When President Donald Trump takes the rostrum for his first address to a joint session of Congress on Feb. 28, will he train his rhetorical firepower on what he asserts is “the enemy of the American people”?
That enemy, we all learned the other day from a Twitter grenade, isn’t ISIS or terrorists affiliated with other diabolical groups, and it’s certainly not the Russians from Vladimir V. Putin on down. The enemy, in the president’s all-capital-letters phrase, is “FAKE NEWS media” and, specifically, The New York Times, NBC, ABC, CBS and CNN.
While Trump was seeking the Republican nomination and, subsequently, the White House, he effectively branded individual opponents with belittling nicknames — “Lyin’ Ted (Cruz), “Low Energy Jeb” (Bush), “Little Marco” (Rubio) and “Crooked Hillary” (Clinton). He also criticized the news media — at the same time that he received a massive amount of coverage. Indeed, early last month he referred to himself (again on Twitter) as “the ratings machine, DJT.”
Since his inauguration — and without the head-to-head battle of a campaign — Trump has increased the volume and frequency of his attacks on the media. Some news administrators even worry about the physical welfare of their reporters in this new journalistic environment, where the messenger is also “the enemy.”
Presidential antipathy to the press is, to be sure, as old as the Republic. Early in his first term, Bill Clinton (of all people) stormed that he had “not gotten one damn bit of credit from the knee-jerk liberal press,” and Richard Nixon famously compiled lists of “enemies” and “political opponents,” each featuring numerous journalists considered unsympathetic.
Every occupant of the Oval Office despairs, from time to time, that what’s called the Fourth Estate is third-rate at best.
To a certain extent, Trump is trying to inoculate himself, so that any media-generated disapproval of him or his administration always seems suspect, if not outright biased.
President Trump, however, seems preoccupied with the media — and what the various journalistic outlets say about him. During his recent news conference, he kept returning to condemnations of reporters, the work they do and the institutions they represent.
For some reason, the president thinks that by repeating the term “fake news” he’ll delegitimize sources of information providing accounts of his administration. For context: The phrase “fake news” became popular last fall to describe the totally made up and false stories, often originating in Macedonia, that appear on websites or social media.
The president has appropriated the expression for his own purposes to brand the mainstream media and the messages they circulate in a highly negative way. In short, he’s doing to the media what he did to his political opponents in winning the White House.
At one point in his recent press conference, after complaining about leaks to the media from governmental units, Trump’s invocation of “fake news” became confusing.
A reporter got up and inquired: “[O]n the leaks, is it fake news or are these real leaks?”
“Well, the leaks are real,” the president responded. “You’re the one that wrote about them and reported them. . . . The news is fake because so much of the news is fake.”
How can accurately reported and “real” leaks also be considered “fake” news? Painting everything with such a broad brush obscures what’s important, even vital, for the public to see. It, in fact, is how democracy should function.
President Trump returned to the subject of today’s media during his campaign-style rally in Melbourne, Florida, the other day. Near the beginning of his remarks, he said he wanted “to speak to you without the filter of fake news. The dishonest media which has published one false story after another with no sources, even though they pretend they have them. They make them up in many cases. They just don’t want to report the truth, and they’ve been calling us wrong now for two years. They don’t get it. . . . They’ve become a big part of the problem. They are part of the corrupt system.”
He continued in this vein for several more sentences. Among Trump’s core supporters, hurling brickbats at the media can’t occur often enough. The more the merrier, and the louder the cheering.
But, beyond his strong and faithful base, what does all of this criticism actually mean, and — more significantly — what impact over time might there be?
To a certain extent, Trump is trying to inoculate himself, so that any media-generated disapproval of him or his administration always seems suspect, if not outright biased. If the conduit of criticism is considered fraudulent or dishonest, what’s reported won’t carry much of a punch. It will be disregarded as, pardon the expression, “fake news.”
In terms of the future, a democracy that lacks a vigorous and probing news media will be operating without an essential, independent check and balance. What other institution will monitor the performance of public officials and assess the conduct of public business? Where can we turn?
Much of America’s heritage as a country and success as a nation rests squarely on the First Amendment and what it’s meant and provided since 1791. We play with fire — and worse — when we consider reputable and fair sources of civic information as “the enemy of the American people.”
Robert Schmuhl is the Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Professor of American Studies and Journalism and the founding director of the John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics & Democracy at Notre Dame. His most recent book is Fifty Years with Father Hesburgh: On and Off the Record .