Trump Baiting & the Press: Two Perspectives

Is the media misguided in pursuing “Trump trolling” content like the inauguration crowd size comparison? I have two maybe-contradictory perspectives on this topic.

It’s painstakingly obvious that Trump is winning the “alternative facts” game against the media. The very notion of truth is disputed by the President, his team and his base. In the past, it’s been clear to most people that different outlets have differing political ideologies and agendas. We worked with this assumption. But now millions of otherwise intelligent people classify actual made up news stories, factual critical stories and even reporting mistakes under the heading of “Fake News” at Trump’s behest.

There’s been plenty of talk among establishment media figures about rethinking the strategy for covering the President, but I’ve yet to see any change that’s working. I did hear an NPR interview where the guest spoke about moving from access journalism to investigative journalism, which would be a great shift for media in general. Many outlets still do this well of course, but a renewed focus is necessary right now. Access to Trump is obviously not access to the truth about him.

With White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s oddly aggressive first press conference at the top of my mind, I think there’s something worth exploring. Spicer’s unexpectedly vituperative defense of demonstrably false inauguration numbers showcased the Trump administration’s thin skin and proved the media’s needling is effective — but I often wonder — to what end?

Two Perspectives on Crowd Size Reporting

1. It’s misguided though rooted in Trump’s combative rhetoric:

Almost every major website and news outlet reported on the inauguration size as a sort of public interest story and proceeded to compare Trump’s turnout to Obama’s. Then the now-famous comparison photos came out. Then Trump’s turnout was compared to the Women’s March. And it was pretty entertaining to be honest. It’s a feel good story for people who opposed DJT and as some thought, a resurgence of reality in an unreal time.

I don’t fully buy the idea that this comparison was just an innocent public interest story. Sure it’s great to have a sense of numbers and comparisons but it was all positioned to annoy a President who responds to just about any criticism. CNN, NBC and others certainly knew Trump would bite and as a media tactic it’s nothing more than trolling. It’s just another practice Trump will (wrongly) use as evidence that media members are, “Among the most dishonest human beings on Earth.” And sadly, his supporters will eat it up.

Part of me doesn’t really see the purpose of drilling on Trump’s inauguration attendance. It wouldn’t be a story whether Clinton, Sanders, or one of the “low energy” GOP candidates won. But this isn’t the media’s fault.

The Trump administration can send Sean Spicer to yell at the media for “unfair” coverage all it wants, but it was Trump who started this escalating war. The Trump sales tactic from day one has been to insult, compare and repeat. He created this climate like no other politician in our recent history.

For Trump, selling himself is accomplished mainly in the context of some other “less great” entity or individual (Obama, the Capitol, GOP hopefuls, Clinton, journalists, critics, celebrities). He’s been doing it forever and for that reason I think the media is simply responding in kind. They say, “If Trump thinks everything is an asinine competition, we’ll deploy his own tactic against him.”

With the ongoing inauguration crowd comparison, though, the media shot itself in the foot. As did Senator Jeff Merkley when his aide pulled out a crowd comparison photo during Representative Mick Mulvaney’s confirmation hearing for Director of Office of Management and Budget. As CNN’s Erin Burnett noted (and I’m paraphrasing), “What does that have to do with OMB?”

Whether or not Trump’s crowd was smaller, this type of content isn’t going to give the press any room to do its important work. It gets dismissed by millions of people and used as “proof” of Trump’s claims about the media establishment. But for all the criticism I have of the media’s role in this debacle, I cannot deny that it did show us at least some aspect of the “real” Trump.

2. It reveals something darker in Trump:

Despite the surface level silliness of the crowd size comparison reporting, it should be noted that it did in fact reveal something troubling about Trump (which many have seen all along). It showed us his authoritarian impulse and demonstrated how ugly a confrontation with his administration will be as we move forward.

The initial reporting came out during inauguration ceremony and so far the Trump administration has not let up on the crowd size defense campaign. As noted earlier, this battle even spilled into the cabinet confirmation hearings. Sean Spicer is on the attack while Kellyanne Conway provides an Orwellian improvisational denial of the facts. We hear language about “holding the press accountable” and accusations of fake news.

The Trump administration seems to thrive on media controversy while also saying that the media needs to be accountable to the White House specifically. The media in this country wasn’t meant to have a good or bad relationship with a particular President. I thought people knew this. If anything, the White House should be accountable to the press as it always has been.

The Trump message to the media is “let’s get along” but he defines getting along as “don’t criticize anything I do.” Obviously no one is going to agree aside from those outlets that seem to have become Trump’s unofficial PR department (Breitbart and to some extent, Fox News). So it’s either do what I say or face an unprecedented barrage of attacks. The threat is carried out when Trump & Co. refuse to take questions from specific organizations or exclude certain members of the press. To me this is coercion, bullying and it is downright anti-American in its implications about the First Amendment.

This is an administration that shirks attempts at transparency, removes checks and balances that aim for transparency, willfully disputes facts without evidence, deceives and weaponizes its support base against the press, grandstands and ducks questioning, and then turns around and vilifies the press for stumbling through the smokescreen left behind.

I have no suggestions for the press right now. I’m not sure what the next step is. All I know is I don’t want to see our entire concept of truth lose out to someone like Donald Trump. All I can do is share some of my own analysis of the game being played.

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here do not reflect those of any organizations I am affiliated with. Views found here are my own.

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