AS U.S. President Trump intensified his attacks on American media this week -- his “fake news” diatribe morphing into “enemy of the people” blast -- two incidents have shed some light into the controversy.
Watchers of the White House and the constant turbulence that whips it say Trump’s agenda is clear. He deflects criticism over his errors and incidents of bungling, which sometimes border on the idiotic, by calling the news fake.
He has so perverted the phrase “fake news” that it serves as quick answer to any story or opinion he does not like. It’s also his weapon to hurl at the news outlet whence “the negative story” comes. Armor and sword in one set.
There’s another purpose, more insidious, even evil. He wants to shatter media’s credibility further so that whatever it reports or comments on is disbelieved and rejected by media consumers. He may be succeeding, given the readiness and ease that he spews out lies and insists on the lie even if the truth is shoved into his face.
Here, it’s not just the journalists and their organizations that suffer. Worse, the constant attack erodes the institution that under a democratic structure guards the nation’s freedoms.
That is Trump’s motive in his rant about the “disgusting fake media.” But from the viewpoint of people who see the problem up close, the turmoil that involves the U.S. president and the press, what’s wrong with Trump’s lament against media?
Two news events in the past few days seem to point to the same problem:
• Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and senior advisor at the White House, speaking before the digital news outlet Axios, corrected her dad by saying she does not believe the media is the enemy of the people. She has had her share, she said, of inaccurate and unfair reporting and she is sensitive to people who think they are targeted by media. But no, the press is not “the enemy of the people.”
• Arthur Gregg (A.G.) Sulzberger, publisher of the “New York Times,” which Trump also publicly thrashes, implored to the president at a White House meeting to “reconsider” his “broader attack on journalism.” He may still raise his complaints against NYT, or any other media outlet, but not the entire press as an institution.
Trump strafes media as “enemy of the people.” After his daughter contradicted him, he gave his own spin on her correction. “She correctly said it is fake news, which is a large percentage of the media, that is enemy of the people.” If Trump were a reporter, he was misquoting Ivanka who would complain if she were not his daughter.
That apparently is the deal: Trump making sweeping generalizations, shotgun fire at anything and everything in the news that does not present him as the greatest, the best, the most. And no specifics: which are incorrectly reported and what are his facts to prove his claim.
Method in madness
Would he now modify his regular “vituperative” attacks on the media that, Sulzberger cautioned, are harmful as these put journalists’ lives at risk and encourage dictators and presidents with authoritarian leanings to follow suit?
Not likely. There is a method in his seeming madness, which makes him a lot more dangerous.
Coping with him
The greater problem, it seems, is that American media is ambivalent on dealing with Trump: hating his lies and missteps and yet benefiting from his capacity to draw readers and audiences.
Even Sulzburger’s “the failing New York Times” reported last May a first quarter income of $415 million, a 3.8 percent increase over the same period in 2017. Thanks substantially to the “Trump derangement sydrome.”