President Trump recently met with the Russian foreign minister at the White House, where he leaked extremely classified information. This has already stirred up a windstorm of discussion about possible complicity between the Trump administration and Russia. Although Trump insists that the entire FBI investigation into the matter is simply a way of persecuting the government, the media world is still in hot pursuit, making “national security” a top-trending keyword overnight.
Since Trump took office, the American news media have displayed courageous perseverance. The business about Trump leaking classified information to Russia was first exposed by The Washington Post. This was followed by an unnamed former White House official saying via CNN that The Washington Post’s report that Trump had exposed highly confidential information to the Russian foreign minister was absolutely true. From there, the torch passed to The New York Times, which attacked the issue head-on. Not only did The New York Times report on White House reports of meetings between James Comey and Trump, but in the past two days it has pursued another report even more determinedly: Trump’s reprimand that “[Comey] was crazy, a real nut job.” That report has now burned through to even higher levels at the White House.
Since Trump entered office, enthusiasm for the media has suddenly risen: the number of newspaper subscribers has greatly increased, cable TV news ratings are at an unprecedented high, and even donations to nonprofit media outlets like Mother Jones and ProPublica have increased. It is as though the American media are once again as lively as they ever were.
Is this a reaction to Trump’s hatred of the media? Or is it a reflection of how the media’s image has been greatly damaged? In fact, both effects are gradually working their influence while also wrestling with one another.
Trump’s term – “fake news” – has already become a mantra echoed by several local politicians. A Republican member of the Colorado Senate complained on Twitter that a public hearing he was slated to lead had been cancelled without reason, then cursed the leading article on the matter as “fake news,” threatening to sue the media outlet responsible. A member of the Tennessee Senate revealed through a media outlet that on principle, he does not pay certain kinds of traffic violation citations, while also denouncing as “fake news” a local CBS station that addressed this issue.
Trump’s hatred of the media truly exerts a huge influence. A recent study conducted by the Knight Foundation reveals that 53 percent of local media outlets believe Trump is constantly attacking the media and their credibility as a source of information, and that a few people have ended their media subscriptions. Some people who have been the subject of news reports threaten to see the media in court at every turn, which creates a difficult situation for the financially-strained institutions.
In the Trump era, White House news operations have become aggravated. Nixon didn’t like the media, but only complained in private. Yet Trump’s spokesman, Sean Spicer, has loftily forbidden “unfriendly” media outlets, such as The New York Times and CNN, from interviewing him and has cancelled scheduled press conferences. When he is interviewed, the only questions he allows media outlets to ask him are those which flatter the Trump administration.
Although the White House manipulates the news in this manner, the media are not yielding, showing absolutely no mercy in their criticism of Trump’s policies.
The results of a recent analysis of 10 media outlets by Harvard University demonstrated that Trump’s first 100 days in office received unprecedented coverage, three times that of the three previous presidents. However, there was far more criticism than praise – 80 percent of the coverage involved negative reports, while the number of negative reports in The New York Times and The Washington Post surpassed 80 percent. Even 52 percent of the reports published by Fox News, Trump’s biggest media supporter, were negative.
But this doesn’t mean the American media are undivided. When Trump ordered the missile launch attack on a Syrian airbase, 80 percent of the news reports fully supported it. Although more than half of the country is dissatisfied with Trump’s economic policies, 46 percent applaud them. It is evident the media concern themselves with affairs, rather than people, putting professionalism first. However, some reporters have criticized Trump for promising to achieve so many miraculous feats that are in fact impossible, and also for some of his policies that are as flimsy as a hair clip. Even Fox News is finding it difficult to spin the situation in a positive light.
Stanford communications scholar Theodore Glasser says that from Trump’s consistent language and tone, it can be seen that his tendency toward anti-intellectualism runs very deep. His attacks on the media are only a strategic maneuver. Trump is, in the whole succession of U.S. presidents, the one who has most destroyed the caliber of public discussion and argument and who least likes communicating with the media. He also pays no attention to the executive branch’s system of communication and coordination, but simply hopes the people he brings into the administration will all serve him. Not only does this destroy the system, it is also more likely to infringe on the territory of law, giving way to a constitutional crisis. The current news of the Trump administration’s possible complicity with Russia is perfect proof of Glasser’s prediction.
Before Trump took office, American reporters jointly signed a letter to him in which they referred to his behavior during the election, “You’ve banned news organizations from covering you. You’ve taken to Twitter to taunt and threaten individual reporters and encouraged your supporters to do the same. You’ve advocated for looser libel laws and threatened numerous lawsuits of your own … But while you have every right to decide your ground rules for engaging with the press, we have some, too. It is, after all, our airtime and column inches that you are seeking to influence … We believe there is an objective truth, and we will hold you to that.”
Washington Post media columnist Sullivan additionally writes, “Although the United States is a divided society, it is not a broken one.”* Ever since Trump took office, in the face of this president who flagrantly hates the media, journalists have found themselves under attack. Yet, they have quickly adjusted, finding themselves better able to persevere under the principle of faithful reporting without losing their own voice. In so doing, they allow the radiance of the Fourth Estate to continue to shine.
The author is a professor in the news and information department at National Chengchi University.
*Editor’s note: Although accurately translated, this quote could not be independently verified. In referring to the media columnist Sullivan, the author is believed to have been referring to Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan.