMDs were harder for reporters to authoritatively debunk than Trump’s manufactured lies, the latter of which are haphazardly pulled from thin air. Numerous intelligence sources existed that raised questions about Bush’s pre-war claims, but there was no smoking gun (like after the invasion) to authoritatively demonstrate that the administration was lying prior to the invasion. Other official untruths were also hard to identify in real time. Obama’s promises that the Affordable Care Act would not interfere with preexisting insurance plans was difficult to challenge without documenting the failings associated with the implementation of the ACA. Republican denials that support for charter schools results in the decimation of community public schools are difficult to disprove without an extensive analysis of facts on the ground across American cities where charter schools are introduced. In contrast, most of Trump’s falsehoods are bush league. Citizens without any journalistic training can recognize them with simple google searches or visits to a non-partisan fact checking website. For reporters to uncritically disseminate these falsehoods would threaten what little trust is left between the media and public.

Sometimes, official misinformation becomes so extreme that reporters can no longer hold their noses and pretend not to notice the lies. The Pentagon Papers demonstrated that U.S. presidents had lied for years about the war in Vietnam. It was difficult to ignore the blatant contradictions between what presidents said privately and what they fed the public. The Bush administration’s claims about Iraqi WMDs were a fiction of epic proportions that could no longer be denied when search after search in Iraq came up empty-handed. The deaths of American troops and Iraqis in mass blatantly contradicted Bush’s ridiculous assertion that, contrary to the naysayers, everything in Iraq was going great. As the country disintegrated into civil war, it became impossible to deny the reality that was staring Americans in the face. Reporters could have pretended that a civil war wasn’t occurring, and that thousands of Americans weren’t being killed in Iraq, but to do so would risk losing any remaining credibility journalists had with the public. As with Bush’s eccentric lies, reporters are in a difficult position in covering Trump administration grifters. The public will only put up with so much bullshit for so long.

While the relationship between the president and much of the media has grown increasingly combative, journalists were not the only ones to attack Trump. Throughout the election, he was widely derided, or at least kept at arm’s length, by much of the Republican Party establishment, by many right-wing corporate donors, by the Democratic Party, and by much of the public. To single out journalists for criticizing Trump is to ignore a broader, bi-partisan political culture that has denigrated Trump for supposedly lying outside the bounds of respectable politics. The efforts to frame Trump as beyond the pale are silly in many ways. He is the heir of decades of class warfare, racism, sexism, and deception that have long defined American politics. Trump’s mistake is openly embracing bigotry and contempt for truth, whereas his compatriots in the Democratic and Republican parties know not to be so crass in their rhetoric. Still, it’s a serious exaggeration to claim that the media are posing an independent challenge to the political system by questioning Trump. Their attacks stem not from a liberal desire to undermine government, but rather from discomfort with parroting silly administration claims that are widely recognized as fraudulent by much of the public and the intellectual class.

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Anthony DiMaggio is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He holds a PhD in political communication, and is the author of the newly released: The Politics of Persuasion: Economic Policy and Media Bias in the Modern Era (Paperback, 2018), and Selling War, Selling Hope: Presidential Rhetoric, the News Media, and U.S. Foreign Policy After 9/11 (Paperback: 2016). He can be reached at: anthonydimaggio612@gmail.com

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