Friday, March 16, 2018
"He seeks to weaken an institution that serves to constrain the abusive exercise of executive authority"
I'm glad to see someone of Tom Edsell's stature say this in such stark terms:
More than any president in living memory, Donald Trump has conducted a dogged, remorseless assault on the press. He portrays the news media not only as a dedicated adversary of his administration but of the entire body politic. These attacks have forced the media where it does not want to be, at the center of the political debate.
Trump’s purpose is clear. He seeks to weaken an institution that serves to constrain the abusive exercise of executive authority. He has initiated a gladiatorial contest pitting the principle of freedom of the press against a principle of his own invention: freedom from the press.
The news media “have been incorporated into the political style of the governing party as fixed hate objects,” Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at N.Y.U., wrote in an email to me.
Rosen observed that the history of right-wing attacks on the media extends back through Agnew’s speeches for Nixon to Goldwater’s campaign in 1964 and winds forward through William Rusher, talk radio, and of course Fox News, which founded a business model on liberal bias.
There is an underlying strategy to Trump’s critique of the media. Rosen continued:
Trump is not just attacking the press but the conditions that make it possible for news reports to serve as any kind of check on power. Trump is the apotheosis of this history and its accelerant. He has advanced the proposition dramatically. From undue influence (Agnew’s claim) to something closer to treason (enemy of the people.) Instead of criticizing ‘the media’ for unfair treatment, he whips up hatred for it. Some of his most demagogic performances have been exactly that. Nixon seethed about the press in private. Trump seethes in public, a very different act.
In a 2017 paper, “Enemy Construction and the Press,” RonNell Andersen Jones and Lisa Grow Sun, law professors at the University of Utah and Brigham Young University, argue that Trump’s goal is fundamentally malign:
The Trump administration, with a rhetoric that began during the campaign and burgeoned in the earliest days of Donald Trump’s presidency, has engaged in enemy construction of the press, and the risks that accompany that categorization are grave.
Insofar as Trump succeeds in “undercutting the watchdog, educator, and proxy functions of the press,” they write, it leaves the administration more capable of delegitimizing other institutions and constructing other enemies — including the judiciary, the intelligence community, immigrants, and members of certain races or religions.
Jones and Sun contend that in many respects, Trump is reminiscent of Richard M. Nixon: Nixon, like Trump, accused the media of being out to get him and predicted that the press would mischaracterize his public support or the reception he received. He believed the liberal media to be biased against him personally, maintaining that he had “entered the presidency with less support from the major publications and TV networks than any president in history” and that “their whole objective in life is to bring us down.”
Unlike Trump, however, Nixon (like the country’s founders)routinely reaffirmed to both the press and the public that he conceived of the press as central to democracy. Indeed, in his first speech to the public regarding the Watergate scandal, Nixon acknowledged that “the system that brought the facts to light and that will bring those guilty to justice” was a system that included “a vigorous free press.”
Trump stands out, according to Jones and Sun, in that his administration has passed a threshold not approached by previous administrations in their tensions with the media. Trump is signaling — through his terminology, through his delegitimizing actions, and through his anticipatory undercutting — that the press is literally the enemy, to be distrusted, ignored, and excluded.
In “Asymmetric Constitutional Hardball,” Joseph Fishkin and David E. Pozen, law professors at the University of Texas and Columbia, write:
For a quarter of a century, Republican officials have been more willing than Democratic officials to play constitutional hardball — not only or primarily on judicial nominations but across a range of spheres. Democrats have also availed themselves of hardball throughout this period, but not with the same frequency or intensity.
In an email, Fishkin wrote:
As with so many things about President Trump, it strikes me that he didn’t start the fire. He got into office because it was already burning and now he’s pouring on gasoline.
In Fishkin’s view, Trump will do all he can to make the conflict between his party and the press “sharper and more intense, in the same way that he depends on and aims to intensify partisan polarization.”
Pozen warned in an email:
Accusations that the press has a political agenda can, perversely, help create an agenda which is then said to corroborate the accusations.
Pozen described Trump’s denunciation of the press as “the culmination of several decades of comparable attacks by media pundits, such as Rush Limbaugh” and he argues that Trump’s calls
to lock up one’s general election opponent, encouraging online hate mobs, lying constantly, attacking the press constantly, contradicting oneself constantly, undermining the very idea of truth are individually and in common potentially profound threats to the integrity and quality of our system of free expression.
The question is whether the news media can mount an effective check on the exercise of power when the media itself has become an object of hatred for a large segment of the electorate.
Rosen of N.Y.U. notes the cross pressures on the news media:
I think our top journalists are correct that if they become the political opposition to Trump, and see themselves that way, they lose. But they have to go to war against a political style in which power gets to write its own story.
Rosen draws attention to a September 2017 article in The Atlantic, “Trump’s War Against the Media Isn’t a War: You need two sides for that,” which quotes Marty Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post: “We’re not at war; we’re at work.” Baron is right, but for those without any understanding of — or respect for — freedom of the press, first principles can be brushed aside without a second thought.
It's interesting that at the same time Trump is denigrating the press for "fake news" certain foreign actors who seem to like the cut of his jib have also weaponized propaganda in a way that validates his claims even though he's wrong.
Keep in mind that this is all in service of authoritarianism and oligarchy. It's not benign "partisan politics." It won't end well.
I honestly don't know how we can work our way out of this mess. I guess we just have to hope that somehow common sense reasserts itself and the people begin to wake up. But just trying to cling to reality right now is a very daunting task.
digby 3/16/2018 03:00:00 PM