WASHINGTON: Donald Trump and the media are digging in for what could be a long and bitter war.
The president-elect, who spent much of his campaign at loggerheads with the mainstream press, has been sharpening his attacks, and the news media is bracing for what some see as a looming campaign of intimidation.
Days before moving into the White House, Trump told Fox News he plans to keep tweeting his views as the “only way to counteract” what he called “a very dishonest media”.
While many US presidents have had strained relations with the media, Trump has made maligning the press a core element of his message, foreshadowing a stormy relationship for the years to come.
Journalists and media analysts expect a White House effort to cow feisty news outlets into submission as the two sides battle to define the public narrative.
The Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan envisions a “hellish” time: she expects Trump to “punish journalists for doing their jobs” and suspects his administration will be “awash in investigations and prosecutions of journalists”.
Trump appears to have reached a truce with his hometown The New York Times after a post-election session with the daily. And he has been on good terms with some outlets such as the far-right Breitbart News.
But he has been on a rampage against other news organisations. On Wednesday Trump took aim at NBC News, calling the network “totally biased” for saying he does not deserve credit for job creation announcements from big companies such as Ford, General Motors and Lockheed Martin.
In his first, and only news conference since the election, Trump lashed out at BuzzFeed News for its controversial decision to publish what it acknowledged was an unverified report suggesting Russia had compromising information on him. Describing the website as a “failing pile of garbage,” Trump said it “will suffer the consequences.”
At the same Jan 11 news conference he clashed overtly with CNN, which covered the same story minus the lurid details, denying the cable giant’s White House correspondent a question and charging: “You are fake news.”
‘Keeps us honest’
Matt Gertz, a senior fellow at the left-leaning watchdog group Media Matters for America, said Trump showed in one event how he intends to manhandle the media. “He will seek to delegitimise news outlets that provide critical coverage, try to turn them against one another, reward sycophantic coverage from openly pro-Trump sources, and encourage others to follow in their lead,” Gertz said in a blog post.
National Press Club president Thomas Burr warns Trump’s use of the “fake news” tag to dismiss stories he dislikes “may foment a dangerous disrespect for journalists” among the public.
Trump’s team has already signalled that it will not be business as usual for the media, suggesting daily briefings could become a thing of the past and that the press corps could be evicted from the West Wing of the White House.
Obama voiced support for a free and combative news media at the final press conference of his two terms in office on Wednesday. “You’re not supposed to be sycophants, you’re supposed to be sceptical,” he told the assembled press corps. “And having you in this building has made this work place better. It keeps us honest, makes us work harder.”
Lucy Dalglish, dean of journalism at the University of Maryland, was unsurprised by Trump’s news conference outburst. “That’s his style, and I think we’ll see more of that,” she said, warning of a risk the media — and the public — get distracted by “theatre” from more important policy questions.
But after a campaign where a majority of US newspaper editorial boards opposed Trump, media organisations have signalled they would resist any attempt at intimidation.
“While you have every right to decide your ground rules for engaging with the press, we have some, too,” said Kyle Pope of the Columbia Journalism Review, in a blog aimed at Trump. “We, not you, decide how best to serve our readers, listeners, and viewers.”
The New York Times announced this week it would invest $5 million for its coverage of the incoming administration, saying that “covering this story aggressively, fairly and unrelentingly will be the top priority” this year.
‘Has set us free’
Some even believe the Trump administration’s hostility towards the media may have a positive side effect — encouraging the press to play its role as a check against power.
“People see there is a need to do real shoe-leather journalism,” argues Joel Kaplan, associate dean of journalism at Syracuse University.
For Josh Marshall, editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo, fears of a campaign of intimidation and retribution are overblown. “America isn’t Russia. And I don’t think he can change us into Russia,” he wrote. “Journalists should be unbowed and aggressive and with a sense of humour until something happens to prevent them from doing so.”
Politico media writer Jack Shafer said the press “ought to start thinking of covering Trump’s Washington like a war zone, where conflict follows conflict, where the fog prevents the collection of reliable information directly from the combatants, where the assignment is a matter of life or death. The harder Trump rides the press — and he gives no sign of dismounting — the higher he elevates reporters in the estimation of many voters,” Shafer writes.
“In his own way, Trump has set us free.”