Op-ed: Where do the Media Stand in the Trump Era?

photo by Ray Mandelbaum

The relationship between the press and presidential administrations has always been in flux. Since the establishment of the White House Correspondents’ Association and its press corps in the early 20th century, the role of the press has changed and adapted to each incoming administration. Past presidents like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for instance, generally enjoyed a relatively warm relationship with the press. The press, in turn, largely decided not to cover his various maladies. On the other hand, Richard Nixon’s distrust of all media led
to a sure sense of schadenfreude — perhaps especially at The Washington Post, who ended up breaking the monumental Watergate scandal in 1974.

During his time in the Oval Office, Nixon was an expert at intimidating journalists, avoiding reporters altogether, and carefully staging public appearances. Among other strategies, these allowed him to minimize the ability of the press to perform its duties.

Now, we’re a couple months into the age of Trump, and it is exceedingly clear that the 45th president has taken those Nixonian tactics to heart. His distrust of reporters was solidified at every step of his election campaign, during which the media reported heavily on Trump’s blunders and scandals, each one seemingly worse than the last. A confidence in his defeat was born of this reporting, and any notion that he stood a fighting chance was met with skepticism by many.

And then, as we all know, he did just that. Trump upset democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in a result that shocked just about every mainstream outlet in the country. The Trump team’s actions in the months following the election have suggested that his war with the media is far from over. Since his inauguration, Trump has made the term “fake news” a rallying cry to denigrate any negative coverage. One of his first actions in office was to send White House press secretary Sean Spicer out to rip into the press for their coverage of the inauguration crowds. When The Washington Post and CNN broke stories about former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn lying to Vice President Michael Pence in regard to his contact with the Russian ambassador, Trump took to Twitter to blast them as, you guessed it, “fake news.” Most recently, he has praised Fox News, a right-leaning agency that expectedly throws support to Mr. Trump, while deriding left-leaning agencies like NBC, CNN, and The New York Times as the “enemy of the American people.”

With such sweeping generalizations made on the campaign trail and in office, Trump is continuing to shape public opinion by disparaging entire media organizations and shattering their credibility among his supporters. American media organizations now find themselves in the difficult position of potentially having many millions of citizens outright dismissing whatever they are reporting on as a fabrication.

The president’s carefully cultivated cult of personality has resulted in an ability to spread and maintain falsehoods, even those detected by the media. The press has their work cut out for them. Over the next four years, however, they must work to cement their role in the Trump administration and ensure that they will not be shut out. The old saying from American president Thomas Jefferson is more applicable now than ever: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”