Trump Escalates His Criticism of the News Media, Fueling National Debate

Trump Escalates His Criticism of the News Media, Fueling National Debate

2017-12-12 08:07:07

“Are you speaking about the president?” one reporter asked in light of Mr. Trump’s own history of making claims that have not been validated and have been continually denied.

While news organizations targeted by Mr. Trump have corrected factual errors and in one recent case suspended a reporter, Mr. Trump has never backed down, for instance, from unsubstantiated claims that President Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower or that millions of illegal immigrants cast votes last year, swinging the popular tally against him.

Just last month, Mr. Trump shared with nearly 44 million Twitter followers anti-Muslim videos without verifying them; one purported to show a Dutch boy being beaten by a “Muslim migrant” who in fact was not a Muslim migrant. Mr. Trump issued no correction, and Ms. Sanders at the time said it did not matter if the video were real because “the threat is real.”

Mr. Trump has had a long history of interacting with the news media from his days as a New York developer, but it was largely transactional as he sought favorable coverage. During his business days, he planted items in gossip columns and even called reporters and used a false name, pretending to be his spokesman.

By his own account, he has always craved media attention, but his encounters with the Washington press corps have turned increasingly bitter. At one point, Mr. Trump labeled some outlets “the enemy of the American people,” and at another, he said, “It’s frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write.”

For the most part, Mr. Trump’s blasts at the news media have been rhetorical. But he has warned that he might go beyond name calling, such as when he threatened to try to revoke a broadcasting license for NBC after a news report he challenged. Networks like NBC do not hold federal licenses themselves, but their individual television stations do.

Mr. Trump’s administration has taken aim at CNN’s corporate ownership. The Justice Department has gone to court to block AT&T’s purchase of Time Warner, which owns Turner Broadcasting, CNN’s corporate parent. AT&T officials have said the department insisted that AT&T divest either Turner Broadcasting or its valuable DirecTV service in return for approval, which government officials denied.

Analysts said Mr. Trump’s criticisms represented an effort to undermine faith in journalism. “It is a common thing in the authoritarian playbook to discredit the media so that they are the only source that can be trusted,” said Indira Lakshmanan, who holds the Newmark chair in journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute. “Making it so there is no objective truth is the most dangerous thing of all of this.”


Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the president’s press secretary, engaged in a testy exchange on Monday with reporters.

Doug Mills/The New York Times

The raft of recent reporting errors made that easier. During a rally on Friday in Florida, Mr. Trump berated news outlets. “Did you see all the corrections the media has been making?” he asked. “They’ve been apologizing left and right.”

He ramped up attacks over the weekend on Twitter, calling for the firing of “lonely Brian Ross at ABC News” for misreporting that Mr. Trump as a candidate directed his adviser Michael T. Flynn to contact Russians. (He did so after the election as president-elect.) He denounced CNN for erroneously reporting that his campaign received a heads-up email from WikiLeaks before it released hacked Democratic Party documents. (The email came after the release.)

Mr. Trump later targeted Dave Weigel, a reporter for The Post, who tweeted a misleading photograph about the crowd size at Mr. Trump’s Florida rally. “Demand apology & retraction from FAKE NEWS WaPo!” Mr. Trump wrote. Mr. Weigel did just that, deleting the picture and expressing regret, saying he did not realize it was taken before the rally started. Unsatisfied, Mr. Trump said Mr. Weigel should be fired.

Mr. Trump’s supporters said that he has a point — that such mistakes stem from a predisposition by reporters to believe the worst about him. Rather than complain when Mr. Trump points out flawed stories, they said, the news media should be more searching about its responsibility to provide balanced coverage of the president.

“Naturally, the elite media responded — not by admonishing Weigel over his inexcusably inaccurate trolling — but with their favorite claim that Trump is the one man in America who does not have the First Amendment right to criticize the media,” wrote John Nolte of Breitbart News, the site run by Mr. Trump’s former chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon.

Mr. Trump turned his attention on Monday to The New York Times, disputing an article describing his television habits. “Another false story, this time in the Failing @nytimes, that I watch 4-8 hours of television a day,” he wrote. “Wrong! Also, I seldom, if ever, watch CNN or MSNBC, both of which I consider Fake News. I never watch Don Lemon, who I once called the ‘dumbest man on television!’ Bad Reporting.”

Mr. Trump posted the message about a half-hour after a segment on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” focusing on a line near the bottom of the article reporting that Mr. Trump sometimes watched Mr. Lemon on CNN to get worked up.

“We stand by our reporting, sourced from interviews with 60 advisers, associates, friends and members of Congress, including many who interact with President Trump every day,” said Danielle Rhoades Ha, a spokeswoman for The Times.

CNN issued a statement likening Mr. Trump to a bully. “In a world where bullies torment kids on social media to devastating effect on a regular basis with insults and name calling, it is sad to see our president engaging in the very same behavior himself,” the statement said. “Leaders should lead by example.”

The effect of the news media criticism remains debated. A Politico/Morning Consult poll found that 46 percent of Americans believe the news media makes up stories about the president. A separate study by the Poynter Institute, on the other hand, found that overall trust and confidence in the news media, while low, has actually increased somewhat under Mr. Trump. The partisan divide, however, has become pronounced. Among Democrats, nearly 75 percent expressed confidence in the news media compared with only 19 percent of Republicans.

While previous presidents criticized the news media, analysts said that Mr. Trump’s attacks strike at the fundamental notion of truth in a way that can make the customary response of news organizations standing by their articles feel insufficient. It is not just the facts he is calling into question, but the very institution of journalism, which some believe demands a more vigorous reply from the mainstream media.

“When he attacks one of us, he’s actually attacking all of us,” said Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The Times. “We’re now confronting a guy who attacks us in ways that we’ve not seen before,” he added. “And I think maybe we should be thinking about ways to push back not just on behalf of our particular institutions but to push back on behalf of journalism itself.”

But a common response seems unlikely. “Journalistic organizations are by nature competitive, and it’s sort of hard for them to unite that way,” said David Lauter, the Washington bureau chief for The Los Angeles Times. “And I think there’s also always concern about making it seem like you’re creating an institutional fight rather than just reporting the news.”

Cameron Barr, a managing editor at The Post, said competition is “in the DNA” of news organizations. “I’m a little wary of suggestions that somehow journalistic institutions should be banding together against the chief executive,” he said. “I think that quickly ends up in an uncomfortable place, to say the least.”

Correction: December 12, 2017

Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misspelled the name of a spokeswoman for The New York Times. She is Danielle Rhoades Ha, not Danielle Rhodes Ha.

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