Journalists would have anticipated the first press conference of the Trump presidency with some trepidation. Not only had his briefing at Trump Tower as president-elect been something of a shambles as Trump excoriated some journalists and ignored others, but the whole election campaign had been traumatic for many. Reporters had been submitted to ritual humiliation at Trump rallies, ushered through baying crowds to be labelled “liars” and “disgusting” by a candidate who did not seem overly burdened by the concept of truth himself.
But campaigning is different from governing. Journalists, who had endured a storm of criticism from Trump’s transition team, were hoping for a transformation of campaign Trump into a more presidential Trump – or perhaps a press liaison operation sympathetic to the press’ needs.
The first press “briefing” from White House press secretary Sean Spicer, delivered the day after Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States made it clear that this transformation has not happened. In a six-minute tirade, Spicer told journalists why their coverage of the inauguration had been wrong, told them what they should be reporting and left the stage with no opportunities for questions and answers.
Any impression that a mutual trust might be nurtured between presidency and media – or even that a deal for mutual benefit might be negotiated – was shattered. Journalists’ worst fears, articulated widely and openly during the transition, are now realised and both sides are now digging in for an extended battle.
From Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency at the turn of the 20th century onward, presidents have traditionally nurtured a relationship with journalists. Franklin Roosevelt held briefings in the Oval Office and Jack Kennedy traded on his own journalistic experiences in talking to the press. The relationship was symbiotic and mutually beneficial; presidencies broadcast their messages to the public and the media had stories and pictures to run.
But the relationship has soured since the 1970s – and the Trump presidency may come to represent the logical conclusion of a half-century’s development in presidential relations with the media.
The disillusionment of the media with the presidency is well-documented. The Watergate scandal and misinformation over the Vietnam War caused journalists to examine their assumptions about the trustworthiness of the country’s commander-in-chief.
But the media still needs the presidency. The presidency, on the other hand has long struggled to wriggle free of the media’s grasp. Frustrated by increasingly negative coverage from mainstream outlets, presidents pull away from the media over their term, offering fewer press conferences as their term develops. Obama’s administration built a reputation for unusual levels of secrecy due to its refusal to release information in response to press requests. Worse, administration threats to prosecute journalists for not revealing their sources permanently tarnished Obama’s standing with the media and generated many hostile stories.
During George W. Bush’s administration, journalist Ryan Lizza offered the term “pressless presidency” to capture the Bush team’s assessment of the press, not as a Fourth Estate with a legitimate role to check governmental and presidential power, but as just another interest group to be serviced.
The holy grail now for an administration is to bypass the hard questions and unforgiving judgements of the Washington media to reach the people directly. Each new technology seems to offer this potential. Obama attempted to bypass the Washington press corps through use of Reddit and YouTube, while Trump has done more than most to cut loose while calculating that he can use other means to communicate – Twitter being his favourite medium.
US vs them
Instead of working with the media, Trump has made it integral to his core message: his anti-establishment status. Trump’s rhetoric relies upon simple oppositions – and the media has been particularly important in this. In Trump’s populist rhetoric the media have become part of giant conspiracy of politicians, business and media working against the interests of the American people. And the press makes an excellent target – public trust in the media has dropped precipitously.
Usually there is something of a “honeymoon period” as the two sides develop their relationships and work out a basis of cooperation. Both the incoming administration and the media usually focus on appointments and leading policy proposals. But instead of trying to build that relationship for mutual advantage early on, Trump’s team is launching a full frontal assault on the media’s credibility. The Trump team is “pressless” from the start.
Not only is Trump to be pressless, then, but the logic of this position extends to discrediting the media as a competitor in setting the agenda or even describing reality. When Spicer highlights the delayed nomination of Mike Pompeo as CIA director and tells the press: “That’s what you guys should be writing and covering,” the attempt to control what is considered news is obvious. But this position extends to portraying the media as a malevolent force. Accusing the media of “dishonesty” allows the administration to claim a new role.
To quote Spicer: “We’re going to hold the press accountable as well.” The administration has appointed itself the guardian of truth against the evildoers of the press. Theatrical denials of the media’s legitimacy suit the administration very well: much as Trump’s tweets have done before, Spicer’s press briefing made the tension between the media and the new administration the main news story. The administration portrays itself as the insurgency against the establishment. As long as the media continue to run the conflict stories, Trump will remain happy to trigger them.
But this approach carries substantial risks. As a rocky transition focused on Putin’s influence over the election and Trump’s conflicts of interest proved, the new administration has not found a way to control the media agenda. Trump’s familiar campaign technique of picking fights over Twitter has served to distract from the worst stories but has not refocused attention on the presidency’s priorities.
The stories in each policy area are of uncertainty and confusion around the administration’s direction and the overall image of Trump’s presidency has been damaged from the start.
So far, the media has expressed substantial doubt that the Trump administration has a clear direction or clarity over priorities, a claim reinforced by Trump’s own tendency to make bold, incredible and contradictory statements. Attacking the press is a serious – and unforced – error that will generate negative coverage. Trump and Spicer’s calculation, that the new president’s support can endure a relentless stream of negative stories, is an extraordinary gamble. It relies on Trump’s supporters resisting the influence of negative media coverage, while the administration communicates with them directly.
Without doubt, there is much to suggest that some partisans will remain loyal to their president amid media criticism. News accessed only through selective social media “bubbles” is likely to reinforce this effect. However, experience suggests that Republicans will not be blindly loyal. As Nixon and George W. Bush discovered, Republicans can turn on their own.
As the administration’s credibility falls, the same rhetoric from Trump blaming media demons for Americans’ perceived plight will sound less like a promise of conflict, victory and transformation and more like excuse-making in the face of under-achievement. Trump attacks on those merely trying to report on his presidency will come to look like the product of a paranoid mindset.