You have to give it to him: President Donald Trump loathes the Fourth Estate with a dedication verging on caricature. He splutters at the members and rails at their observations with adolescent rage. He sees some of its members, not without a few solid reasons, as enemies of his vision. (The Gray Lady is formidable in that regard.)
But it is hardly surprising that his loathing takes place at a time when that particular estate, which Thomas Carlyle saw a mighty force of oversight, has been mouldering and crumbling before the sallies of social media and a newly emergent Fifth Estate, edgy, uncontrolled and threatening to conventional wisdom. Call them the citizen journalists, the irate foot soldiers, the opinionated bloggers, the readers of news who prefer Facebook to reportage. The media denizens are besieged.
These foot soldiers of another type of often shrieking journalism are a hit-and-miss sort. They ended up in the mad flung universe of Breitbart where Steve Bannon continues to hold court as a guerrilla force. They populate the climes which have now been designated “alt-right”.
Bannon’s clever alteration of technique was to turn standard journalism against itself, suggesting that his own brand was different, a torch for anti-establishment forces. In so doing, he exploited establishment ignorance and wilful myopia. “The media here,” he infamously noted last year, “is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States.”
While Bannon rode on the Trump phenomenon even as he honed it, the journalist became enemy and opponent, the anthropologist who had written about tribes he had misread, he bothered writing about them at all. The establishment could not be trusted to supply the public with news, merely its counterfeit, condescending variant. “They have no sources, they just make it up,” Trump barked at the Conservative Political Action Conference. “It’s fake, phony, all fake. I want you to know that we are fighting the fake news – they are the enemy of the people.” What the President wanted was not material worth but theatrical posture that not even gonzo journalism, with its teasing alloy of fiction, could provide.
This month has seen a new round of attacks and counter-attacks in the battle of Trump versus Journalism. On August 2, Trump, who seems to be in permanent rallying mode, told supporters in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania that the media was “fake, fake disgusting news.” He feigned a questioning attitude, asking his supporters, “Whatever happened to the free press? Whatever happened to honest reporting?”
The Boston Globe has taken the initiative to encourage editorial boards through the US to engage Trump in pieces set to run on August 16. “Our words will differ. But at least we can agree that such attacks are alarming.” The sally against Trump is taking place to counter “a dirty war against the free press.” To date, some 70 outlets have added their names to the ledger.
What mars such campaigns is the assumption that sober rational assumptions will prevail over the lures of instinct. To learn, one has to listen, endure and forebear opponents. That is the world of peripatetic discussion, enlightenment through discussion. But Trumpland is purposely aggressive, and singularly shut off, a process that a good number of the newspaper fraternity were simply not tuning to. There is no room for conviction, only belief, and in that regard, the Fourth Estate has suffered, having committed the cardinal sin of regarding Trump as unelectable, the vulgar joke that would never materialise into hardened, electoral reality.
The behaviour of Jim Acosta of CNN, to that end, is a fine illustration of this struggle. All well to go on a fact-checking binge, but Trump’s show is above the ground-level digging that characterises such a task. Acosta insists that he and his colleagues are at war with Trumpian falsehoods, but he realises the effect this can have from “a lot of folks who support the president who are very upset with us right now because they take it in, and they see it as, ‘They’re just bashing the president all day long.’”
The Trump supporter is hardly interested in didactic campaigns and tutorials of civic worth delivered via editorials. But this is precisely what deputy managing director Marjorie Pritchard at the Globe wishes to do, directing readers across the United States to wise up to the orange monster in the White House even as the editorial classes speak down to them: “I hope it would educate readers to realise that an attack on the First Amendment is unacceptable.” She insists that, “We are a free and independent press, it is one of the most sacred principles in the Constitution.”
Pivoting on these changes leads to a few conclusions. One tends to be misguided: that those who think the press corrupt and established journalists purveyors of the fake should be condemned as totalitarian misfits. (Stalin and Mao, opined The Guardian in troubled tones, also referred to the press as the “enemy of the people”.) This hardly squares, attributing false historical analogies to a distinct situation.
Such paralysing pessimism also ignores the resilience of the First Amendment protections which protect all the actors in this fractious drama. A country where dedicated Nazis and fringe belief dottiness cohabit with bible bashing evangelicals, the love of business and that elusive pursuit of happiness can only be admired for its vast tent.
The second point is far more significant. The US political landscape has become more unruly, irritable, and irate. Wade in it, even enjoy it. Trumpland is there to be weathered, but it is also there to be scrutinised for its influence and, most importantly, its origins. It will not last forever and Trump will not, whatever astrological nightmares are predicted, become a clownish totalitarian marked by crown, orb, and sceptre.