Ever get the feeling President Donald Trump and members of the news media don’t like each other? Trump attacks the credibility of reporters with the same ferocious sloganeering he used to clobber political opponents during the campaign. He defeated “crooked Hillary” and “little Marco.” Now he’s in a bitter struggle with aggressive journalists — or as he calls them, purveyors of “fake news.”
We don’t like that phrase, not because we can’t take a punch but because his purpose is disingenuous in the extreme, and harmful to American democracy. From a politician’s perspective, there may be only two kinds of stories: positive or negative. But journalism is real. Some news reports will get under a president’s skin. Some news reports may be inaccurate. That doesn’t mean they’re fabricated.
A primary role of the news media is to hold government, the White House included, accountable for its actions. Trump’s strategy is to strip potentially damaging stories of their significance by heaping them and their organizations on a junk pile so high that all critical coverage gets discredited, at least by people inclined to support him. The approach has antecedents among conservative Republicans who’ve long suspected too many journalists harbor a liberal bias. Sarah Palin taunted the “lamestream media.”
Trump, though, takes news baiting to a new level. He routinely assaults the media despite the fact that as president he has a duty to defend the Constitution … and thus press freedom. “A few days ago, I called the fake news the enemy of the people, and they are — they are the enemy of the people,” he said at a conservative conference in February. Stop the presses, seriously. “Enemy of the people” is a despicable term once used by Stalinists to brand political prisoners; it has no business being deployed by a U.S. president against journalists. In recent days Trump has repeatedly tweeted about “fake news” and on Thursday viciously attacked the hosts of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
Trump’s battles with the news media would be less useful to him if the nation were not so politically divided — and if the news media got every story right.
The narrative dominating Trump’s early presidency is the investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign. It’s driven in part by news reports based on anonymous sources alleging that his associates may have colluded with Russians. No proof has surfaced. The story remains hot because Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, raising the specter of obstruction of justice.
Trump and his supporters don’t see a vigorous free press at work here. They see a plot. Conservatives had an “Aha!” moment last year when WikiLeaks released hacked emails showing Washington reporters sucking up to Hillary Clinton campaign chief John Podesta. Suspicions of bias are furthered by botched reporting, including two recent incidents by CNN. The network wrongly predicted what Comey would tell a Senate hearing, then retracted a report linking a Trump campaign official to Russia. CNN apologized and three journalists resigned, but Trump didn’t quit his attacks. Neither did spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who said the president is frustrated with the “constant barrage of fake news.”
Antagonism between presidents and the news media isn’t new. President Richard Nixon, whose administration maintained an enemies list, assailed The Washington Post’s Watergate coverage. When reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein messed up a story, White House spokesman Ron Ziegler pounced: “I personally feel that this is shabby journalism by The Washington Post … based again on anonymous sources.” He went off on the Post for a full half-hour. “We have had a long run of these types of stories presented by this particular newspaper, a newspaper once referred to as a great newspaper …” he chided. Sounds familiar.
At least Ziegler distinguished between his slap-down of the Post and his general respect for the news media. Trump takes no such care. The danger is that his disrespect corrodes trust, weakening journalism’s effectiveness as watchdog on government. If the public tunes out, or reporters pull back from pursuing stories because the risks are too high if they err, the country is worse off.
Calling for a truce isn’t necessary; reporters and government officials are often adversaries, due to their different roles. There are ground rules to these relationships, though: The news media have a responsibility to be fair and accurate, and correct errors when they happen. CNN’s decision to retract the Russia story and part ways with three employees reflect a commitment to do the right thing. Public officials have a responsibility to be honest and to respect journalists’ job as the public’s eyes and ears. Some Trump administration decisions, such as banning cameras from some briefings, disdain that purpose.
The key is that little is owed directly from the White House to reporters, or vice versa. They aren’t responsible to each other. Both owe allegiance to the American people. Conflict between the press and the president shouldn’t be about which wins. It should be about serving the nation’s democratic values and traditions.
And by the way, Ziegler eventually apologized to the Post.