Media breakdown enables Trump's onslaught against the press

Media breakdown enables Trump's onslaught against the press
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump watching 'very closely' as Portland braces for dueling protests WaPo calls Trump admin 'another threat' to endangered species Are Democrats turning Trump-like? MORE bashing the press is seemingly now a routine component of every news development. Trump wrapped up his trip to Singapore with a media scorching tweet that singled out NBC and CNN for ridicule and concluded with the hyperbolic claim, “Our country’s biggest enemy is the Fake News so easily promulgated by fools!”

Such continued attacks on the press are unnecessary and disregard the important role a free press plays in America. Trump surely has more important things to think about. Even the most devoted Trump supporter knows Russia, Iran, terrorism, national debt, and, of course, North Korea are more threatening to the nation than newshounds.

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Trump’s media bashing strategy, however, appears to be serving him well. Citizen trust in the media remains disturbingly low. Trump’s approval ratings, while not overly impressive, have shown modest improvement. Thus, Trump’s anti-press barrages are apparently causing no negative consequences, except in the psyche of the reporting community, which no doubt delights Trump.

 

The news media faced an enormous challenge in covering the Trump-Kim summit. Trump, the reality television star and master showman, made sure the summit was highly staged. Kim, the master propagandist, too, did his part in the synchronized show. The visuals provided plenty of smiles and handshakes, the signing of a document that meant who-knows-what, and even Trump showing off his presidential limo. The media showed all of it, and kept showing it.

The rhetorical power of visuals was obvious, but the press was left without any knowledge of what really happened in the closed door deliberations. Sure, Trump provided a lengthy post-summit press conference, but it is anybody’s guess about how closely his remarks in that context approximated the face-to-face encounter with Kim.

Thus, with virtually no real facts to go on, the press was left to fill a huge news agenda with very little substance. A news organization could spin the summit as a great success of diplomacy. Just as easily, a news outlet could portray the summit as a failure, with Trump being duped while providing a despot with international legitimacy. Beyond the staged visuals, the reporting about the summit basically had little to do with any known facts, but everything to do with the attitudes and predispositions of the reporters and their editors/producers.

The twentieth century sociopolitical observer, G.K. Chesterton, himself at one time a journalist, once wrote, “Journalism is a conventional art like any other, that it selects, heightens, and falsifies.” As has become custom in covering Trump, most media outlets chose to report the summit in a negative light for the Trump administration. In a football sense, the media out-kicked its coverage, over-reporting and speculating about what the summit did or did not accomplish.

This overreach opened the door for Trump to again lash out at the media. In his media-attacking tweet, Trump wrote, “They (NBC and CNN) are fighting hard to downplay the deal with North Korea.” Trump thus echoed Chesterton’s concern that journalism “selects” and “heightens.” Trump’s criticism is self-serving, to be sure, but his assertion that certain news outlets consciously work against him resonates with his supporters and even many centrist citizens who want journalism to operate with a certain probity.

The press must find a way to provide close scrutiny of the Trump administration, but without the appearance that it is “fighting hard” for anything other than accuracy and evenhandedness. The news industry will never make Trump happy and that is not its job. The press should, however, be a surrogate for the citizens, and surveys indicate the citizenry has little confidence in the institution. When the president and the press brawl, it is the American people who lose.

Chesterton warned of a journalism industry that became detached from its constituency, “The journalist, having grown accustomed to talking down to the public, commonly talks too low at last, and becomes merely barbaric and unintelligible.” The media can’t control Trump’s anti-press outbursts, but it can work to manage its professionalism and again become true surrogates of the citizenry. That would be the best way to blunt Trump’s war against the press.

Jeffrey McCall (@Prof_McCall) is a professor of communication at DePauw University.