Trump, confident that his base is just as angry with journalists as he is, has begun a new anti-media campaign on several fronts. He is questioning whether NBC’s broadcasting license should be renewed, complaining about an NBC story claiming that Trump wanted a tenfold increase in U.S. nuclear weapons, which the president angrily denies. He told reporters Wednesday it was “disgusting” that “the press is able to write whatever it wants to write.” Trump also said on Twitter that television outlets might need to have their licenses “revoked” if they persist in spreading “fake” news. This could be pure bluster because such action probably would be declared unconstitutional by the courts. And in any case, licenses are granted by the Federal Communications Commission to local stations, not national networks such as NBC. But media defenders saw Trump’s attacks as, at minimum, an attempt at intimidation.
Despite such attacks, Americans now have more trust in the news media than in Trump’s administration, according to the latest Reuters/Ipsos poll. Forty-eight percent say they have a “great deal” or “some” confidence in the press, up from 39 percent last November. At the same time, 48 percent, the identical number, have a great deal or some confidence in Trump and his administration, down from 52 percent when he took over in January. The poll finds that from January to September, confidence in the media rose 3 percentage points among Republicans and 11 points among Democrats, while confidence in Trump’s executive branch dropped 6 points among Republicans and 3 points among Democrats. Historian Martha Kumar told Reuters, “What you’re seeing now is a gradual recognition of the importance of the press” among Americans.
But Trump’s bitterness goes deep. Earlier this year, he started calling the news industry the “enemy of the American people.” He makes a habit of mocking and berating the media, attempting to undermine the credibility of television networks, newspapers and other outlets that carry negative stories about him. He condemns some outlets by name such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and NBC for promoting “fake news.” Fueling the media’s antagonism, he suggested on Oct. 5 that the Senate Intelligence Committee investigate media companies that disseminate information he says is fabricated. Trump wrote on Twitter, “Why Isn’t the Senate Intel Committee looking into the Fake News Networks in OUR country to see why so much of our news is just made up–FAKE?”
The president’s blast came after committee leaders announced that Russia did attempt to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, as the U.S. intelligence community had claimed. Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Mark Warner, D-Va., the committee leaders, said they had reached no conclusion yet on whether Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign colluded with the Russians, and the senators said they would continue their probe. Burr accepted only part of Trump’s investigate-the-media suggestion but it set off alarm bells among journalists. He told reporters his panel is “not going to investigate news organizations” but added that some of the committee’s findings already contradict media reporting. Burr said, “We will use the findings of our report to let the American people hold every news organization accountable for what they portrayed as fact, in many cases without sources – at least, no sources that would admit to it. And I think, when we finish our report, we will find that quite a few news organizations ran stories that were not factual.”
Trump also is seething because NBC News reported that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called the president a “moron” during a private meeting and had considered resigning. Tillerson told reporters that he had not considered quitting but he didn’t address the accuracy of the “moron” report. His spokeswoman later denied Tillerson called his boss a moron. But Trump said he would win any IQ test compared with Tillerson, in a remark that a White House spokeswoman said was intended as a joke. The episode intensified the hard feelings between Trump and the journalistic community.
For their part, major news organizations such as the Times, the Post, CNN and NBC remain aggressive in digging into problems at the White House, as they do with every administration, examining flaws in Trump’s leadership and approach to governing, and publicizing his willingness to spread falsehoods. “The press is in search of truths and Trump is a fount of lies, which makes them natural adversaries,” Times columnist Charles M. Blow wrote on Oct. 9. “….While the press is, for the most part, properly exercising its power to shine light into places that the powerful would prefer remained dark, Trump is abusing his power by trying to squash dissent through defamation of individual journalists, individual shows and individual networks or newspapers.”
Some argue that Trump’s media bashing is, in effect, a ruse. “This battle that Trump insists on maintaining also serves a wider goal for him: distraction,” Blow wrote. “As long as we focus on the latest outrage he publishes on Twitter attacking one person or another, the less time we have to focus on the fact that his presidency thus far is a colossal legislative failure, his cabinet is an unending game of cloak and daggers meets musical chairs, his Justice Department is systematically and unrelentingly expressing its hostilities to equal rights, and Trump’s reckless, emotionally triggered language and actions are making us less safe by denigrating diplomacy and advocating military aggression.”
The situation reminds me of an old battlefield axiom: No quarter asked or given. This is where America is in the war between the president and the Fourth Estate, with the credibility of both sides at stake.