It's easy sometimes, even for neutrals, to be irritated by the “mainstream media”, or MSM – the US media establishment that Donald Trump rails about daily as dishonest, inept and irredeemably biased against him.
It’s prone to taking itself far too seriously, at least for us Europeans. You can’t imagine one of their number calling him- or herself a hack, even in jest, when the First Amendment is your protector. The MSM can be ponderous, boring and overfond of navel-gazing. But not right now. These first few weeks of the Trump era have already been a mini golden age.
Now, you might not have got that impression watching the bizarre stream-of-consciousness Trump press conference earlier this week, supposedly to announce a new nominee for Secretary of Labour, but which turned into a blustering 78-minute-long defence of his chaotic first four weeks in office. But don’t be misled.
Trump might have led his questioners a merry dance, but he was playing with every advantage. He was on home turf, the East Room of the White House, reminding everyone that – despite his breaking every convention of presidential conduct – he’s not just America’s political leader but also (believe it or not) his country’s head of state.
Reporters may not respect the individual, but they respect the institution. You can criticise White House correspondents as too deferential. But would irreverent British hacks really put the knife with more gusto into the Queen, in the (admittedly inconceivable) event of a monarchical press conference at Buckingham Palace?
It’s a myth moreover that the White House is the most powerful beat on US journalism. It may guarantee the most bylines, and the most news show airtime. Physical proximity to power, however, doesn’t equal access to power. Covering presidents is glamorous, but also gruelling and claustrophobic, made no easier by the fact that recent presidents, even before the tweeting Donald, have sought to bypass them, carrying their message to the people directly on social media.
And if this Trump administration does come to a premature and sticky end, it’s unlikely to be because of probing questions asked at a White House press conference. Watergate wasn’t the work of big-name network correspondents, on air every evening. It was the result of work by a couple of young reporters from the city desk of The Washington Post, who traced money used to finance a “third-rate burglary” back to Nixon’s re-election committee, run by one of his closest aides.
But these last weeks have shown that the “media elite” Trump routinely mocks is a crucial part of America’s system of checks and balances, enshrined in the Constitution. It’s a tough job, keeping a focus on facts and truth, in the face of a mendacious propaganda barrage from a White House with indisputable authoritarian instincts. Reporting US politics right now is about seeking transparency in what is the least transparent administration since at least Nixon’s day, riddled with conflicts of interest and factional fighting. And the reviled MSM so far has put hardly a foot wrong.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. One egregious blunder, and it would fall into the “fake news” trap. Trump would be vindicated and media credibility, at a 20-year low already, would take a perhaps fatal hit. But it hasn’t happened, despite the exhausting pace Trump sets, and the bewildering daily quotient of red herrings and 15-minute sensations. The MSM came up with the facts that forced Mike Flynn to resign after just 24 days as national security adviser, and is relentlessly pursuing the wider Russia question that won’t go away.
That of course is not how Trump sees things. For him every unfavourable story is fake news, peddled in particular by the “failing” New York Times and his special bugbear, CNN. In reality, fake news these days is the province of the White House and its acolytes.
Consider just a few of the gems thrown up by that press conference. Washington is a leaky place, but rarely have the leaks been more constant than now – many almost certainly originating with the US intelligence agencies, on whom Trump declared war after they confirmed Russian meddling in the election.
But that understandable resentment doesn’t explain the President’s absurd assertion that “real leaks” became “fake news”, as if facts become falsehoods once they pass through a reporter’s hands. Or that his inept and shambolic White House was a “fine-tuned machine” that had carried out a “smooth roll out of the travel ban”.
Tell that to government agencies directly involved who weren’t informed beforehand but had to deal with the chaos at US airports, and the confusion about who was or was not affected. And all that before the courts, another of the Constitution’s checks and balances, threw their own mighty spanner into the works.
And, from the point of view of the media bean-counters, long may the horror show continue. Just as Trump the candidate was last year, Trump the President is a godsend for an old media long considered nigh unto death. Public interest in politics here hasn’t been so high in years. Online subscriptions to papers, including the failing New York Times, have soared since the election. Cable TV ratings have hung onto the gains they made in the campaign. News websites like this one are thriving, thanks too to the Trump effect.
In the meantime, some of his top advisers have become lampooned national figures: among them his hapless press secretary Sean Spicer, hilariously portrayed by Melissa McCarthy in a send-up on Saturday Night Live, and Kellyanne Conway – the queen of fake news, she of “alternative facts” and the non-existent Bowling Green massacre, she who blithely assured TV viewers that Flynn still had the President’s full confidence, hours before he was forced to resign.
Now Trump’s tirades against the media are in large measure a deliberate distraction. He knows they are red meat for his base that lapped them the attacks during the campaign. He knows they divert attention from his unmet policy promises, the Russian imbroglio and other matters of genuine national concern. The trick for the MSM is not to take his bait, and get into a public argument it won’t win. So far it’s doing the job admirably.
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