While some in the media were horrified (horrified, I tells ya!) by the president’s press conference/therapy session/77-minute gripe Thursday, I’ve mostly been bemused. My cat was horrified, but mostly because it ate into his 23 hours of sleep.
For me, it’s not so much the fact that, yet again, he lambasted my chosen profession, nor is it that he continued to spout the same falsehoods that have been debunked ad nauseam (including one that was fact-checked right on the spot). It’s that he spent all that time on things that matter only to him and his self-image. Pity poor Alex Acosta, the new Labor nominee, whose appointment announcement was lost in the noise.
No matter who the president is, it’s the job of a free and independent press (remember, no state-owned media here) to ask hard questions to get to the truth so that we can provide that truth to the audience. If we’re the “enemy of the people” because of that, so be it.
Except we’re not, and setting us up as the source of all evil does nothing to stem the tide of “fake news” (meaning manufactured, not whatever you don’t agree with) or burnish the reputations of those in the White House. Sorry, Mr. Trump. OK, not really.
Thanks to the First Amendment, the government doesn’t direct what we report. Chris Wallace of Fox News told White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus on Fox News Sunday:
“I don’t have any problem with you complaining about an individual story. We sometimes got it wrong, you guys sometimes got it wrong. I don’t have any problem with you complaining about bias.
“But you went a lot further than that … the president went a lot further than that. He said that the fake media, not certain stories, the fake media are an enemy to the country. We don’t have a state-run media in the country. That’s what they have in dictatorships. …
“Here’s the problem. When the president says that we’re the enemy of the American people, it makes it sound like if you’re going against him, you’re going against the country. …
“You don’t get to tell us what to do any more than Barack Obama did. Barack Obama whined about Fox News all the time. But I gotta say, he never said that we were an enemy of the people.”
And as Fox News anchor Shepard Smith said after the press conference in defense of Jim Acosta, the CNN reporter Trump again attacked, “No, sir, we’re not fools for asking the questions, and we demand to know the answer to this question. You owe this to the American people.”
Now, of course, Trump’s supporters are demanding Smith’s head … because, after all, you can’t question the king. And you certainly can’t shatter the illusion of a mandate (or remind them that the media pretty much got him elected with all that free advertising).
The simple truth (yeah, I know, evil word) is that Trump and his supporters need to learn is that it’s not the job of the media to provide daily affirmations for the president or anyone else; our job is to provide the facts, which requires asking tough, sometimes uncomfortable questions. If you’re getting news that’s just positive or negative, you’re not getting the full picture. And if your news is served with a heaping helping of opinion, you’re not being well-served, as there should be clear separation between news and opinion. If you can’t tell the difference, that’s a whole other problem (and there are entirely too many with this problem). Sometimes the media get a little sloppy, but responsible outlets own up to mistakes and make changes to prevent them from happening again.
Media critic Jack Shafer of Politico, in a column Friday, noted that past White House inhabitants weren’t exactly rah-rah for the press (ya know, ’cause we’re evil), but that “in the long run yelling at the press only focuses the public’s attention on the very reporting the yeller wants erased. It also invigorates reporters, and makes them feel important. No matter how grievous the sins of the press may be—and as a press critic, let me tell you, they are grievous—a president can’t forever blame everything on ‘dishonest reporters,’ the ‘mess’ the previous president left behind or the dug-in elites. Reckonings tend to take a while to form, as Nixon and Agnew learned.”
The press is many things—loathed, loved (there are a few nutty people out there who like us), worthy of ridicule at times—but most importantly, it is a watchdog responsible for helping keep government accountable. By getting overly chummy with those in government, it can become a lapdog, or perhaps the sort that watches as burglars steal everything in the house. With state-run media, it’s more of a bedraggled dog chained up in the backyard, cringing when he hears his owner. While some may want that, it’s not good for anyone … well, except for the owner, who gets to keep believing he’s the best owner ever.
Now I have to answer to the furry one about all this dog talk. He doesn’t look happy at all. I think I saw him sharpening his teeth …
I want to be pleasantly surprised by the president, but that’s yet to happen. I keep expecting adult behavior, but have yet to see that.
Some unsolicited advice, then, for President Trump: Calm down and stop being so defensive; it might be best to leave communications to the professionals until you do. Sure, you won’t get to have as much fun as you swore you were having last Thursday, but there just might be less talk of you being unhinged.
If you want positive coverage, do positive things. Want less coverage that you believe is negative? Stop saying things that are false, misleading, offensive, etc. Think before you tweet, or better yet, don’t tweet at all (you do have a job, remember). Realize the campaign is over and there is work to be done; focus on that, please, instead of a Festivus Night airing of grievances. You don’t have to be the center of attention at all times and make your behavior the story. Playing to your base with reactionary rhetoric may make you feel better, but it makes others here and around the world more than a little nervous, and puts too much stress on staff members who have to play cleanup.
C’mon, Mr. President: Surprise me. And not in the way that leaves me shaking my head. It’d be nice if you’d stop making “Tiny Trump” a reality. But I don’t see that happening any time soon.