Global Affairs

The bad blood between the Trump White House and US media

The confrontation has damaged domestic politics and could paralyse the administration's ability to reach coherent foreign policy decisions.

LONDON • "Is he confused, or are you?" an American journalist recently asked White House press secretary Sean Spicer, trying to clarify whether US President Donald Trump knew what he was saying in one of his presidential tweets, or whether Mr Spicer was guilty of misrepresenting his boss.

But this was not just a professional quest for accuracy, for the question was put in a hissy, aggressive tone, and everyone in the room knew that the word "confused" actually stood for "crazy".

The journalist also knew that he stood no chance of getting a truthful answer; the entire exchange was merely an example of the bad blood which currently flows between the Trump White House and America's media.

And barely two weeks in office, relations between the new president and the media have sunk to depths not encountered in the United States in at least half a century.

On his first full day in office, President Trump excoriated journalists as "among the most dishonest human beings on earth". And mainstream media responded in kind, by often branding the President as just a "liar", a grave accusation the established media seldom made before.

One thing is, however, certain: The confrontation is inflicting serious damage on America's domestic politics and, if it continues unabated, it could paralyse the new administration's ability to reach coherent foreign policy decisions.

ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

In a profound way, therefore, the world may end up paying a heavy price for this US media-White House struggle.

There is no doubt that Mr Trump is responsible for unleashing the initial confrontation, with his preference for presenting "factoids" or simply invented "facts" to bolster his often less-than-accurate arguments, and the deliberate use of coarse language against media outlets he disliked, primarily the old established newspapers such as the "failing New York Times", as he enjoyed putting it.

But it is important to note that journalists have not been angels in this confrontation either. Established media networks started covering the candidacy of Mr Trump as entertainment rather than politics, and ended their coverage of the hustings by portraying him as the hopeless candidate, whose chances of being beaten by his opponent Hillary Clinton were not merely high, but also an astronomical "98 per cent", as the Huffington Post predicted on the eve of the ballots without the slightest hint of doubt.

Many journalists found it tiresome to even pretend that they were supposed to be impartial in covering the Republican candidate's campaign. And some media people elevated their partiality to the rank of a duty, almost a public service.

"We don't pretend to objectivity, but we do, as a rule over the years, try to maintain some kind of even-handedness," said Mr Adam Moss, the editor-in-chief of New York magazine.

"But we abandoned that, because we felt the threat of (Trump's) candidacy and presidency was too great."

The New York Times allocated no fewer than 18 employees to do fact-checking in real time whatever Mr Trump said during the electoral campaign; Britain's Guardian daily went even further by creating a "Lyin' Trump" special section in the newspaper. And almost everyone considered it fair game to make disparaging remarks about Mr Trump's personal appearance, especially his hairstyle and colour; Mrs Clinton's hair which, at her age of 69 is unlikely to be as naturally blonde or as helmet-style rigid as it appeared throughout the electoral campaign, was not considered a legitimate subject of media comment.

Amid all this frenzy, few journalists on established media platforms realised that the outlets for which they worked lost the political influence they once enjoyed.

A survey by the Pew Research Centre, a US think-tank devoted to analysing public attitudes, recently established that more than half of all US voters aged 30 or younger followed the 2016 presidential race through social media and apps on their mobile devices, effectively bypassing most of the editorial judgments and opinions of cable TV networks, magazines and newspapers.

That is why Mr Trump felt able to ignore not only media outlets traditionally hostile to his ideas, but also those which should be his soulmates, such as the right-wing Fox TV network. And the fact that he has won the presidency only seeks to vindicate his approach.

As Ms Susan Glasser, one of America's most prominent journalists, rightly remarked in a recent essay on the topic, the US media's "scandal of 2016 isn't so much about what reporters failed to tell the American public; it's about what they did report on, and the fact that it didn't seem to matter".

Either way, no president enters the White House more dismissive of journalism as a profession and, in turn, no president is as thoroughly disliked by journalists as is Mr Trump.

The temptation is to conclude that this is a healthy state of affairs; one of the media's chief roles is to hold governments to account, and few people may need it more than Mr Trump. Perhaps, but the poison and bile which this extreme adversarial attitude generates is unhealthy for the US, and for the rest of the world.

First, in their effort to push back against the US administration, some media networks resort to exaggerations and "spinning", which do their profession no credit.

One classic case of this is a report which circulated widely last month, alleging that, as the Washington Post initially put it, the "entire senior level of management officials" at the US State Department "resigned" as "part of an ongoing mass exodus of senior Foreign Service officers who don't want to stick around for the Trump era".

What actually happened, however, is that all the senior political appointees of the Obama period inside the State Department handed in their resignations - as they are expected to do when a new administration comes in - and Mr Trump accepted their resignations, as he was entitled to do. But that was nowhere near as exciting as running a news story which alleged a mass exodus of officials.

Second, the established media's demonisation of Mr Trump could accelerate, rather than halt, the decline of traditional outlets. There have been reports that some established media outlets, in particular the New York Times, enjoyed a spike in subscriptions after Mr Trump's win, but for many Americans, this question remains: Why subscribe to newspapers, magazines or cable TV programmes if these media platforms also engage in sloppy, heavily-biased reporting as do private websites which give their content away for free?

And it also inspires a snowball effect among non-US publications.

A magazine in Ireland has just used its front cover to invite readers to contemplate President Trump's assassination, while the current issue of Germany's top-selling weekly Der Spiegel carries a drawing of Mr Trump holding a knife dripping with blood in one hand and the severed head of the Statue of Liberty in the other hand, a drawing which no self-respecting news outlet would have considered using in reporting terrorist attacks where beheading was very much the actual story.

Of course, US media platforms have no responsibility or control over outlets outside America's borders. But the intemperate language used by some key segments of the US media has already helped shape the image of a US president as an ogre, one who deserves all the abuse heaped upon him. And that, in itself, has emboldened networks outside the US to treat Mr Trump even worse.

More importantly, this acute US media-government conflict risks enhancing the siege mentality which is already descending upon the Trump administration - the feeling that, regardless of what the White House does, it will always meet with unremitting criticism. And that will make the business of government less open and less available for public scrutiny, the opposite to what Mr Trump's opponents wish to see.

Some American journalists may welcome this outcome, on the principle that the worse this confrontation gets, the better it will be and the nearer Mr Trump will get to being removed from office, in one way or another. But for most of America's global allies, paralysis and constant political mayhem in Washington bring no advantages, and harbour plenty of dangers.

None of this means that the US media should either roll over or ignore the crude taunts which often originate from the current administration. But it does mean that continued criticism of the US government should be policy-led, rather than emotion-led, and should grant Mr Trump the same benefit of doubt accorded to his predecessors.

For, as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman - hardly a Trump fan - amusingly observed recently, "some things are true even if Donald Trump believes them".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 06, 2017, with the headline 'The bad blood between the Trump White House and US media'. Print Edition | Subscribe