Last week I watched a conversation on MSNBC in which the anchor asked a guest whether it wasn’t a problem that Buzzfeed had published the Trump ‘dossier’ because this would now give Trump some credibility in dismissing any reporting he didn’t like as “fake news”. There are plenty of grounds to criticize Buzzfeed’s decision on standard journalistic grounds. But the idea seemed to be that because President-Elect Trump was already accusing prestigious journalism organizations of producing “fake news”, Buzzfeed’s decision might allow him to do it more.
There was a further uproar when Trump shouted down CNN’s Jim Acosta when Acosta tried to insist that Trump answer a question from CNN if he was going to loudly attack the organization’s integrity. Later Trump’s incoming Press Secretary Sean Spicer threatened to kick Acosta out of future press conferences if he didn’t show Trump more respect. This weekend brought news that the new administration is considering kicking the White House press corps out of the White House. And finally on Sunday, in a meeting with the President of the White House Correspondents Association, Spicer “expressed concern that journalists adhere to a high level of decorum” at press conferences and briefings. This presumably came in a meeting pressing the new administration not to clamp down on access to the President and the White House.
On top of this, in the last couple days there’s been a medium post circulating from a Russian journalist warning his American colleagues of what to expect under Trump. One key paragraph reads …
You’re Always Losing. This man owns you. He understands perfectly well that he is the news. You can’t ignore him. You’re always playing by his rules — which he can change at any time without any notice. You can’t — in Putin’s case — campaign to vote him out of office. Your readership is dwindling because ad budgets are shrinking — while his ratings are soaring, and if you want to keep your publication afloat, you’ll have to report on everything that man says as soon as he says it, without any analysis or fact-checking, because 1) his fans will not care if he lies to their faces; 2) while you’re busy picking his lies apart, he’ll spit out another mountain of bullshit and you’ll be buried under it.
Let me say first the piece is quite good. It’s worth reading. But as a prediction of what awaits the American press, I think it is way, way off the mark and the kind of pusillanimous, defeatist attitude we’ve seen in this cattle call of Trump outrages listed above. Presidents don’t validate what is and isn’t news. If you’re expecting them to, you’re doing it wrong. Almost nothing that is truly important about the work of a free press is damaged by moving the press office across the street.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that these things are not important or that all these threats aren’t a very bad sign. It is vastly preferable to have a President who believes in or at least respects American and democratic values. But let’s get real: we don’t or won’t as of Friday. Trump is a would-be authoritarian and a bully. He’s surrounded by mediocrities who owe all to him and feel validated by enabling his endless transgressions. Of course, he’s doing these things. We know Trump’s MO. He will bully people until they’re cowed and humiliated and obedient. He’ll threaten to kick the reporters out of the White House and then either cut a ‘deal’ or make some big to-do about ‘allowing’ the reporters to stay. These are all threats and mind games meant not so much to cow the press as make them think Trump is continually taking things away from them and that they need to make him stop.
They don’t need to. That access isn’t necessary to do their jobs. And bargaining over baubles of access which are of little consequence is not compatible with doing their job. Access can provide insight and understanding. But it’s almost never where the good stuff comes from. Journalists unearth factual information and report it. If Trump wants to turn America into strong man state, journalists should cover that story rather than begging Trump not to be who he is. America isn’t Russia. And I don’t think he can change us into Russia. So unless and until we see publications shut down and journalists arrested or disappeared, let’s have a little more confidence in our values and our history and our country.
I’ve been surprised at the extent to which right-thinking people are all but threatening themselves with what Trump might do to, collapsing into their own sense of powerlessness. Maybe he’ll jail his opponents! Maybe he’ll call off the 2018 election! Here it is worth remembering things we learned from the campaign. Trump’s one true gift is his ability to get his critics to surrender up their own dignity somehow of their own free will. That is just what he is trying to do to the press at this moment. It’s no different from the dominance politics he played on his opponents in the GOP primaries.
Trump wants to bully the press and profit off the presidency. He’s told us this clearly in his own words. We need to accept the reality of both. The press should cover him on that basis, as a coward and a crook. The big corporate media organizations may not be able to use those words, I understand, but they should employ that prism. The truth is that his threats against the press to date are ones it is best to laugh at. If Trump should take some un- or extra-constitutional actions, we will deal with that when it happens. I doubt he will or can. But I won’t obsess about it in advance. Journalists should be unbowed and aggressive and with a sense of humor until something happens to prevent them from doing so. Trump is a punk and a bully. People who don’t surrender up their dignity to him unhinge him.
Much the same applies to the endless chatter about ‘conflicts of interest’ and the insufficiency of his plan to separate himself from his businesses. Why are we still saying Trump isn’t doing enough to avoid conflicts of interest? He’s made clear he wants to profit off his presidency. Let’s accept that. That is what he wants to do. If you’re a journalist, start documenting the details. If you’re an activist or politician start mobilizing against his corruption.
Trump is the most unpopular incoming President in American history. We only have data on this going back a few decades. But there’s little reason to think any President in previous decades or centuries has been this unpopular. Indeed, he’s getting less popular as he approaches his inauguration. People need to have a bit more confidence in themselves, their values and their country. As soon as you realize that Trump wants to profit from the presidency and that the Republicans are focused and helping him do so, all the questions become easier to answer and the path forward more clear. His threats against the press are the same. He’s threatening to take away things the press doesn’t truly need in order to instill a relationship of dominance.
There’s nothing more undignified and enervating than fretting about whether the President-Elect will brand real news ‘fake news’ or worrying whether his more authoritarian supporters can be convinced to believe – pleaded with, instructed to, prevailed upon – actual factual information. The answer to attacks on journalism is always more journalism. And the truth is that Trump’s threats are cheap stunts and bluffs, threatening to take away things journalists don’t need.