There is nothing dispassionate about the United States president. He loves those who lavish praise upon him and slaps back at critics and rivals, past and present. The indisputable fact that no politician can please all of the people all of the time completely escapes him. Every critique is seen as a personal attack on his performance, warranting a tongue-lashing or twitter storm in response.
In recent days, he turned his ire towards French President Emmanuel Macron for daring to suggest that Europe needs to shore up its own defence capabilities, echoing a similar comment from the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who had earlier this year said Europe should “take its destiny into its own hands”.
Hillary Clinton, former US president Barack Obama and the Democrats, bent on flooding the US with immigrants, drug dealers and murderers and depriving Americans of their guns — or so he maintains — are permanently in Trump’s sights, along with his recently-sacked attorney general Jeff Sessions, whose ‘crime’ was to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. But Trump’s number one internal foe is, beyond doubt, the ‘purveyors of fake news’ whom he dubs “the enemy of the people”.
No other president has termed a journalist “unprofessional” and “a rude, terrible person” for attempting to ask a question and no other press secretary has tried to excuse the revocation of a press pass by disseminating an alleged doctored video
Asked whether his anti-media rhetoric incites violence days after pipe bombs were sent to CNN by a supporter whose van was decorated with “CNN Sucks” posters, Trump insisted he needs to fight back against “the purposely false and inaccurate reporting of the Mainstream Media”.
In truth, CNN, the Washington Post and the New York Times, among many other networks and papers, have been nipping at the president’s heels ever since his presidential campaign. Reporters have rarely given a US president an easy ride. It is not their job to be White House lackeys. They are intermediaries between the government and the people. Some incumbents have got off comparatively lightly; others haven’t been so fortunate.
Richard Nixon could have left office with dignity if not for the ferreting of Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein who exposed Watergate. President Obama was savaged by Fox News and displayed exasperation on occasions. An intrusive media spotlight goes with the territory, but no president under fire has retaliated in Trump’s hard-hitting fashion haranguing members of the White House Press Corps for asking “stupid” or “racist” questions as he did during his post-midterm election press conference.
No other president has termed a journalist “unprofessional” and “a rude, terrible person” for attempting to ask a question and no other press secretary has tried to excuse the revocation of a press pass by disseminating an alleged doctored video. CNN’s Jim Acosta may not be the politest person on the planet, but he did not deserve being slandered for laying hands on an intern. This is “insulting not only to the nation’s journalists, but to its people,” stated the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
The media may be the bane of presidents’ lives and today, more than ever, it is riddled with biases, but with all its flaws, a free media is the fourth pillar of democracy. The First Amendment explicitly bars Congress from passing any law abridging the freedom of the Press. President Trump maintains his supporters like his denigration of the media.
If that’s true, it is nothing short of Orwellian. Changing reality to suit, presenting altered facts as truth, rewriting history and telling people not to believe their eyes and ears are straight out of 1984’s Big Brother. In July, Trump said this in a speech: “What you’re seeing and what you are reading is not what’s happening.”
Undermining trust in the media is dangerous; it produces a sceptical, suspicious public unable to believe in anything at all whether positive or negative. Truth becomes subjective. That’s in evidence on social media. Readers pick and choose commentaries. News that doesn’t fit with their world view is easily dismissed as fake news. What will they believe in a real emergency, I wonder! The media is fighting back to safeguard its reputation. Newspapers have published editorials against Trump’s anti-media tirades. The PEN American Centre has filed a lawsuit against the president in a federal court. Some 211 journalists have penned a letter describing Trump’s attacks on the free press as un-American, unlawful and unseemly.
Ultimately, Trump is not doing himself any favours by alienating the media. If he imagines that insults or banning reporters from the White House will result in a glowing coverage, he will be wise to think again. He may have tamed his former Republican detractors in Congress, but taming the media is a challenge he is certain to lose.
Linda S. Heard is an award-winning British political columnist and guest television commentator with a focus on the Middle East.