One of the most unsurprising things about President Donald Trump’s first days in office is that it was full of surprises in the voices and images that consumed the national media’s attention.
Trump is the master at getting the media to focus on him, rather than competing or critical events, by personalizing his conflict with newspapers and networks.
He did it in his populist campaign for president. And he did it again on Saturday with remarks at the CIA headquarters, where he countered coverage of the women’s protest march with a torching of the press for what he said was lying about the size of the crowd at his inauguration and making it seem as though he had a feud with the intelligence community.
“I have a running war with the media,” Trump stated. “They are among the most dishonest human beings on Earth.”
The networks took the bait. Instead of accepting it as another president belittling their duty to report the news, they devoted Sunday’s news and public affairs programs to indignation over Trump’s remarks -- and those of his press secretary -- about the media lying, when indeed Trump and his secretary were guilty of untruths.
The women’s marches in Washington and elsewhere Saturday, unprecedented for their huge crowds, received here today, gone tomorrow coverage – to the delight of the Trump team.
Say what you will about Trump, he is the prince of the upper hand -- the P.T. Barnum of marketing and now politics. Barnum’s gilded scheming made him the world’s premier showman and shameless self-promoter of the 19th century, leading to a fortune with the “Greatest Show on Earth” circus.
Trump has cast himself as the bombastic greatest show on the planet of the 21st century, with the press playing the part of pratfall clown.
His approach is new; his purpose old. Every president has conflicts with the press. President Thomas Jefferson, famously quoted as preferring newspapers to government given the choice, was the plaintiff in one of the nation’s first libel lawsuits against a newspaper in 1803.
The press has long been a whipping boy of politicians who operate on the premise the public, especially their loyalists, will side with them.
Trump has applied the premise better than anyone in the age of social media. Diehards take his tweets as real news and mainstream media reports as suspect, if not fake.
Regrettably, the public is increasingly gullible, preferring information that reinforces personal biases, never mind the facts. Witness the flood of comments on social media sites embracing Saturday’s false statements by Trump and press secretary Sean Spicer.
Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, applied an odd characterization to the falsehoods, describing them as “alternative facts,” during an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” She said there’s “no way to really quantify crowds” – essentially telling the public to disbelieve published aerial photos showing fewer people, by far, attended Trump’s inauguration than President Obama’s in 2009.
There’s little chance surly tensions will ever relent between the Trump administration and the press. Reince Priebus, White House chief of staff, told “Fox News Sunday” the dispute over crowd size isn’t the point. “The point is the attacks and the attempt to delegitimize this president in one day,” he said. “And we’re not going to take it. We’re going to fight back tooth and nail every day and twice on Sunday.”
A contentious warning. The press needs to respond forcefully with accurate, fact-based journalism, holding Trump and his administration accountable whenever they deploy “alternate facts” and other deceptive approaches to mask the truth.
But the press also needs to avoid the trap of the president’s P.T. Barnum act that portrays Trump as victim in order to divert attention from unfavorable coverage. Better to stick to robust reportage of substantive issues. In time, Trump will hang himself with his rants against the press and his self-glorification.
Toward that end, news reporters should resist the temptation to express personal opinions on social media. And all journalists need to take care to get their facts right and the right facts before posting news alerts on the internet. The erroneous tweet Friday night by a Time magazine reporter that the bust of Martin Luther King Jr. had been removed from the Oval Office hurt – despite the follow-up tweet 27 minutes later correcting the mistake, saying the bust was obscured by a Secret Service agent and a door.
A quick trigger finger on Twitter or other social media is guaranteed to lead to embarrassing results. And, more importantly, loss of believability.
The media cannot waver in its responsibility as a watchdog over government at all levels – a role that has never been more important. It can do this effectively in the news columns with verifiable information and fair coverage, eschewing opinion masquerading as news. Analytical reporting should be clearly labeled as such. Political columns and editorials belong on the editorial pages in print and opinion sections online.
Credibility is the best antidote to a president, or anyone else, who declares war on the press.
Bill Ketter is senior vice president of news for Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.