The Cost of Trump’s Assault on the Press and the TruthBreaking News
tags: media, First Amendment, journalism, Donald Trump, press freedom
Presidents have always complained about the press. At awards ceremonies and journalism-school conferences, Thomas Jefferson is often remembered for his principled support: in 1787, he wrote to the Virginia statesman Edward Carrington, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate to prefer the latter.” Yet, by 1814, having endured the Presidency, Jefferson was not quite as high-minded, whining by post to a former congressman about “the putrid state” of newspapers and “the vulgarity, & mendacious spirit of those who write for them.”
You could hardly blame him. How would you like to read that one of John Adams’s surrogates has branded you a “mean-spirited, low-lived fellow”? No President escapes scrutiny or invective. In 1864, Harper’s listed the many epithets that the Northern press had hurled at Abraham Lincoln: Filthy Story-Teller, Despot, Liar, Thief, Braggart, Buffoon, Monster, Ignoramus, Scoundrel, Perjurer, Robber, Swindler, Tyrant, Fiend, Butcher, Ape, Demon, Beast, Baboon, Gorilla, Imbecile.
Donald Trump began his career convinced that reporters, once exposed to his myriad charms, would be willing stenographers of his story. He learned to elevate himself, his brand, and his interests largely by supplying the New York tabloids with a ready-made character, a strutting snake-oil salesman who provided an unending stream of gossip-page items about his personal and commercial exploits. It was of little concern to anyone that these items were, in the main, preposterous. Occasionally, investigative reporters, profile writers, and the courts would look more deeply into Trump’s swindles and business bankruptcies, but, as long as he skirted total ruin, he seemed to think that even his bad press added to his allure.
Trump’s relationship with reporters inevitably changed when he shifted his occupation to the command of the federal government. First as a candidate, and then in the early days of his Presidency, he discovered that the press was a variegated beast; Cindy Adams and Maggie Haberman were not of the same stuff. He could still depend on toadying support from some quarters, particularly the editorial holdings of Rupert Murdoch and emerging properties like Breitbart and Newsmax; however, he was now getting a more scrupulous going-over from what Sarah Palin had called “the lamestream media.” Trump craved the acceptance of such institutions as the Times and the Washington Post, but he knew that his base loathed them. And so he would loathe them, too, while at the same time declaring a new, Trumpian reality, constructed of what his adviser Kellyanne Conway memorably called “alternative facts.”
On his second day in office, Trump sent his press secretary, Sean Spicer, to the White House briefing room to con the nation the way he had conned the tabloids. The crowds on the Mall for Trump’s Inauguration, Spicer insisted, were unprecedented, despite the evidence to the contrary. A few weeks later, as news coverage further nettled Trump, he took to Twitter to declare that CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, and the Times were “the enemy of the American People.” The resonance was clear. In the Soviet era, to be branded an “enemy of the people” was to await a boxcar to the Gulag. Even the U.S. Senate, whose Republican majority would prove so unfailingly loyal to Trump, seemed alarmed. In August, 2018, the Senate passed, by unanimous consent, a resolution attesting to “the vital and indispensable role the free press serves.”
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