Not long ago I was talking with my colleague David Kurtz. We agreed that in many respects the big mainstream media players – the ‘MSM’ – had exceeded our expectations in grappling with the novelty and strong-manism of President Trump and his entourage. Reporters aggressively press for access, normal on-camera press conferences and against raise a clamor at all the petty and sometimes trivial ways the Trump White House tries to put reporters and news organizations in their place. We now see major media outlets – newspapers and TV networks – cataloguing the President’s lies. And calling them ‘lies’. This isn’t remotely like anything we’ve seen before. My point here isn’t to say things are peachy and everything’s perfect. I’m as big a press critic as ever. But much of what one might have feared about a corporate, mainstream media normalizing Trump’s abnormal, unAmerican behavior actually has not happened.
But as long as the effort is to try to shame Trump and his crew into appearing on camera, holding press conferences, not refusing access, not hiding in bushes there is a big limit to its effectiveness. Fundamentally trying to shame the President or demand he change his behavior amounts to begging, making reporters and news organizations into supplicants, even if aggressive ones. That creates the spectacle of dominance which is precisely what Trump craves and is trying to achieve.
I think this is critical to understand. Swatting away press complaints and demands isn’t a cost the White House is willing to incur to restrict press access. Provoking just these kinds of confrontations is most of the reason for restricting access in the first place.
We’ve collectively been living in Donald Trump’s house now for more than two years. We know him really well. We know that he sees everything through a prism of the dominating and the dominated. It’s a zero-sum economy of power and humiliation. For those in his orbit he demands and gets a slavish adoration. Even those who take on his yoke of indignity are fed a steady diet mid-grade humiliations to drive home their status and satisfy Trump’s need not only for dominance but unending public displays of dominance. He is a dark, damaged person.
Trump’s treatment of the press is really a version of the same game, a set of actions meant to produce the public spectacle of ‘Trump acts; reporters beg.’ ‘Reporters beg and Trump says no.’ Demanding, shaming all amount to trying to force actions which reporters have no ability to compel. That signals weakness. And that’s the point.
Let me say this: I don’t think this is an easy situation to grapple with. But I don’t think the press can do its job if it allows itself to play this role in Trump’s public spectacle. The only way to grapple with this type of gangland White House is not to beg or demand but simply make clear that hiding, acting in secrecy is cowardly, a sign of hidden bad acts, simply unAmerican and let the Trump entourage live with that label. Begging and complaining make no sense when the point of behavior is to make you beg. It can’t work and it drives a cascading cycle of indignity that is both demoralizing and enervating.
Now you may say, well they couldn’t care less what label you give them! What you’re suggesting just means Trump wins either way. Demand access and you lose or accept no access and lose all the same. It might seem that way. But I don’t agree. As I said, we’ve been living in this guy’s house for some time. People who don’t cower, who don’t let Trump dictate the terms of their engagement with him tend to unhinge him. Not even ‘tend’. It’s a clear and consistent pattern. We’ve seen it with Khan, Machado, Macron. Trump thrives on people who play parts in his dominance rituals; he derives a malign psychic nourishment from it; he comes either unglued or ingratiating when people refuse to play that part.
The problem of course is that what I’m describing is way, way out of the major brand news media’s comfort zone, and not all for bad reasons. But the visual spectacle of stiff-arming the news media and making them beg, complain, shame and demand the White House act differently when they have no power to compel them to do so is what dominance theatrics are meant to achieve. I do not pretend this is easy – not for any of us and especially not for those who operate within the specific constraints of major corporate media. We are collectively not accustomed to dealing with someone like this. Even self-possessed, powerful people are not infrequently discombobulated at first by abusive and sadistic behavior. But the answer is not to think that we can shame someone into changing their behavior when the point of the behavior is to trigger the shaming itself. That makes no sense. A better approach is to identify this behavior as what it is and report it as news, not try to change it.
I do not pretend that Trump’s crackdowns on access are unimportant. But they are not the critical things that journalists require to do their job. The blockbuster stories, the critical revelations don’t come from press briefings or pool access. They come from things that a President, at least for now, has far less ability to curtail. We should focus on those and report the reality before our eyes. That is befitting of the dignity of a free press in any case and I suspect, for the reasons I outlined above, it will be more effective in any case.