Trump vs. Media Is Much More Than Meets the Eye
With the era of Trump begun, it is shaping up as one of epic conflict between the White House and the media.
The brass-knuckle clashes that have already taken place – most recently over the publicizing of a lurid, unsubstantiated research dossier on the president-elect – are just the early rounds in a brawl far more significant than simply Trump vs. the Press.
Aside from obvious factors - the mainstream media’s liberal leanings and Trump's Twitter-centric, anti-elitist combativeness - this perfect storm of presidential-press combustibility reflects a striking transformation of the media landscape since the last White House transition, to President Obama in 2009.
On the supply side, the more prominent and growing roles played by nonprofit news start-ups, advocacy groups and social media have fundamentally changed how information is gathered and disseminated. On the demand side, media consumers, not to mention some deep-pocketed funders, gather more into ideological silos and seem less interested in straight news than in confirmation of their existing beliefs.
The resulting dynamics seem a fair bet to make Richard Nixon’s relationship with the press in the Watergate era look like a lovefest by comparison. So, as Trump and the media head down the aisle to forge their bonds of discord, let's take in some of the combinations of old, new, red and blue at the ceremony.
Old and Blue: The "mainstream media" are clearly girding for battle. The Washington Post, enjoying a subscriber and revenue surge under Jeff Bezos of Amazon, is adding dozens of journalists, including what it calls "a rapid-response investigative team," to help handle a presumed bumper crop of controversy in the capital.
Similarly galvanized, the more amply staffed New York Times, even as it streamlines for the digital era, is still doubling the size of its White House reporter contingent to six, the largest complement in its history. Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet explained this move by saying the election of Trump "changes the calculation" of coverage.
What he means by that is far less clear from a journalistic standpoint than an ideological one. President Obama ran much of the government out of the White House – using his “pen” and “phone” to join a long line of presidents honoring the Constitution in the breach. It is interesting that the Times, which remains the agenda-setter for much of American media, believes that the new executive demands much more vigorous scrutiny.
Staffing moves at the Post and the Times reflect the broad belief that Trump represents a radical departure from the past. That’s why a range of journalists from old and new media (few, if any, of them conservative) gathered at New York University five days after Trump's inauguration for an event hosted by the liberal website Slate called “Not the New Normal.” It was billed as a forum on “how the news media can and should proceed to cover” the president-elect.
Here’s hoping the answer to that question is fair, fact-based coverage that informs the public about issues of significance. My fear is that the effort will be more like the JournoList, a private Google Groups forum of left-leaning journalists, academics and others begun during the last Bush administration that critics saw as reinforcing a liberal line on news coverage.
New and Blue: But it is not only established newspapers that will be greatly shaping coverage, along with popular liberal websites such as Vox and BuzzFeed – the latter now infamous for publishing the full Trump dossier.
Also playing a much larger role are nonprofit news start-ups, envisioned as saviors of journalism from digital disruption. They are typically funded by wealthy progressives and largely immune from market forces as they pursue expensive investigative reporting and share it with other major outlets.
Two of the most prominent and deep-pocketed nonprofits, ProPublica and the Marshall Project, both run by former New York Times journalists (Stephen Engelberg and Bill Keller, respectively), are reporting donation surges. And both have clearly adopted a forward lean against Trump.
The top of ProPublica’s home page has been turned over to critical coverage of the incoming administration and features headlines like “Trump’s Treasury Pick Excelled at Kicking Elderly People Out of Their Homes.”
The Marshall Project, which focuses on the criminal-justice system, has shown more interest in the Obama Justice Department’s findings of local police bias than in that very department's perceived hyper-politicization. Now it features links to overwhelmingly negative press coverage of Senator Jeff Sessions, Trump’s choice for attorney general.
Red and New: Tellingly, the Marshall Project plays to its base by focusing on how Sessions might undo the Obama criminal-justice agenda, while not paying much attention at all to Sessions’ embrace of civil asset forfeiture -- seizing property linked to illicit activities before conviction -- a big concern of libertarians and many conservatives.
Not to worry: The rise of litigious advocacy groups in journalism ensures that the issue is not being ignored, posing another potential headache to the new administration.
The Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest law firm, has publicized and criticized Sessions’ stance on the issue as it draws attention to the practice in court action. It is not the only such nonprofit advocacy group performing a largely journalistic function. The better known conservative watchdog Judicial Watch last year led the way in using freedom-of-information litigation to spotlight Hillary Clinton’s private email server.
The Trump administration cannot rely on such newly prominent groups to be on its side. Judicial Watch, though conservative, has been a nonpartisan thorn for administrations of both parties, and isn't letting up. Lately its chief investigative reporter, Micah Morrison, a Wall Street Journal veteran, has devoted three of his investigative bulletins to the new administration’s Russian connections, which he says “could spell real trouble for Mr. Trump.”
Old and Red: That isn’t the only problem for Trump on his right flank, of course. His upstart rise to the Republican presidential nomination was marked by deep rifts in conservative media that have left lingering wounds. Dissents over Trump’s divergences from orthodoxy, voiced by the likes of National Review and Erick Erickson of the website RedState, could re-emerge and grow.
On Mark Levin’s radio show they never went away, as when, for example, he pillories Wilbur Ross, the Trump nominee for commerce secretary, as a protectionist crony capitalist. Levin, with other conservative personalities, just launched CRTV for nontraditional video platforms like apps and Roku.
Every President has faced a press filled with sympathizers and skeptics. Trump may be the first in modern times to face serious fire from all sides. This has as much to do with rapidly evolving media as it does with the man.