For over 40 years, Donald Trump has been a media creature. He has successfully used the media, from his books to his TV and radio interviews to his reality TV shows to his tweets, to further his business and political interests. Trump’s love of the spotlight was well rewarded during the 2016 Republican primaries and general election with an astounding $2 billion or more of free media coverage. That’s why Trump’s rookie mistakes towards the media since stepping into the White House are so surprising.
First, Trump started attacking the mainstream news media, calling them “the enemy of the people.” He also called truthful, well-sourced press reports he didn’t like “fake news.” This was perhaps an attempt to flip the script on the long-running criticism of certain right wing media, especially Fox News a/k/a “Faux News.” However, there is no evidence that Trump’s attacks on the media have worked. Instead, the press, with a renewed energy and sense of purpose, as well as an increase in subscribers, continues to report on truthful stories that are important to our democracy, such as the ever-widening RussiaGate. Indeed, the Trump attacks seem like a defensive attempt to discredit the news media in advance of more reports that are emerging about the disturbing Trump-Russia connections and the Trump White House attempts to cover them up.
Likewise, Trump did not help himself when White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer barred a number of news organizations, including CNN, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Politico, and BuzzFeed, from the daily White House press briefing, informally known as the “gaggle.” Reporters from the Associated Press and Time boycotted the briefing in protest. At the same time, Spicer allowed right wing fringe media outlets like Breitbart and One America Network to attend the briefings. One can certainly disagree with particular editorial viewpoints from media outlets (though the banned outlets like the New York Times and CNN attacked Bill and Hillary Clinton plenty before and during the 2016 election season), but Trump loses credibility by calling them “fake news.”
The White House media bans led some media outlets to entertain thoughts of boycotting the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner, typically a good-natured affair attended by media personalities, politicians and celebrities, as well as the president and First Lady. At these dinners, a designated comedian pokes fun at the president and some of the guests, and then the president gets to try his hand at stand-up comedy. This discussion of boycotts led Trump to announce recently that he is not attending this year’s Correspondents’ Dinner. This is a sad result, as both the White House press briefing (if inclusive) and the Correspondents’ Dinner give the president an idea of what a diverse media (and their readers and viewers) are thinking, and vice versa.
Perhaps more pointedly for Donald Trump, bashing and then running from the media is not a prescription for presidential success. The press are a powerful institution in America, thanks largely to the very Constitution which Republicans and conservatives like to say they hold dear. Take a look, for example, at U.S. Senator John McCain, who has taken the opposite tack of cultivating the media, even, famously, cooking a barbeque for news reporters in March 2008 when he was running for the Republican presidential nomination. McCain generally gets great press, and plenty of it, including being a record-setting guest on Sunday morning news TV shows such as “Meet the Press.”
Previous presidents like Republican Ronald Reagan and Democrat John F. Kennedy also cultivated relationships with the press that often proved rewarding to them. Indeed, just two days ago, Republican former President George W. Bush said “I consider the media to be indispensable to democracy.” These and other presidents knew that, while they are merely temporary residents of our nation’s capital, an inquisitive Beltway press is an American tradition, and serves the important function of reporting on our federal government, with or without the politicians’ approval.
Photo by DonkeyHotey, used under Creative Commons license. https://is.gd/KzUzss