2017 Press Releases

Op-ed: What's the real reason for Trump's attacks on media?

2 Mar 2017
Anthony Angelini, lecturer with Adult Continuing Education (ACE), UCC: The US needs a free media to differentiate between facts and "alternative facts."

Donald Trump’s labelling of the media as an “enemy of the American people” has caused a great deal of concern amongst journalists and politicians. Is this merely an exaggerated response to criticism, or is it representative of a dangerous strategy to silence voices of dissent?

One of the most unique aspects of the Trump Presidency has been the frequency with which it attacks the press. Through tweets and public statements, Trump has repeatedly criticised the actions of the news media. He has described critical reports as “fake news” and has called journalists “among the most dishonest human beings on earth”.

In an interview with The New York Times, Trump’s chief advisor Steve Bannon launched a ferocious broadside against the news media; criticising them for not predicting the election result: “The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.” Bannon made the Trump Administration’s perception of traditional news organisations abundantly clear: “The media here is the opposition party”.

This willingness to attack the press is matched by the tendency of the new Administration to utter statements that are demonstrably false. Indeed, Trump’s Presidential campaign was marked by an engagement in what would become known as “post-truth” politics. This post-truth tendency has continued unabated since Trump became President. He has already engaged in a farcical debate about the number of people who attended his inauguration, when metro numbers and photographs clearly contradicted his statements. Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway’s use of the term “alternative facts” to describe the evidence of Trump’s “historic” inauguration numbers, had media experts frantically thumbing through their dog-eared copies of George Orwell’s 1984.

Trump has suggested that the reason he lost the popular vote is that over three million people voted illegally; a belief that has been ridiculed by politicians on both side of the aisle. When he spoke at the CIA headquarters, on his second day as President, he suggested that the ongoing feud between himself and the Intelligence Services had been a media invention. This ignores the fact that, a week beforehand, he had compared the Intelligence Service investigation into Russian involvement in his election victory to the actions of Nazi Germany. At last week’s press conference, Trump again parroted a false narrative about his election; describing his Electoral College victory as the largest since Ronald Reagan; a falsehood that was quickly debunked by a reporter in the room. In this situation, Trump was forced to concede his argument, but in most cases, any attempt by the media to contradict his statements are quickly denounced as “fake news”.

The picture painted is one of an incredibly thin-skinned and insecure President; unable to deal with criticism and contrary views. However, the Vox writer Ezra Klein suggests that this tendency to blatantly lie about frivolous matters is not merely evidence of incompetence, but part of a larger strategy, testing the waters to see how far a lie can carry them: “The Trump administration is creating a baseline expectation among its loyalists that they can’t trust anything said by the media. The spat over crowd size is a low-stakes, semi-comic dispute, but the groundwork is being laid for much more consequential debates over what is, and isn’t, true”.

This attempt at fashioning an alternative reality is a regular tactic of the far right. They consistently promote a culture of fear. Fear of immigrants, fear of minorities, fear of crime; these are motivating factors for their supporters. Steve Bannon’s website Breitbart is infamous for its negative portrayal of minority groups and its focus on crime. Many of Trump’s statements match this concept of a chaotic world; painting an apocalyptic vision of the US and the world at large. Last week, he falsely stated that the murder rate in the country is the highest it’s been in 47 years. It is in fact half of what it was in the early 1990s.

Trump’s arguments and unverified statistics have been consistently undermined by fact checkers. The news media has become a source of frustration for his team, as their focus on the truth and factual data punches holes in many of the post-truth statements that have emanated from the White House.

Historians have pointed out similarities between President Trump and President Nixon, who in 1972 told his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger: “The press is the enemy.” Carl Bernstein, the journalist who helped to uncover the Watergate scandal, believes that the President’s language and sentiment echoes that of Nixon; “there is a similarity in trying to divide the country, and make the conduct of the press the issue, instead of the conduct of the president."

Ezra Klein makes the point that the Trump team’s attacks on traditional media are attempts to deflect allegations of corruption and incompetence: “Delegitimizing the institutions that might report inconvenient or damaging facts about the president is strategic for an administration that has made a slew of impossible promises and takes office amid a cloud of ethics concerns and potential scandals”

Speaking on the NBC programme Meet The Press, Republican Senator John McCain emphasised the importance of an unrestricted news media; “…if you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversarial press. Without it, I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That’s how dictators get started.”

The Trump White House is only one month old, but it has already raised international concerns regarding its attitudes to immigrants, its business ethics and its potential ties to the Russian government. With an Administration that is so willing to bend the truth even when dealing with matters of little significance; the presence of a free and independent press becomes a necessity. Should the Trump Administration choose to take military action in the future, a high level of journalistic scrutiny becomes even more essential. At such an uncertain time in its history, the US needs a free media to differentiate between facts and “alternative facts”.

Originally published in the Evening Echo. 

Anthony Angelini lectures with Adult Continuing Education (ACE), UCC. 

University College Cork

Coláiste na hOllscoile Corcaigh

College Road, Cork T12 K8AF