Impromptu interviews, endless and nonsensical press conferences … the president of the United States has declared the media “the enemy of the people,” yet he is addicted to them.
Much ink has been spilled regarding Donald Trump’s aversion to the critical press. Back when he was a presidential candidate, he insulted newspapers and networks, and even threatened to modify libel laws if he won so that he would be able to denounce the news coverage he deemed unfair. Upon arrival at the White House, he described journalists as “the most dishonest human beings on earth,” and the media in general as “the enemy of the people.” Almost two years after his electoral victory, matters have not improved: The president keeps calling them liars day in, day out, to the point that two U.N. bodies have accused him of endangering “press freedom.” And in his rallies, the attacks and the booing continue. Only the conservative Fox News and others that are cut from the same cloth are spared.
Yet this contempt toward critical journalism, crude and direct, is as apparent as his media-oriented nature. Trump is a terribly televisual creature, addicted to the media, much more accessible than any ex-president in living memory. Access does not imply transparency, for the tycoon’s legendary ability to hurl inaccuracies, contradictions and false data is also notorious. But the current U.S. leader has turned the daily grind of the White House into something akin to a reality show: What is announced as simply posing for the cameras at the start of a Cabinet meeting or while greeting some head of state can turn into an impromptu press conference in which he falls for every provocation.
Sometimes he can also make people speak when they do not wish to do so. This happened on May 22, while formal pictures of South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s greeting in the Oval Office were being taken. At the time, complex talks were taking place in order to convene the historic summit in Singapore with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un (which was eventually held on June 12). Without a scheduled press conference, Trump not only answered at length several questions about the matter, but he even forced Moon into answering to the press: “You may have an opinion,” he remarked. And the Asian leader got out of it as best he could, using empty phrases.
This week, Olivia Nuzzi, a journalist from New York magazine, wrote an extensive, first-person piece recounting what had just happened to her with the Republican’s Cabinet. “Around 12:20 p.m. on Tuesday, I was on my way out of the White House,” the text began. And what followed was that press secretary Sarah Sanders had called her to check if she was still around so she could see her. She then took her to the Oval Office with the president. “I heard you’re writing a story about … these things,” he told her. Nuzzi was working on the topic of the bad blood between Trump and Chief of Staff Gen. John Kelly, a constant rumor in Washington. The president spent a good while denying it. He then called in Kelly himself. Then came Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. And finally, Vice President Mike Pence. They were all meeting for lunch, but before that, they stayed a while with the journalist. The conversation − which the article describes profusely − was on the record, that is, publishable, with the exception of a couple of moments, which the reporter points out in her text.
Some of his press conferences will go down in history for their length, their diversity, at times their nonsense. The one he offered during the U.N. General Assembly on June 26 in New York dragged on for an hour and 20 minutes, and it allowed him to talk about everything under the sun. Forged in the construction business and being a professional showman (he hosted several seasons of “The Apprentice”), Trump treats these speeches like performances. During that same conference, he compared them to rock concerts. Quoting Elton John, Trump asked for a good question for the final crescendo. “Elton John said when you hit that last tune and it’s good, don’t go back.” Of course, he also attacked the press, as when he gave the floor to a reporter from the “failing” New York Times. To another reporter he knew, he said: “Hit me with a bad one … Go ahead. Give it to me.” And last, he confessed how he enjoyed it: “I could be doing this all day long.”
Throughout all these responses, however, he flung out a string of incorrect data. The president of the U.S. envisages the world of mass media as a spectacle. And the public is interested. Subscriptions to some newspapers and television audiences have increased in the Trump era. The New Yorker appears to be very aware of this. “You’re doing very well. Say ‘Thank you, Mr. Trump,’” he told journalists in New York. “Can you imagine if you didn’t have me?” he added.
But Trump’s show with the press is anything but comical. His followers, that is, millions and millions of Americans, have adopted the rhetoric that the press is the enemy of the people. The latest Gallup poll, published this week, indicates that only 21 percent of Republican voters have a sufficient or high level of confidence in the press (versus 76 percent of Democratic voters). Milo Yiannopoulos, a right-wing agitator, has jokingly called for killing journalists. Last August, the FBI arrested a man in Los Angeles for threatening reporters, whom he called “the enemy of the people.” One week before that, in an unprecedented coordinated action, 300 American newspapers published editorials, all in the same day, in defense of the free press.
Which remains healthy, despite the pressure. The big headlines continue to create trouble for the president as they report about the Russian scheme, controversies inside the White House or his businesses. Last week, The New York Times published a lengthy investigation claiming that part of the Trump fortune came from tax fraud. The New York State Department of Taxation and Finance announced that they would review the records.