Donald Trump conducted a press conference recently as if he were a loud circus ringmaster whipping the media circus animals into shape. The establishment thought the performance was a window into an unhinged mind; half the country thought it was a long overdue media comeuppance.
The media suffer the lowest approval numbers in nearly a half-century. In a recent Emerson College poll, 49 percent of American voters termed the Trump administration "truthful"; yet only 39 percent believed the same about the news media.
Every president needs media audit. The role of journalists in a free society is to act as disinterested censors of government power-neither going on witch-hunts against political opponents nor deifying ideological fellow-travelers.
Sadly, the contemporary mainstream media-the major networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN), the traditional blue-chip newspapers (Washington Post, New York Times), and the public affiliates (NPR, PBS)-have lost credibility. They are no more reliable critics of President Trump's excesses than they were believable cheerleaders for Barack Obama's policies.
Trump may have a habit of exaggeration and gratuitous feuding that could cause problems with his presidency. But we would never quite know that from the media. In just his first month in office, reporters have already peddled dozens of fake news stories designed to discredit the President-to such a degree that little they now write or say can be taken at face value.
No, Trump did not have any plans to invade Mexico, as Buzzfeed and the Associated Press alleged.
No, Trump's father did not run for Mayor of New York by peddling racist television ads, as reported by Sidney Blumenthal.
No, there were not mass resignations at the State Department in protest of its new leaders, as was reported by the Washington Post.
No, Trump's attorney did not cut a deal with the Russians in Prague. Nor did Trump indulge in sexual escapades in Moscow. Buzzfeed again peddled those fake news stories.
No, a supposedly racist Trump did not remove the bust of Martin Luther King Jr. from the White House, as a Time Magazine reporter claimed.
No, election results in three states were not altered by hackers or computer criminals to give Trump the election, as implied by New York Magazine.
No, Michael Flynn did not tweet that he was a scapegoat. That was a media fantasy endorsed by Nancy Pelosi.
In fact, Daniel Payne of the Federalist has compiled a lengthy list of sensational stories about Trump's supposed buffooneries, mistakes, and crudities that all proved either outright lies or were gross exaggerations and distortions.
We would like to believe writers for the New York Times or Washington Post when they warn us about the new president's overreach. But how can we do so when they have lost all credibility-either by colluding with the Obama presidency and the Hillary Clinton campaign, or by creating false narratives to ensure that Trump fails?
Ezra Klein at Vox just wrote a warning about the autocratic tendencies of Donald Trump. Should we believe him? Perhaps not. Klein was the originator of Journolist, a "left-leaning" private online chat room of journalists that was designed to coordinate media narratives that would enhance Democratic politicians and in particular Barack Obama. Such past collusion begs the question of whether Klein is really disinterested now in the fashion that he certainly was not during the Obama administration.
Recently, New York Times White House correspondent Glenn Thrush coauthored a report
about initial chaos among the Trump White House staff, replete with unidentified sources. Should we believe Thrush's largely negative story?
Perhaps. But then again, Thrush not so long ago turned up in the Wikileaks troves as sending a story to Hillary Clinton aide John Podesta for prepublication audit. Thrush was his own honest critic, admitting to Podesta: "Because I have become a hack I will send u the whole section that pertains to u. Please don't share or tell anyone I did this Tell me if I f**ked up anything."
Dana Milbank of the Washington Post has become a fierce critic of President Trump. Are his writs accurate? Milbank also appeared in Wikileaks, asking the Democratic National Committee to provide him with free opposition research for a negative column he was writing about candidate Trump. Are Milbank's latest attacks his own-or once again coordinated with Democratic researchers?
The Washington Post censor Glenn Kessler posted the yarn about Trump's father's racist campaign for New York mayor-until he finally fact-checked his own fake news and deleted his tweet.
Sometimes the line between journalism and politicians is no line at all. Recently, former Obama deputy National Security advisor Ben Rhodes (brother of CBS news president David Rhodes) took to Twitter to blast the Trump administration's opposition to the Iran Deal, brokered in large part by Rhodes himself. "Everything Trump says here," Rhodes stormed, "is false."
Should we believe Rhodes's charges that Trump is now lying about the details of the Iran Deal?
Who knows, given that Rhodes himself not long ago bragged to the New York Times of his role in massaging reporters to reverberate an administration narrative: "We created an echo chamber They were saying things that validated what we had given them to say." Rhodes also had no respect for the very journalists that he had manipulated: "The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That's a sea change. They literally know nothing."
Is Rhodes now being disinterested or once again creating an "echo chamber"?
His boss, former UN Ambassador and National Security Advisor in the Obama administration, Susan Rice (married to Ian Cameron, a former producer at ABC news), likewise went on Twitter to blast the Trump administration's decision to include presidential advisor Steven Bannon in meetings of the National Security Council: "This is stone cold crazy," Rice asserted, "After a week of crazy."
Is Rice (who has no military experience) correct that the former naval officer Bannon has no business participating in such high strategy meetings?
In September 2012, Rice went on television on five separate occasions to insist falsely to the nation that the attacks on the Benghazi consulate were the work of spontaneous rioters and not a preplanned hit by an al Qaeda franchise. Her own quite crazy stories proved a convenient administration reelection narrative of Al Qaeda on the run, but there were already sufficient sources available to Rice to contradict her false news talking points.
There are various explanations for the loss of media credibility.
First, the world of New York and Washington DC journalism is incestuous. Reporters share a number of social connections, marriages, and kin relationships with liberal politicians, making independence nearly culturally impossible.
More importantly, the election in 2008 of Barack Obama marked a watershed, when a traditionally liberal media abandoned prior pretenses of objectivity and actively promoted the candidacy and presidency of their preferred candidate. The media practically pronounced him god, the smartest man ever to enter the presidency, and capable of creating electric sensations down the legs of reporters. The supposedly hard-hitting press corps asked Obama questions such as, "During these first 100 days, what has ...enchanted you the most from serving in this office? Humbled you the most...?"
Obama, as the first African-American president-along with his progressive politics that were to the left of traditional Democratic policies-enraptured reporters who felt disinterested coverage might endanger what otherwise was a rare and perhaps not-to-be-repeated moment.
We are now in a media arena where there are no rules. The New York Times is no longer any more credible than talk radio; CNN-whose reporters have compared Trump to Hitler and gleefully joked about his plane crashing-should be no more believed than a blogger's website. Buzzfeed has become like the National Inquirer.
Trump now communicates, often raucously and unfiltered, directly with the American people, to ensure his message is not distorted and massaged by reporters who have a history of doing just that. Unfortunately, it is up to the American people now to audit their own president's assertions. The problem is not just that the media is often not reliable, but that it is predictably unreliable. It has ceased to exist as an auditor of government. Ironically the media that sacrificed its reputation to glorify Obama and demonize Trump has empowered the new President in a way never quite seen before. At least for now, Trump can say or do almost anything he wishes without media scrutiny-given that reporters have far less credibility than does Trump.
Trump is the media's Nemesis-payback for its own hubris.