Tuesday, December 6, 2016


By Ronald T. Fox


Throughout the presidential campaign, Donald Trump repeatedly railed against the mainstream media (MSM), which he claimed was biased against him. He called them "dishonest,' "disgusting," and "scum,” among other things, and threatened lawsuits against media outlets he said libeled him. He wasn’t alone in his media indictment; more than four in 10 Americans agree, according to a recent Huffington Post survey, that he faced unduly negative coverage. The survey also found that a majority of Trump voters believe his version of the truth over what is reported by a national media outlet.
TRUMP IXTrump’s campaign team responded to the perceived media negativity by denying access to a number of news outlets, including Univision, Politico, The Daily Beast, and the Huffington Post, Washington Post, and Des Moines Register. As president-elect, Trump has continued his assault on the media, berating two dozen TV news anchors and executives in a private tete-a-tete for their "outrageous" and "dishonest" coverage.  In the meeting, he allegedly called CNN a "network of liars."

Shortly after the election, Trump’s buddy Sean Hannity declared on Fox News that the MSM was fundamentally incapable of treating Donald Trump fairly. Hannity claims CNN attacks on president-elect Trump are getting worse every day (he liked to refer to CNN as short for the Clinton News Network). Accordingly, he is pushing to have CNN banned from having access to the White House. Trump’s contempt for the freedom of press, speech and expression, when he dislikes what is being said or written, was further underscored when he recently called for severe punishment for anyone who burns an American flag, despite the fact that such an act of free speech is constitutionally protected.  

Has the MSM in fact been unfair to Donald Trump?  And if so, will he predictably retaliate in ways that jeopardize our time-honored democratic principle of freedom of the press? Should we be bracing for the worst—a closed executive branch that provides media access only to friendly outlets which remain friendly?  I've devoted much thought to these questions. There's much on the line.

While a plurality of Americans may believe that MSM campaign reporting was unduly negative toward Trump, evidence points to the conclusion that they actually served Trump's presidential aspirations in a number of ways.  It is not too much of a stretch to say that the MSM helped Trump become president.    


During the campaign, the mainstream media news “watchdogs” contributed handsomely to the Trump appeal by enhancing his celebrity status, portraying him as a maverick man of the people, a magnet for readers and listeners, and providing him millions in free publicity. They aired his interviews, covered his rallies, and turned his tweets into posts, while generally failing to call out his lies or fact-check his falsehoods. His numerous absurd, unsubstantiated assertions and “policy” pronouncements, were treated as more or less typical of what today’s fact-adverse politicians routinely do. It is a sad state of affairs in America that facts no longer seem to matter in politics-- not to most of the public or the media. By failing to adequately vet his numerous fallacious assertions, the MSM portrayed him as typical; in effect, they “normalized” candidate Trump.
This does not mean that Trump was not criticized in the media, for he frequently was, but mostly regarding aspects of his character and temperament, not implications of his policy pronouncements. Trump’s numerous business failures, bankruptcies, lawsuits, histories of abusive business practices and tax avoidance schemes were discussed in the MSM, but rarely put into a political context. Nor was his unwillingness to release his tax returns or agree to disassociate himself from his numerous domestic and global businesses if elected. The shame of Trump University was given short shrift as were his serial assaults on women, which although extensively covered, was quickly dropped.
The MSM did report on the myriad of damnable Trump statements, and did write some negative stories, but his headline-grabbing pronouncements weren’t covered in any cohesive way. With so many "of the moment" Trump assertions to cover, the MSM didn’t appear to have the time—or interest—to dig deeply into the possibly profound national and global consequences of what he was advocating. Besides, Trump’s outrageous assertions titillated audiences, both friendly and hostile, spiking the numbers of viewers and readers. The boost in ratings brought in millions in much-welcomed revenue.  Les Moonves, CBS' Executive Chairman, acknowledged this windfall when he remarked that Trump's bomb-throwing "may not be god for America, but it's damn good for CBS."
Meanwhile, media vultures obsessed over Hillary Clinton’s emails, the one single issue that served as a proxy for her allegedly dishonest character. Negative coverage of the private emails was virtually continuous throughout the campaign: first of her private communications, then of new revelations released under the Freedom of Information Act, followed by WikiLeak’s hacked correspondence from her staff, and finally, the coup de grace: James Comey’s “October Surprise.” Most shamefully, mainstream outlets published Clinton emails they knew had been stolen. The relentless scrutiny of Clinton’s emails reinforced Trump’s message that Clinton was dishonest, untrustworthy, and a crook that should be in jail—“lock her up!”
In short, if there was bias in the media coverage of the campaign, it was against Clinton, not Trump. The poor vetting, normalizing of his outrageous campaign rhetoric, failure to dig into his shady business dealings, unwillingness to trace out the political implications of his many reckless promises, and the many hours of free air time it gave him surely add up to special treatment. The MSM may not have particularly liked The Donald--after all, few do-- but they understood how good he was for ratings.
The media’s “normalizing” of Trump during the campaign pales in comparison to what’s underway now. Several of the mainstream journalists he skewered as attack dogs are cutting him an enormous amount of slack as he puts his administration together. They seem to assume he has “pivoted” from his crazy campaign boasts and promises and is now getting serious about governing, as if his foul-mouthed, imbecilic antics during the campaign were simply an act to appeal to star-struck disgruntled folk looking for a quick fix to their troubles. Having won the election, he can now morph into the deal-making businessman he claims to be—someone who gets things done. His odious campaign to get to the White House and the ugliness it spread throughout our political culture has simply been disappeared—poof, like a mafia hit. As president-elect, Trump has been given a clean slate: no harm, no foul.

The president-elect has proven adept at garnering positive press as he did for allegedly saving Carrier jobs. Newspaper front pages gave him heaps of credit and the television networks went live in covering his victory lap in Indiana. The MSM was seduced by the deal-making Trump. Even his campaign nemesis, the Washington Post, was beguiled, declaring in a headline: “The Carrier jobs deal proves Donald Trump can get good press.” True to their campaign form, in reporting the Carrier deal, the MSM missed the real story that downsizing and offshoring is widespread and will certainly continue in the future.
Network anchors and print journalists, people like the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof and Maureen Dowd, who labeled Trump an unqualified charlatan during the campaign, are now urging Americans to “give him a chance.” Whether this represents the current state of mass media as entertainment, journalistic fealty, or just plain wishful thinking, the net result is that Trump seems to be having his way with the press, at least for now.
Donald Trump may not know much about governing, but he knows how to work the media.  He invited network bigwigs to the Trump Tower for a private, "off the record" powwow, then used the meeting to castigate them for "outrageously dishonest coverage." When word leaked out of his dressing down, he denied the accounts.  To show a more conciliatory face, for the public record, he invited arguably his  strongest critic, the editorial board of the stately New York Times, in for a much publicized conference. To convey an image that he is really a serious, open, thoughtful, reasonable and forgiving man, and not the child-like, insult tossing lout he displayed during the campaign, Trump tempered some of his more extreme campaign promises: dropping his vow to prosecute Hillary Clinton, questioning the value of torturing terrorism suspects, and even pledging to have an open mind on climate change. For his apparent pivot, he received positive press. (He reverts back to campaign extremism when he speaks to conservative audiences.)  This is classic Trump: keep the media and the public guessing what he really believes.  
Meanwhile, the president-elect fills his cabinet with establishment elites and Washington insiders, the very people he bad-mouthed during the campaign when he promised to “drain the swamp.”  To fend off being accused of "going establishment," he appoints right-wing extremists as his closest advisers. A skilled bait and switch artist, Trump keeps people guessing about what he might do.  This sets him up to challenge and MSM editorializing he dislikes.  The Donald's anti-establishment campaign rhetoric was the biggest scam of his career.  He pulled it off to perfection.

The Sting
Thinking about Trump the politician  brings to mind The Sting-- the big con.  Only a very few insiders know his plan; everyone else is kept guessing. Don't be surprised if his job-saving rhetoric and ballyhooed Carrier deal (which will save just 400 jobs, probably fewer when automation sets in), and criticism of Boeing for what he said were "out of control" costs for a new Air Force One are subterfuges to set the public up for a big corporate tax cut. It’s all part of his big con only this time its the American taxpayers who are stung.  
Trump understands the media better than most politicians. After all, they helped make him what he is. His daily tweets often become front-page news. Journalists duly focus on his latest pronouncements, particularly the more controversial ones. This distracts them from concentrating on in-depth investigations of more important issues involving the president elect. It short circuits probing a larger contextual picture.
TRUMP IIIWell attuned to the bottom line as a businessman, Trump knows that market forces drive corporate decision making. He provides media moguls what they relish as newsworthy: a provocative sound bite, a wild boast or claim, an insult about how someone looks, where they're from, or their faith, a slur about a physical handicap, a broad assertion not based on facts-- anything that will stir partisan passions.  It doesn’t matter-- in fact, it probably helps-- if they're racist, sexist, or xenophobic, or simply insensitive or in poor taste. What’s important is that they serve bottom line calculations. This is his leverage and he’s learned to wield it well. In a political world where celebrity, money and the right connections rule, Trump has reached the pinnacle of power. He knows big media will give him free coverage of his various assertions, no matter how absurd.  He also knows they will be reluctant to give him too much bad press, for fear of being accused of violating the journalist code of "balance," or incurring his well-known wrath.

When he does get bad press, he knows how to defuse potential political damage. When Clinton’s growing lead in the national popular vote was reported, Trump’s response was to talk about voting fraud that cost him millions of votes. When Democrats got behind the petition to recount votes in three key states he narrowly won, Trump played the “sour grapes” card. The mainstream media gave his unfounded claims extensive coverage and skimped on the vetting. For much of the media, Trump's false assertions were viewed simply as Trump being Trump—not to be taken seriously. Unfortunately millions of Americans believe his BS, in particular about voter fraud. A number of states, no doubt, will take it as a green light to impose additional voting restrictions.

Journalists that write or say bad things about Trump are sure to draw an angry, derisive response, ridicule, or threat of a lawsuit (Trump says he plans to change libel laws to make suing a news organization easier), usually via a tweet, Trump’s preferred means of communication. His tweets not only reach millions through social media, but invariably get picked up and circulated by the commercial press. Reporting that touches a particularly raw Trump nerve—and it doesn’t take much—will incite vicious attacks by Trump’s pals at Fox News and on talk radio.  The worst thing about Trump-initiated attacks is that they can inspire a crescendo of threats against his targets and their families, as Fox News' Megan Kelly found out.

Journalists and editors are fully aware of the risks inherent in giving Trump bad press. The few that remain in a severely downsized profession may have the courage to go ahead, but they know their careers, and perhaps even their physical well-being, could be in danger. People at the pinnacle of power can bring great pressure to bear on the press when it publishes a particularly damaging story, as Dan Rather and Mary Mapes found in reporting on George W. Bush’s alleged preferential treatment during his time in the military. There's good reason to believe that President Trump would bring maximum pressure.  This awareness can stifle even the most bold and enterprising investigative journalist.  On Republican strategist described Trump's tactic as "cyberbullying."

Where will all this lead?   President Trump surely will continue tweeting invective at his media enemies, and he could blacklist news outlets that write critical things about him.  Through social media, public rallies, and with the cooperation of his allies in friendly networks, he will continue to use his rhetorical skills to de-legitimize the press in the eyes and ears of the American people.  Many will simply not read or listen anymore. This will provide him cover if he attempts to trample further on the constitutional protections on free speech and press. Here we have the makings of a demagogue. If he's able to get a Scalia-like Supreme Court justice confirmed, there may be no limit to where his demagoguery might lead.

The Trump administration will undoubtedly be less transparent than its predecessors, which is saying a lot. This means the American public will not likely have the necessary information to challenge unwise policies and executive actions, unless, of course, the MSM steps up and fulfills its democratic responsibility as the Fourth Estate. Sadly, I must admit I have serious doubt the press will restore its traditional watchdog role, not as long as it remains under concentrated ownership, is muzzled by its commitment to balance rather than truth, and is governed by its insatiable appetite for profit.  This paints a pretty gloomy picture.

Most disconcerting to me is that the widespread disregard for facts in the United States is destined to continue and likely grow, especially if President Trump continues his blatant contempt for truth and the aspersions he casts on media outlets that try to present them.  Unfortunately, I expect him to do both. That so many Americans are inclined to believe Trump over national news outlets doesn't bode well for the future of American democracy.  An America that disregards truth cannot preserve and protect its founding ideals.  This is the precipice upon which we stand.

We must remember, though, that Trump can be his own worst enemy. His ego and thin skin can lead him to explode at the slightest of provocation. The media may be cutting him some slack for now, but this is a man known to wear out welcomes. Ironically, maybe Donald Trump will give them a backbone.  We've never needed it more.

Time Magazine's Person of the Year


  1. I think what you are saying in general about the media favoring Donald Trump is spot on. He got tons of free press (in the name of "balance" and celebrity) for much of his outright idiocy. Just as bad was the lack of fact checking in real time. He came at them with so many lies and absurd assertions it was hard to keep up, even if they had been inclined to do so. Further, the coverage of Hilary Clinton was almost entirely negative with little evidence of wrongdoing. The endless investigations of Benghazi and the email server resulted in finding no criminal wrongdoing, but worked perfectly to undermine her credibility. (Note that I do think that Hilary Clinton did little to help herself with her endless lawyer speak regarding the accusations) It's really remarkable that all the alleged bias of the MSM against Republicans and conservatives was turned on its head. Of course, I don't really believe there is much if any bias based on their commitment to "balance."
    I am actually more concerned about the coverage of the transition. For one thing, I have never seen soo much coverage of a transition. It's as if the media hangs on his every action, word, and Tweet like there is nothing else in the world to cover. Given that, you would think the coverage would focus on the people he is putting in his administration / cabinet. The people he is putting in place hold views that clearly the American people did not vote for. The easiest example is the appointment of Tom Price as head of Health and Human Services. He clearly intends to not only dismantle Obamacare, but in so doing, voucherize Medicare and, effectively, end Medicaid. This will severely impact millions of elderly and poor people, well beyond what the repeal of Obamacare would do alone. He is also proposing a budget which will automatically cut Social Security benefits by 1.7 trillion dollars over 10 years. Given that Donald Trump specifically ran against these cuts, this is not what the American people voted for. You would think this would be front page news...but not so much. I read the paper everyday and it is nowhere near the front page.
    Now perhaps this will all change when he is actually President and the nature of his seemingly radical agenda starts to be debated in Congress. We can only hope, because the damage his agenda will cause to this country's social safety net will be "YUGE"

  2. Yes the media has been smitten by everything Trump. Let's face it the money is good and again they are dealing with a very vengeful hateful man who will make life miserable for anyone who dares to criticize him. The United Steel Workers Union President has received death threats for his comments on the Carrier deal.
    Rachel Maddow had some very telling poll results on this evening's show.
    1. Obama's overall approval is 50%
    When Trump voters were asked Obama's approval was 5% with 90% disapproval.
    2. The stock market has nearly doubled since Obama took office, but if you ask Trump voters 39% say it has gone down!
    3. From the day that Obama took office the unemployment rate has gone from 7.8% to 10% and down to the current rate of 4.6%. But when Trump voters were asked 67% say unemployment has gone up under Obama.
    Even though the rest of the country gets this, Trump voters prefer to live in a fantasy world.
    4. 40% of Trump voters believe he won the popular vote.
    5. 60% believe that millions voted illegally for Clinton.
    6. 73% of Trump voters believe that George Soros is paying protesters against Trump.
    7. 59% of the country say that Trump should release his tax returns. But when Trump voters were asked 59% said no he shouldn't release his return.
    This shows me that even if the MSM tries to hold Trump accountable he has created an alternative reality with his followers and such a gap with facts that we as a democracy are in trouble.


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