Since moving into the White House, Trump has repeatedly demonstrated his obsession with journalists. The temperamental president wonders why there is no longer any “friendly reporter” in the US to talk about his “tremendous success” instead of covering other subjects. His targeted attacks are getting more and more frequent. The media bashing has never been so visible. He clearly regards media that do their job as “dishonest,” as harmful for the country and above all as “out of control.”
As a former corporate CEO used to firing employees at the click of a finger, Trump is visibly appalled by the insolent freedom with which the media behave. This perhaps explains his tendency to confuse his role as president with that of an authoritarian media tycoon.
At his very first press conference on January 11, nine days before his inauguration, the president-elect set the tenor of his future relationship with the media, adopting a paternalistic tone that he has maintained ever since. The editorial vision that he offered the US media could be synthesised as: I’ll respect you if you don’t publish negative stories about me.
During this press conference, he “complimented” journalists who had not reported a confidential summary of “unsubstantiated” claims about his links with Russia, and expressed contempt for those who had. One of them, CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta, was even denied the right to ask a question.
“Though Trump clearly sees himself as an arbiter of what is and isn’t good journalism, he is in fact the President of the United States, the country of the First Amendment, and he took an oath of office to protect and defend press freedom under the Constitution, said Margaux Ewen, Advocacy and Communications Director for RSF’s North America Bureau. “His repeated criticism of media outlets’ and individual journalists’ coverage of his presidency violates that oath. The result is an alarming erosion of the press’ right to inform and the American people’s right to know what is going on in their country.”
Four weeks later, a visibly irritated president appeared before the press again. Disappointed by the media’s coverage of the start of his presidency, Trump laid into the room full of “dishonest” individuals who had not done as they were told. “I hope going forward, we can be a little bit different,” he warned.
Trump has suffered many more disappointments at the hands of the media in the past nine months but the media magnate/president has not given up. On the contrary, he has stepped up the pressure.
Take this recent example. An NBC story reporting that he had proposed a tenfold increase in the US nuclear arsenal was branded as “fake news” on October 11 by Trump, who then completely overstepped the limits of his role as president by asking: “At what point is it appropriate to challenge their license?” Mentioning the possibility of rescinding a TV network’s licence was a totally unjustified and disproportionate retaliatory threat.
The president keeps on asking questions about how the media work and while doing so, sometimes he even learns something. “It’s frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want,” he said later the same day, regarding the NBC report, implying in the process that reporters didn’t worry much about facts. His disgust about press freedom even makes him forget about the First Amendment.
Although free speech is enshrined in the Constitution, it seems that some words are best left unspoken. Jemele Hill, the co-host of ESPN’s “SportsCenter”, annoyed the administration in September when she dared to tweet strong criticism of Trump, referring to him as a “white supremacist.” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders in effect called for her dismissal on September 13 when she said Hill had committed a “fireable offense.”
This White House comment is not unlike the behaviour of real media bosses such as News Corp owner Rupert Murdoch, who fired the editor of The Times of London in 1982 with the words: “I want your resignation today.” Fortunately, Jemele Hill’s bosses at ESPN didn’t decide to fire her, though she would later be suspended for two weeks after suggesting boycotting an NFL team’s sponsors.
Two days after Sanders’ comment, the dissatisfied president himself targeted the recalcitrant TV network in a tweet. “People are dumping [ESPN] in RECORD numbers. Apologize for untruth!” he wrote. He went even further on October 10, when he blamed Hill for a fall in ESPN’s viewer ratings, without pausing to wonder about his right to intervene in a TV network’s internal management or evaluate its ratings.
Bad journalists will pay
Trump often comments about the ratings or readership of media outlets, not just ESPN. On August 7, for example, he described the New York Times as “failing” and said it was sustaining “big losses.”
So, does this mean he cares about the well-being of his country’s media?Not really. These one-sided comments allow him to take revenge on media outlets that, in his view, are not reporting the facts as they should. They allow him to claim that journalists who behave badly are punished by a fall in the number of viewers or readers.
Reference to bad ratings is not the only way Trump publicly denigrates the media. Like a demanding editor, he repeatedly resorts to the “fake news” label in an attempt to discredit “bad” reporting and “bad” journalists. Does this mean he missed his calling? He did say on February 16, “I'd be a pretty good reporter.”
His journalistic objectivity nonetheless seems to falter if his own self-esteem is under threat. Whenever he deploys the “fake news” label, he is in fact targeting a story, reporter, or media outlet that has reported criticism of him or his policies. The events in Charlottesville, the Alabama Republican primary, Russia’s alleged role in the 2016 presidential campaign, the administration’s response to Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico, and his policy on nuclear weapons are all examples of reporting that has antagonized the “journalist-president.”
There is a particularly striking example that illustrates Trump’s lack of understanding in his relations with the media. At a press conference on July 6, he denounced CNN’s “very, very dishonest” coverage of him and then added: “NBC is equally as bad, despite the fact that I made them a fortune with ‘The Apprentice,’ but they forgot that.”
So Trump thinks that NBC’s journalists should be indebted to him for producing a TV reality show that made the network some money? And what better way of thanking their former benefactor than to exhibit pro-Trump bias in their reporting? The US president’s approach to media independence is, to say the least, strange.
At the same time, he is generous towards his favourite outlets, the ones he thinks do a good job. Since taking office, he has given 16 interviews to conservative outlet Fox News, which criticizes whistleblowers and, according to Trump, “has the most honest morning show,” referring to “Fox & Friends.” During the same period, he has given only one interview to ABC, two to CBN, one to CBS and one to CNN.
In light of this flagrant bias and the US administration’s many disturbing comments about the media, RSF reminds President Trump and his staff that American journalists do not work for him. They owe him nothing and don’t have to take lessons from him. They work for media outlets whose independence must be preserved at all costs, so that his grotesque tendency to treat the press like children does not destabilize an entire democracy.
The United States is ranked 43rd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index, after falling 2 places in the last year.