President Trump appears to be waging a war against the US media.
From branding articles that criticise him and his administration as fake news, to referring to the New York Times as failing at all opportunities, and also saying the media should not be allowed to use anonymous sources, this war came to a head on Friday when a number of news organisations were blocked from attending a press briefing.
Reporters from CNN, the New York Times, Politico, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, BBC and Buzzfeed were banned from attending a non-televised briefing by the White House press secretary Sean Spicer. Access was granted to other reporters, including those representing conservative outlets such as Breitbart.
The White House has said the decision was not made to exclude journalists from organisations that had been critical of the president, in favour of those who were positive, however it comes at a time when Trump has been using his platform to criticise the media who are critical of him.
In addition, it was announced on Sunday evening that Trump would not be attending the White House Correspondents Dinner, the first president not to do so for over 30 years. Regan didn’t attend the dinner during his time in the Oval Office as he was recovering from an assassination attempt in 1981, but delivered a speech on the phone.
I will not be attending the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner this year. Please wish everyone well and have a great evening!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 25, 2017
“This is significant. Elite US journalists see it as a stamp of approval for the system for the slightly adversarial but mostly cooperative system of reporting on government,” Chris Paterson, senior lecturer in international communication at University of Leeds, told Verdict. “Having a lavish yearly event in which each president good-naturedly participates signals to the world that the system works.”
“Trump’s relationship with the media has been quite frosty to say the least and to some extent, this reflects a general split between Democrats and Republicans over how they view the media,” Christine Margerum Harlen, lecturer in US politics at the University of Leeds, told Verdict.
The polarisation of opinion about the media between Democrats and Republicans has been developing since the 1980s when the US decided that radio stations didn’t have to be impartial and didn’t have to give equal time to equal views, explained Harlen, unlike the constraints that are placed on the UK broadcasters.
However, it appears that these divisions are getting worse.
“When Republican voters were surveyed by Quinnipiac University in Connecticut in January, 86 percent of Republican respondents thought that the news media was dishonest – that’s a really high percentage,” said Harlen. “When Trump attacks the media, this goes along with what his supporters feel, and it’s made [the media] vulnerable.”
The relationship between the media and the president can be fraught
Trump isn’t the first president to have run ins with members of the press.
The Obama administration reportedly tried to block Fox News from attending a briefing in 2009, however, this is something it has denied and the White House press corps joined together in solidarity against the administration for this.
On Friday, outlets including Fox, ABC and Reuters boycotted the briefing after the exclusions emerged.
“Selective access” and “off-the-record briefings” are normal in the White House, said Paterson, however, “favoured news outlets [would be given permission] to share information with other media; that is what was missing last week.”
For instance, George W Bush was known for asking reporters from conservative media outlets to “give him softball questions”, mainly when the Iraq invasion wasn’t going well, during his time in office.
However, the growth and influence of Breitbart, in particular, is worrying.
“The escalation of Breitbart and other pseudo-news to the top of the media pecking order is new and frightening,” Paterson said. “It suggests that in the White House there is a lack of understanding of an essential questioning role of the press in a democracy and a lack of understanding of what journalism is.”
The mainstream media is fighting back against the attacks though. The New York Times’ executive editor Dean Baquet told CNN: “Trump is the best thing to happen to the Times’ subscription strategy. Every time he tweets it drives subscriptions wildly.”
“The Washington Post, in particular, was able to add on 60 new reporters just on the surge created by Donald Trump,” said Harlen.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 25, 2017
There could be other, hidden benefits in Trump’s administration that could stem this tirade against the press.
“Trump’s Supreme Court justice pick, Neil Gorsuch, is conservative but he’s also someone who really believes very strongly in the US constitution, which protects freedom of the press quite strongly. There isn’t any sign that his likely Supreme Court nominees would be comfortable with this suppression of the press,” explained Harlen.
Paterson is somewhat less optimistic.
“I repeat a quote from CIA whistleblower William Binney, who told The Nation that the post 9-11 US government was building the apparatus of a police state unlike any other in history, comparing it to the Weimar Republic preceding Nazi Germany.
“He said ‘We’re just waiting to turn the key.’ In my view, Trump shows every sign of looking for that key.”