Did Donald Trump call the media the enemy?
Some media call his words 'attack on a free press'
By Tatiana Prophet
Another tweet from the President, targeting the media yet again. His supporters knew exactly what he meant. The rest of the country was shocked. Some pundits saw it as an attack on our democracy. But his supporters felt certain it was simply another jab at the Establishment.
The day after his first solo press conference, a freewheeling affair that was widely panned by the national media, Trump tweeted:
"The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!"
Anyone who only read the papers, and didn’t actually watch the news conference, might think that it was at best, an embarrassing tirade, and at worst, a train wreck. Consider the following headlines:
“ ‘I’m not ranting and raving.’ Trump on defensive in first solo news conference,” raved Reuters.
"Trump claims he 'inherited a mess' at sprawling, grievance-filled news conference," cried the Washington Post.
"In 77 Chaotic Minutes, Trump Defends 'Fine-Tuned Machine'," opined The New York Times.
"That was one bizarre Trump press conference,” declared a Boston Globe columnist.
Most of the photos from the event showed Trump slightly disheveled, mid-expression, with a mildly hostile look on his face.
As good journalists are taught to do, writers of all of the stories on the press conference summarized the most sensational aspect of the event: the President’s focus on the media, and the idea that he said he had inherited a mess. This second part has been held out and laughed at not only by national media, but by every single person with a social media account on both coasts.
Yet not one article (and I’ve read a couple dozen) ever quoted the nice things Donald Trump said about the media, or the fact that he was pleading for a change in tone.
“It was an exhausting 77-minute extravaganza, and any five-minute segment would have been enough to make front-page headlines around the world,” wrote Ben Jacobs of The Guardian, under the less-than-subtle headline “This press conference is proof Donald Trump will never be presidential.”
Except, Jacobs did not include any of the following five-minute segments of Trump's appeal to them:
“I'm making this presentation directly to the American people with the media present, which is an honor to have you this morning, because many of our nation's reporters and folks will not tell you the truth and will not treat the wonderful people of our country with the respect that they deserve. And I hope going forward we can be a little bit different, and maybe get along a little bit better, if that's possible. Maybe it's not, and that's okay too.
“Unfortunately, much of the media in Washington, D.C., along with New York, Los Angeles, in particular, speaks not for the people but for the special interests and for those profiting off a very, very obviously broken system. The press has become so dishonest that if we don’t talk about it, we are doing a tremendous disservice to the American people -- tremendous disservice. We have to talk about it to find out what's going on, because the press honestly is out of control. The level of dishonesty is out of control.
“I ran for President to represent the citizens of our country. I am here to change the broken system so it serves their families and their communities well. I am talking, and really talking, on this very entrenched power structure, and what we're doing is we're talking about the power structure, we're talking about its entrenchment. As a result, the media is going through what they have to go through to oftentimes distort -- not all the time -- and some of the media is fantastic, I have to say; they're honest and fantastic. But much of it is not -- the distortion. And we'll talk about it, and you'll be able to ask me questions about it.
Then Trump went directly into his point about “inheriting a mess.”
“But we're not going to let it happen, because I'm here again to take my message straight to the people. As you know, our administration inherited many problems across government and across the economy. To be honest, I inherited a mess -- it’s a mess -- at home and abroad. A mess. Jobs are pouring out of the country. You see what’s going on with all of the companies leaving our country, going to Mexico and other places -- low-pay, low-wages. Mass instability overseas, no matter where you look. The Middle East, a disaster. North Korea -- we’ll take care of it, folks. We're going to take care of it all. I just want to let you know I inherited a mess.”
A bit later, he again asked the media for a change:
"So one thing that I felt it was very important to do -- and I hope we can correct it, because there is nobody I have more respect for -- well, maybe a little bit -- than reporters, than good reporters. It's very important to me, and especially in this position. It's very important. I don't mind bad stories. I can handle a bad story better than anybody as long as it's true. And over a course of time, I'll make mistakes and you'll write badly and I'm okay with that. But I'm not okay when it is fake. I mean, I watch CNN -- it's so much anger and hatred and just the hatred. ... But honestly, the public would appreciate it. I’d appreciate it. Again, I don’t mind bad stories when it’s true."
In response to a follow-up question by CNN’s Jim Acosta, Trump said: “I just see many, many untruthful things. And I tell you what else I see. I see tone. You know the word “tone.” The tone is such hatred. I’m really not a bad person, by the way. No, but the tone is such -- I do get good ratings, you have to admit that. The tone is such hatred.”
Perhaps to many who can’t stand the new president, his full remarks don’t offer much new information. But the details that most of the media left out of their coverage of this event are very telling. Not a single article mentioned that Trump praised “much of the media” as “fantastic.”
Neither did much of the national media find it interesting that Trump chose to hold his press conference, not in the James Brady Briefing Room in the West Wing, but in the larger East Room. They have also ignored Trump's efforts to expand the White House media to include nontraditional outlets, aside from suggesting a sinister motive, or scoffing that some of the questions from nontraditional media were loaded or softballs.
Fact-checking of his press conference was hit-and-miss. Rather than exposing outright lies, the Washington Post instead pointed out inconsistencies.
Trump’s claims of the stock market having record highs was true, but he flip-flopped because before the election, he called it a bubble. Trump’s claim that his approval rating was 55 percent quoted a Rasmussen poll, which the Post pointed out gets a C+ rating from Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, but all the polls show an average of 44 percent. These are many of the same polls that had Hillary Clinton’s probability of winning the election hovering around 90 percent all last year.
The Washington Post fact check intoned: “The economy was in pretty good shape when Trump became president, especially compared to the economic crisis that Obama inherited in 2009. In January 2009, coinciding with the last labor report of the George W. Bush administration, nearly 800,000 jobs disappeared, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared to the nearly 230,000 jobs added in January 2017. (Trump has given himself credit for the January numbers, but the data was collected when Obama still held office.)”
The issue here is not just jobs, however. The issue is economic growth, which remained anemic through President Obama’s two terms – a data point Trump accurately cited throughout the campaign. GDP growth averaged less than 1.5 percent annually, according to U.S. News and World Report. Ronald Reagan, by contrast, averaged 3.5% annual GDP growth after a recession.
And there are many ways to slice the job numbers, as well. The fact is, it’s been a fixture of the last 15 years that the quality of jobs has gone down in this country, and millions of people have left the labor force in discouragement, or are underemployed.
There was one glaring error Trump made, but he admitted it and shrugged it off. He said he had gotten the most electoral votes of any Republican since Reagan, when in fact, George H. W. Bush got far more. When confronted, he said, well, I was given that information. The Post, to its credit, did include in its fact check that Trump, however, did get the most individual votes of any Republican in history.
Finally, the Post claimed Trump lied about Hillary Clinton authorizing the sale of American uranium to a Russian company, reminding readers they had previously given him four Pinocchios for this claim. According to the New York Times, her agency did approve it along with several others.
And in the end, as Trump predicted, there would be no requested course correction forthcoming from the media. Instead of learning Trump’s style, in which he ad-libs his way through a speech with attempts at lightehearted sarcasm, they played it completely straight. They never qualified his statement “I’m not ranting and raving” with context; they cut all life out of it, making him look defensive and petulant.
“But I am having a good time. Tomorrow they will say, Donald Trump rants and raves at the press. I’m not ranting and raving. I’m just telling you, you're dishonest people. But -- but I’m not ranting and raving. I love this. I’m having a good time doing it. But tomorrow the headlines are going to be: Donald Trump Rants and Raves. I’m not ranting and raving.”
Now I’ll acknowledge, a surgeon would not enjoy being called unsteady, and a barber would not enjoy being called inattentive; so it’s understandable that the media do not enjoy being called dishonest. I find it strange, however, that the media would not include the qualifying statements the President has made about them, instead actually making them sound more negative than they are. It almost seems as if they are taking it personally – as if they have become the story.
UNDERMINING THE PRESS?
So is Donald Trump really attacking a free press, as Carl Bernstein suggested? Or is he fighting back for fair coverage? Before the election, we journalists all made fun of him for complaining the polls were wrong. It turns out he was right.
As someone who got the level of Trump's support very wrong, I worked to reexamine that support, review his speeches, go over my presuppositions, push back against my own bias. Which has led me to do these critiques. While I acknowledge that Donald Trump has gotten the facts wrong many a time, I have to also admit that his general point is sometimes right.
Take Chicago, parts of which he said were worse than the Middle East in terms of danger. Comfortable white residents of the nation's cities think everything is going fine. And the overall murder rate in Chicago has been much lower than in the '90s, up until very recently. But if you look at individual neighborhoods, you'll see the worst ones have a murder rate higher than Caracas, considered the most dangerous city in the world. Yet the Boston Globe columnist scoffed at the President's many gaffes, some of which could simply be attributed to not hearing the reporter correctly, rounding out the list with Trump's ridiculous assertion about Chicago -- linking to, frankly, a poorly reported story on Trump's claims of two Chicagos.
There are two aspects of the media, of course: the reporting arm and the opinion arm. I know that many who watched Trump's rise with alarm blamed the media for giving him too much attention, and not fact checking him more vigorously. That's the reporting arm.
But then there is the other arm, the opinion arm. Opinion pieces emitted daily out of the national media machine, from Salon, The New York Times and TIME magazine, on Trump's buffoonery, his pathetic self-run operation, his preposterous expectation that he could run for President, his mental state or lack thereof. That is the negativity he was definitely referring to when he mentioned the "dishonest" media at his rallies.
Then in mid-September of last year, Donald Trump invited the media for an important announcement -- the statement that Barack Obama was born in the United States. He spent 30 minutes plugging his new hotel, and one sentence putting to rest the birther issue, causing outrage among many reporters. That's one of the first times I think the media began to become the story.
And frankly, the two medias are often conflated -- fact and opinion. Opinion is marked very lightly, if at all. Stories with solely anonymous sources are a way to bridge the gap between opinion and news. Even if a source is quoted directly, the articles often share only one or two opinions. Is there any counter-opinion or counterargument? The public will never know. These types of stories have abounded in the last month, claiming everything from Trump roaming the White House in his bathrobe, to intelligence officials withholding information from the President, allegedly for fear he would reveal it, to chaos reigning in the White House.
Fast forward to Friday's tweet.
The New York Times:
Trump Calls the News Media the 'Enemy of the American People'
The New York Times, in its opening paragraph, did not quote Trump's entire tweet. Instead, it made a partial quote, stating that Trump called the "national news media" (quotes are mine) "the enemy of the American people" (quotes are theirs). It's a small inaccuracy, but an important one.
In the same story, the Times issued a correction update at the bottom. Due to an "editing error, " the headline in an earlier version said: "Trump Calls Media the 'Enemy of the People.' " The word "American" was added later. Yet the headline still left out the "fake" part, or the part about themselves.
Donald Trump almost always uses a qualifying adjective when speaking of the "media." He used to say "dishonest." Now he has also begun to say "fake." So was he declaring war on the entire media? Or just the ones who left out the part about themselves in their headlines?
It has always been the media's job to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. A vast number of them do just that. Donald Trump can be said to have upended that phrase. In his eyes and in the eyes of his supporters, he is comforting the afflicted (the American people) and afflicting the comfortable national media. And they don't like it one bit.