President Donald Trump speaks to reporters aboard Air Force One (The New York Times photo)
By Jim Rutenberg
He was at it again.
At 3:14 a.m. Friday, President Donald Trump was awake and tweeting.
“Funny how lowly rated CNN, and others, can criticize me at will, even blaming me for the current spate of Bombs and ridiculously comparing this to September 11th and the Oklahoma City bombing,” he wrote, “yet when I criticize them they go wild and scream, ‘it’s just not Presidential!’”
He tapped that one out as federal authorities were investigating the 12 pipe bombs mailed to billionaire George Soros, Democratic politicians, Robert De Niro and CNN. Hours later, Trump’s tweet was national news.
“President Blames Media For Attempted Bombs,” read the on-screen chyron on “Good Morning America” as an ABC News correspondent, Jonathan Karl, briefed anchor George Stephanopoulos on the president’s latest digital sortie from the still-dark White House lawn.
So began Day 645 of a presidency that has made denigrating the media one of its identifying features.
After mocking and insulting penned-in reporters on the campaign trail, Trump continued going after journalists the day after he was sworn in, over the size of his Inauguration Day crowd. Then came the “fake news,” “enemy of the people” negative branding campaign against those who would hold him to account.
Shortly before federal authorities arrested Cesar Sayoc Jr. — a registered Republican with a criminal record whose social media accounts were filled with right-wing conspiracy memes — the president was back on Twitter.
“Republicans are doing so well in early voting, and at the polls, and now this ‘Bomb’ stuff happens and the momentum greatly slows — news not talking politics,” he wrote in a 10:19 a.m. post Friday.
By referring to likely domestic terrorism as “this ‘Bomb’ stuff” and tying it to the coming midterm elections, Trump was making the not-so-veiled suggestion that the media was exaggerating the story because of some political motivation. Even in a national crisis, he was sticking with his anti-media strategy.
The question is, is it working?
The short answer is yes. Increasingly, the president’s almost daily attacks seem to be delivering the desired effect, despite the many examples of powerful reporting on his presidency. By one measure, a CBS News poll over the summer, 91 per cent of “strong Trump supporters” trust him to provide accurate information; 11 per cent said the same about the media.
Trump was open about the tactic in a 2016 conversation with Lesley Stahl of CBS News, which she shared earlier this year: “I do it to discredit you all and demean you all, so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you,” she quoted him as saying.
And with the president settling on “fear and falsehoods” as an election strategy, as The Washington Post put it last week, the political information system is awash in more misleading or flatly wrong assertions than reporters can keep up with. It’s as if Trump has hit the journalism industry with a denial-of-service attack.
We have seen gross distortions aplenty during political low moments in this country. But something like the “Swift Boat” campaign against Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry in 2004 — with its accusations that the candidate had faked his war record — seems almost quaint in retrospect. That attempt drew scrutiny from major media organisations, and eventually led to broad condemnation, even from the candidate it was intended to benefit, President George W. Bush.
Now, partisan smears are a staple of every single news cycle. As crude pipe bombs were discovered at CNN headquarters and in mailboxes across the country, Trump’s supporters like Fox Business host Lou Dobbs, Rush Limbaugh and conservative writer Ann Coulter asserted that the crime was a frame job by Democrats.
Before pipe bombs and the Pittsburgh synagogue shootings dominated the news, the main story was the migrant caravan — and it was accompanied by wild speculation on talk radio, social media and from opinionated personalities on Fox News. A myth went viral: The thousands of desperate Hondurans making their slow way toward the U.S. border were players in a drama hatched by Democrats and funded by the right’s all-purpose villain, Soros, a notion Trump seemed to nod to at a rally in Montana.
Reporters respond by pointing out that these assertions have no basis in fact, just as they attempt to knock back Trump’s manufactured content by producing running tallies of his false statements — more than 5,000, says The Washington Post’s Fact Checker column.
Now and then journalists will resort to the L-word, “lie,” as The New York Times has done on occasion. Other frequent targets of the president’s disdain, CNN and MSNBC, have debunked his claims with on-screen headlines and endless panel discussions.
Such good-faith efforts, however, seem increasingly ineffectual. The president has succeeded in casting journalists as the prime foils on his never-ending reality show, much to the delight of those who cheer him on at rallies.
“He has succeeded in creating a daily narrative in which he is the central figure,” Steve Coll, the dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism and a staff writer at The New Yorker, told me. “And he uses props and invented opposition — whether they are migrants hundreds of miles from the U.S. border or the press right in front of him — to pursue this kind of idea he has about how his populism works.”
Trump’s communications director for 10 days, Anthony Scaramucci, was matter-of-fact when he told Bloomberg TV on Thursday, “Yes, the president is lying, but he’s doing it intentionally to incite certain people, which would include left-leaning journalists and most of the left-leaning politicians.”
By engaging with his ceaseless attacks and baseless claims, are journalists falling into a trap? That’s the view of Steven Pinker, a Harvard professor of cognitive science, who has described the president as a promoter of a “counter-Enlightenment ideology.” Even with its saturation coverage of the pipe bombs, Pinker argued on Twitter, “The press gets gamed again.”
In a telephone interview, he said the media had read too much into the acts of one disturbed person. “It’s not a reflection, in itself, of the mood of the country,” Pinker said.
He conceded, though, that the media cannot ignore Trump. And there’s the conundrum. This president “speaks a lot and tweets a lot without his material being vigorously vetted, and there are many more factual inaccuracies that we have to deal with,” said Glenn Kessler, the longtime Fact Checker columnist at The Post.
But by so often putting his words under a microscope, journalists may give the impression to Trump’s supporters and even some undecided voters that they are out to get him.
“It signals that there is a different issue at play here, which is a desire to constantly portray Trump and everything he and his administration says as lies,” said Danielle Pletka, a senior vice president at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research organization. She added that the media should stop picking at his every rhetorical nit and focus, instead, on his biggest whoppers.
But the idea of letting falsehoods and lies go unchallenged for the sake of public relations goes against the average reporter’s reason for getting up in the morning. So what to do?
I turned to an expert in rhetoric, David Zarefsky, professor emeritus at Northwestern University. Reporters must adjust themselves to someone who has thrown out the classical rules of debate, he said.
“Logic and argument is built upon a set of assumptions, and Trump largely rejects those assumptions,” he said. “One of those assumptions has to do with the importance of facts and the power of generally accepted beliefs.”
As he sees it, a common mistake reporters make is “holding on to conventional standards of judgment that he has just cast aside.”
In practical terms, then, journalists should ignore Trump’s tactic of using false narratives to divert their attention away from real crises, he said.
But how long will it take the media to come up with a more effective way to counter the litany of baseless claims washing through the news cycle?
At this rate, a solution may come sometime in Trump’s third term.