Trump’s Relationship With the Press

During his Wednesday press conference, Donald Trump displayed what is likely to be a pattern in his relationship with the press: he shut down CNN reporter Jim Acosta, refusing to take his question and calling CNN “fake news.”

The move was an obvious retaliation for CNN’s breaking the story about a former British intelligence officer’s report about compromising material that Russia may possess and wish to use to blackmail our soon-to-be President. Trump’s treatment of Acosta was also a clear message to other Washington reporters: no matter how big your news organization, if you report something that displeases the President, you will lose access to him. The exchange prompted this Facebook post from former CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather:

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Here is the article from Columbia Journalism Review to which Dan Rather is referring.

In order to fully understand the implications of Presidential exchanges like what took place in that press conference, one needs to look at today’s media landscape and Trump’s history of interacting with it.

Many news outlets today face high levels of public distrust – some rightfully earned, some not. Trump was brilliant throughout his campaign at playing that to his advantage, painting the media with a broad brush as dishonest, and having that message resonate with his supporters. The obvious implication of his repeated slams is that if the journalists’ version of events is a lie, his version must be true.

Donald Trump is also notoriously litigious, having been involved in thousands of lawsuits over his lifetime. On the campaign trail, he suggested rewriting the law to make it easier for a President to sue journalists.

Lastly, many of our more reputable news outlets are struggling today. The major newspapers and the three major broadcast TV networks of 40 years ago are now competing with 24-hour cable news, which is in turn competing with thousands of bloggers, tweeters and YouTubers: everyone is trying to have the edge, to be the first to break a story, to get the biggest share of an increasingly fractured audience. At the same time, in their struggle to remain financially solvent, many major news outlets have cut journalistic staff to a minimum, and the concern of further layoffs is always looming.

Enter Donald Trump: a fresh-from-the-tabloids-and reality-TV figure who was a household name before his Presidential run, who says and does entertaining and controversial (and therefore “newsworthy”) things every day. During his campaign, he proved to be a guaranteed ratings grabber, and news outlets consequently provided him hours of free coverage that none of his competition enjoyed (it might be argued that this excessive free coverage from day one of his campaign contributed to his electoral victory). The lucrative nature of covering Trump was best summarized in February, 2016 by CBS Chairman Les Monves when he said “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS” (Full Article – Politico).

Now imagine that you are a reporter assigned to cover the White House. Your job requires that you have access to the President and his Administration, and your journalistic responsibility to the public requires that you ask challenging questions to get at important truths that the President may wish to conceal.

Mr. Trump is forcing a powerful and disturbing dynamic into this equation which has a high potential of distorting both of the afore-mentioned responsibilities: you now feel an unspoken pressure from your boss not to report in a way that might alienate your news organization from the President or that could risk bringing on a time-and-resource-draining lawsuit from him.

For those reporters willing to set aside their integrity, there are likely to be ample rewards from the Trump Administration: key interviews with high-ranking figures, the opportunity to be the first to get a “scoop” spoon-fed to them by Trump. For reporters wanting to operate in the long-standing journalistic tradition of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable,” there may be significant repercussions from this Administration.

That is a prospect that should concern every American, because complete and accurate information is essential to hold those in power accountable. What you can do is to support quality journalism financially when you see it, so that news outlets see some reward for holding to their ethics.

– rob rünt


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