The First Casualty is the Truth: Trump's Running War With the Media
“What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people.”
-- President Donald J Trump, Inaugural Address, January 20, 2017
In a democracy, the key role for citizens is to participate in public life. Voting, of course, is a key aspect of this participation, but, in a vital democracy, citizens’ participation is not limited to occasional trips to the voting booth: they are well-informed about public issues, watch carefully how their political leaders and representatives use their powers, and express their own opinions and interests. To be well-informed, many citizens must rely on journalists who can attend public events, question public officials, and report back to the general public. So important is this function in our democracy, citizens demanded protections for a free press and mass communication in the Bill of Rights. Since President Donald Trump’s Inauguration on January 20, 2017, many people are anxiously looking for clues as to how the Administration will interact with the press. Trump’s first week in office demonstrates that the relationship will be combative. Will the people be the losers in this fight?
Denying the Undeniable
On January 21, Trump’s first official stop as President was at the Central Intelligence Agency. In his remarks, he referred to his “running war with the media.” Calling reporters “among the most dishonest human beings on Earth,” President Trump insisted a million and a half people had come to the National Mall a day earlier to see his Inaugural Address. He criticized a television network for showing an empty field and lying when it reported just 250,000 attendees. "So we caught them, and we caught them in a beauty. And I think they’re going to pay a big price," he said.
On the same day, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer made his first appearance in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room accusing some members of the media of engaging in “deliberately false reporting.” He addressed the reporting on Inauguration crowd size and comparisons to President Barack Obama’s Inauguration in 2009. Spicer said the media was "sowing division about tweets and false narratives" -- and making it more difficult for President Trump to bring the nation together.
“There's been a lot of talk in the media about the responsibility to hold Donald Trump accountable," Spicer said. "And I'm here to tell you that it goes two ways. We're going to hold the press accountable, as well. The American people deserve better. And as long as he serves as the messenger for this incredible movement, he will take his message directly to the American people where his focus will always be.”
The Birth of 'Alternative Facts'
The following day, NBC’s Chuck Todd interviewed Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway asking, “So I'm curious why President Trump chose yesterday to send out his press secretary to essentially litigate a provable falsehood when it comes to a small and petty thing like inaugural crowd size. I guess my question to you is why do that? …. Why put him out there for the very first time in front of that podium to utter a provable falsehood? It's a small thing. But the first time he confronts the public it's a falsehood?”
Conway answered saying, “You're saying it's a falsehood... Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts.”
“Alternative facts?” asked Todd. “Four of the five 'facts' he uttered were just not true. Look, alternative facts are not facts. They're falsehoods.”
Conway answered, “I don't think you can prove those numbers one way or the other. There's no way to really quantify crowds. We all know that.” A “befuddled” Todd giggled, and Conway unleashed, "I think it's actually symbolic of the way we're treated by the press. The way that you just laughed at me is actually symbolic of the way -- very representative of the way we're treated by the press."
Conway went on to say Todd was trying to get people to hear that “they can't trust our press secretary. I think that it is a very dangerous statement to make.” Later in the week, Conway struck the same cord in an appearance on Fox News' Fox & Friends. Asked about reporters in some newspapers calling the President a liar, she answered, "I think it's dangerous to the democracy and for those around the world watching what we do and how this president is covered in his early days, very dangerous to just throw in adjectives like that, either without evidence, but also without context."
In the Meet the Press interview, Todd asked if the litigation of the crowd size is “a political tactic to come up with 'alternative facts' and try to set up the press as your enemy?” He did not get an answer.
The Media Should Keep Its Mouth Shut
Perhaps the remarks of White House Strategist Stephen Bannon -- a founding member of the board of Breitbart News, a far-right news, opinion, and commentary website -- best answer Todd's question. On January 26, he emphatically told reporters:
“The media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States. You’re the opposition party. Not the Democratic Party. You’re the opposition party. The media’s the opposition party.”
Asked if he was concerned that White House Press Secretary Spicer had lost credibility with the news media, Bannon chortled. “Are you kidding me? We think that’s a badge of honor. ‘Questioning his integrity’ — are you kidding me? The media has zero integrity, zero intelligence, and no hard work.”
“The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.”
Shall We Call It By A Name?
What words should journalists use to describe mistruths? Dan Barry of the New York Times noted that baseless statements from the President and his staff “challenged the news media to find the precise words to describe it. This will be a recurring challenge, given President Trump’s habit of speaking in sales-pitch hyperbole and his tendency to deride any less-than-flattering report as 'fake news.’”
“This is the very unique situation that we find ourselves in as journalists and as a country,” said Joshua Benton, the director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. “We have an Administration that seems to be asserting a right to its own facts and doesn’t seem to be able to produce evidence to back those claims.”
Our language has a rich vocabulary for describing statements that fall short of the truth. Some news organizations used words like “falsely” or “wrongly” — adverbs that tend to weaken the impact — in framing what the President said. Some used “with no evidence,” or “won’t provide any proof,” or “unverified claims,” or “repeats debunked claim.” We can say they are 'baseless,' they’re 'bogus,' they’re 'lies,' they’re 'untruths.' The New York Times used “lie.” To say that someone has “lied,” an active verb, or has told a “lie,” a more passive, distancing noun, is to say that the person intended to deceive.
But the consequence of using 'lie', says Michael Oreskes, NPR’s senior president for news, is that you push people away from you.” The inherent risk, he suggested, was that news organizations would be seen as taking sides.
“The media run the risk of being disrespectful to the president of the United States,” admits Sara Brady, a crisis-communications specialist. “But the problem is: If he doesn’t get called out in some way, we as Americans are never going to know what’s true and what’s not.”
Good Government Requires Good Communications
In light of the back and forth this week, the National Association of Government Communicators issued a statement saying if President Trump’s vision of the people regaining power in the U.S. is to be realized,
Government communicators, at all levels of the administration, must be allowed to practice their profession, to serve the public interest by being the timely, credible and trusted source of factual information about government. The new administration needs to understand that good government requires good communication. Good communication is guided by ethics, like not knowingly or intentionally withholding information that is publicly releasable, taking swift and effective action to prevent the public release of false or misleading information, and above all else never lying to the media because in government communication, the truth is sacred…. The administration must know the first step to a government ‘controlled by the people,’ is providing people the information they need about the activities of their government. It is a principle of government communication that predates the American Revolution.
Famed Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein, who obviously has experience questioning an administration that is hostile to the press, offered that the Trump Administration is not at war with the media, but the truth.
The President of the United States said that he was going to show us his taxes, he said it throughout his campaign, his tax returns, now, he has told us he is not. It was a lie. This is the problem. We have now had, in the first week of the presidency, a series of untruths, falsehoods, as so many anchorpeople, as so many real reporters, have said, and the enemy here is not the opposition media, as Steve Bannon would have it, the enemy here is the truth. That the opposition is not the media; the opposition is becoming the truth. That is a very dangerous culture fact.
How Journalists Know They're Doing Their Job
In addition to Bernstein, some journalists responded to the week's developments with increased resolve and confidence they are on the right track with their coverage.
“If Bannon didn’t care, then he would ignore all of it,” said the Poynter Institute's Al Tompkins, for broadcasting and online. “The opposite of love is not hate — it’s apathy. It matters and they know that this press coverage is killing their credibility. Even their own supporters have to be raising questions.”
Tompkins added, “I’m not worried. I believe there has not been a time in my life when journalists have mattered more, when things have moved as fast as they’re moving now. The role of journalism is essential because the role of the government right now is so unclear. You have a massive exodus at the State Department, a pending trade war with Mexico and the pending dismantling of a very large health insurance system and it’s all happening too fast for regular citizens to make sense of it, so we need journalists now more than ever.”
“This isn’t the first time the administration has attacked the media,” said Bill Wheatley, former NBC News executive and adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. “I remember when Spiro Agnew called us ‘nattering nabobs of negativism.’ We were under attack during the Nixon administration. We just need to do our jobs. That’s what it’s all about.” “My view is, steady as she goes. Our job is to find out things and report them and let the chips fall where they may.”
A Flawed Democracy
According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual Democracy Index, the United States of America, long the standard-bearer of democracy for the world, has become a “flawed democracy.” Why? “A continued erosion of trust in government and elected officials.” Unfortunately, Americans' trust and confidence in the mass media "to report the news fully, accurately and fairly" has dropped to its lowest level in Gallup polling history. But it is not just the institutions and the people who are part of them that are to blame. The public must accept some responsibility.
An experiment conducted by the Washington Post this week revealed that, even when presented with photographic evidence, one in seven Trump supporters gave a clearly false answer when asked to compare attendance at the 2009 and 2017 Inaugurals. Clearly, some Trump supporters decided to use the question to express their support for Trump rather than to answer factually.
Of course, it is troubling that the Trump Administration accuses the media of producing “fake news.” And that it, in turn, is offering its own (false) “alternative facts.” But if a significant portion of Trump supporters are willing to champion obvious fabrications, challenging falsehoods with facts will be difficult for the press.
We can't rely on the First Amendment to protect the media, warns RonNell Andersen Jones, a law professor at the University of Utah, and Sonja West, a law professor at the University of Georgia. The First Amendment provides only limited protection for the press. There are some legal protections, but the press also relies on nonlegal safeguards. In the past, these have included the institutional media’s relative financial strength; the good will of the public; a mutually dependent relationship with government officials; the support of sympathetic judges; and political norms and traditions. And these pillars have been shaken.
Currently, it is primarily customs and traditions, not laws, that guarantee members of the White House press corps have access to the workings of the executive branch. This is why we should be alarmed when President Trump, defying tradition, vilifies media institutions, attacks reporters by name, and refuses to take questions from those whose coverage he dislikes. Or when he decides not to let reporters travel with him on his plane, or fails to inform them when he goes out in public. Or when he suggests he might evict the White House press corps from the West Wing and have his Administration, rather than the White House Correspondents Association, determine who is allowed to attend briefings.
We cannot simply sit back and expect that the First Amendment will preserve the press, and, with it, our right to know. Like so much of our democracy, the freedom of the press is only as strong as we, the public, demand it to be.
Thomas Jefferson is often quoted on the importance of the free press,
The people are the only censors of their governors: and even their errors will tend to keep these to the true principles of their institution. To punish these errors too severely would be to suppress the only safeguard of the public liberty. The way to prevent these irregular interpositions of the people is to give them full information of their affairs thro’ the channel of the public papers, & to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people. The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers & be capable of reading them.
This is just the first week of the Trump Administration -- traditionally a "honeymoon" period for new public officials and the press. At Benton, we plan to cover closely -- both in our Headlines newsletter and articles like this -- the ongoing tension between the Administration and the press, and the crucial role of communications in our democracy. We hope you'll both receive and read our reports.
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