Beyond retaliation, Donald Trump's media ban a clever strategy to discredit adversarial press

Donald Trump’s tiff with the media, or rather the “enemy” media, is turning uglier by the day. The adversarial coverage, or “fake news” as he likes to call it, seems to weigh so much on the Trump administration that he is blatantly exercising Presidential prerogative for a winning shot in this game of egos.

Repeated attempts to berate ‘unfavourable coverage’

On Friday, Trump bad mouthed press, whose coverage he didn’t like and berated the members of a federal agency in an unprecedented and most scathing attack ever launched by a sitting US president. Later the same day, he shocked everyone by barring select media organistaions from a white House presser, and on Saturday he announced that he will skip the White House Correspondents' Association (WHCA) annual dinner, becoming the first US President in decades to do so.

US President Donald Trump. AP

US President Donald Trump. AP

Before him, only Ronald Reagan has missed the traditional event that raises funds for independent journalism, while he was recuperating from an assassination attempt.

Earlier too, Trump had trained his guns on news media, whose coverage he found unpalatable. Addressing a gathering of conservative activists on Friday he criticised news organisations that he said provides "fake news", calling them the "enemy" of the American people.

“I want you all to know that we are fighting the fake news. It’s fake, phoney, fake,” Trump had said.

But nothing beats the Friday’s open show of authoritarianism displayed at the White House as Trump barred CNN, The New York Times, Buzzfeed, Politico and the Los Angeles Times from a news briefing declining to give any clear reasons.

Now, off-camera press conferences are not unusual. Smaller briefings are also not unheard of but gaggles in the White House are usually open to all outlets and they are free to ask anything.

Cherrypicking a bouquet of largely favourable media representatives to brief about the state’s executive actions is not only highly unusual but sets a dangerous precedent.

What’s behind the Trump-Media animosity?

If a report by CNN is to be believed, the FBI had rejected a White House request to publicly knock down media reports about communications between Trump's associates and Russians known to US intelligence during the 2016 presidential campaign.

This is why, when Trump left out the news organisation that usually take on an adversarial role, he set a dangerous precedent. It raises deep concerns, and in the words of his own press secretary means that the Trump administration is tracking towards "dictatorship."

If Spicer, who at present shouts down reporters at Trump press briefings, would recall his own words from a few months ago, it will put Friday's developments in perspective for the Trump administration.

Spicer had said in a 16 December interview that free press is "what makes a democracy a democracy versus a dictatorship," according to Vox.

"We have a respect for the press when it comes to the government, that is something you can’t ban an entity from,” Spicer had said.

Not just Spicer, but the First Amendment that guarantees a free press is at the very core of the US Constitution, which Trump took an oath to protect when he was sworn-in as the president.

The US Department of State website states "the press is often a target of retaliation by those who feel threatened by freedom of expression and transparency in democratic processes".

So, could it be that the Trump administration was finally finding it too hard to turn down the heat from the media, relentlessly reporting on his alleged links with Russia and financial conflict of interest through his vast business empire?

This unprecedented vitriol spewing and authoritarianism only makes the Trump administration look jittery and uncomfortable.

The fake news narrative is sounding more and more unconvincing by the day and this head-on attack on the media could spur a professional solidarity amid journalists. The AP and Times walked out of the presser the moment they heard that others had been barred from attending the news conference and the White House Correspondents also protested. If a unification of media ranks does happen, it will spell trouble for Trump sooner or later, which will be beyond any PR damage control mechanisms. Earlier in 2009, when under Obama administration the Treasury Department had tried to exclude Fox News (conservative news organisation that was sharply critical of Obamas policies), it drew a lot of flak. The Treasury Department was then forced to state that the omission was made only due to "logistical reasons", as reported in Time.

Therefore, the President of United States cannot go on behaving like a grumpy child, who will bully others into saying what he feels is right.

The start of an unsettling trend

The Trump administration’s handling of its differences with the news media shows Trump’s autocratic mindset. The difference of opinion between the Conservatives and Liberals goes back in history since the US democracy came into being. However, Trump’s style of governance shows that the multimillionaire, who is used to hiring and firing dissidents at whim, has minimal understanding of the subtle art of diplomacy and finding a common ground with one’s opponents.

Besides that, it seems like bullying does work in undermining media organisations. Trump’s core support base seems to be enjoying the Trump-vs-media narrative. The average Trump supporter has shown in the past too that they trust their president over the media, as reported in The New York Times. Plus, discrediting the media seems to be the best strategy when you have an increasingly adversarial reportage to deal with. It is far easier for Trump to cast doubt on an adversarial media than rebutting each and every allegation levelled by it.

Moreover, discrediting the mainstream media will allow the Trump administration to circumvent a hostile media. Leaders in other democracies too have used talk-in shows, much like Prime Minister Modi’s Mann ki Baat, where a drab monologue is used to convey the establishment’s side of the story directly to the people. No uncomfortable questions asked, no explanations sought. Period.


Published Date: Feb 26, 2017 08:37 pm | Updated Date: Feb 26, 2017 09:51 pm