Trump’s War With The Press And Truth
by Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News
“Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?”
- Groucho Marx, 1933
President Donald Trump’s crowd at his inauguration was smaller than Obama’s was in 2009 – significantly smaller. There weren’t 1.5 million – more like 500,000 or less. Though Trump won the Electoral College and the presidency, he lost the popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton by nearly 2.9 million votes. His loss of the popular vote was not due to massive voter fraud.
Trump was highly critical of the nation’s intelligence agencies, denied Russian involvement in trying to sway our election, and did compare CIA officers to Nazis. He did say he would be willing to believe WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange over his own intelligence agencies. He has belittled them in refusing to take the daily intelligence briefings.
However, if you followed the news at all this past week you would have found these truths challenged by Trump and his new Press Secretary Sean Spicer. We are in a new era where we will be told what we see and hear isn’t really what we thought it was – we will be given a new reality that fits the Trump Administration’s version of the truth.
We have always needed a vigilant and aggressive press to hold those in power accountable whether Democrats or Republicans. A healthy democracy demands an informed citizenry that it only gets from a press that is trusted and strong enough to challenge the immense power wielded by a president and the leaders of Congress.
However, we face two significant problems today with our press. First, it isn’t widely respected. Second, people have the option of not following a newspaper, radio station or television station that is critical of their politicians or politics – even when those media outlets provide accurate, substantiated facts.
While our country’s leaders have had a grudging respect for the press, despite an often combative relationship, they have for the most part acknowedged its essential role as what has been called through our history “The Fourth Estate” – a recognized but unofficial fourth branch of the nation’s foundation alongside the courts, Congress and the presidency. Each holds the excesses of the other in check.
Today our trust in The Fourth Estate is being eroded by television stations that shun unbiased reporting in favor of chasing an audience – Fox and MSNBC are the most recognized among this group. Highly partisan talk radio has been around for a long time. The internet is awash with fake news sites that not only twist the truth, but also create blatantly false stories that are eagerly accepted by those who like the message.
Sadly, another way in which faith in the press is being undermined is through the constant attack of once candidate Trump and now President Trump. He does his best to discredit the press trying to make his followers and the general public believe it is incapable of telling the truth. There is a purpose to his constant criticism. A discredited press makes the public more readily accept his half-truths and lies when confronted by stories of investigations into finances, his university, allegations of sexual harassment, reasons for not releasing his tax returns, and his conflicts of interest.
“Trump needs to delegitimize the media because he needs to delegitimize facts,” columnist Ezra Klein writes. “The Trump administration is creating a baseline expectation among its loyalists that they can’t trust anything said by the media.”
To win the information war you have to make your supporters, as well as those on the fence, believe that the other side is putting out false information, that they are biased, and out to get you.
The shaping of Trump’s followers’ belief that the press was dishonest and out to get him took hold during his campaign for the presidency. His supporters whole-heartedly embraced his attack of the press. It didn’t take much urging from him to get them to chant, “Tell the truth” and “CNN sucks.” He called the press “puppets,” “whores,” “press-titutes,” and “dishonest scum.”
“Reporters who work for these outlets like The Washington Post or The New York Times may think of themselves as journalists, but they’re actually just cogs in a corporate, political machine,” he said at one event. The press is “The most powerful weapon deployed by the Clintons is the corporate media,” Trump claimed.
Reporters at The New York Times are, “Third rate people. I’m telling you. Third rate. Bad people. Bad people. Sick people!” That comment came in response to the newspaper’s reporting on two women who had accused him of inappropriate touching. “It is a failing newspaper,” he said.
It is no surprise that he went after two of the most respected newspapers in America - two newspapers with deep reporting staffs that do investigative journalism and have the power to hold the powerful accountable.
His assault on the press has continued during his first week in office. “There has been a lot of talk in the media about the responsibility of holding Donald Trump accountable,” Spicer warned the press. “I am here to tell you that it goes two ways. We are going to hold the press accountable as well.”
Yes, keep the press accountable. Call us out when we get the story wrong. But don’t create an alternate reality or a new set of facts when you don’t like or can’t accept the truth.
While we certainly did not support Trump, don’t agree with much of what he proposes, he has to be given his chance to govern. However, we have to be able to judge his behavior and actions through the solid reporting of trusted, professional journalism.
And believe it or not, most of the press is dedicated to getting the story right. Journalists at newspapers who make up facts, show bias in their reporting, or consistently make mistakes, get fired. Newspapers that print lies get sued. These are things people writing for partisan web sites don’t have to worry about.