On the Powerlessness of the Press

It seems so characteristically Trump to do what he did on Friday, and cancel his press secretary’s scheduled press briefing in favor of an off-camera event in which particular news outlets would be barred from attending. And yet, at the same time, it also seems like a logical progression in the American government’s relationship with the media that I can neither claim surprise or even as much dismay over this as I probably should. At its core, this decision just showcases the power dynamics between the press and the government and the way they’ve changed over time. Now, traditionally, we expect journalists to have power over the government, the power to investigate wrongdoing. And if the government puts up barriers in a reporter’s way, well, that’s a story in and of itself. Between public pressure for transparency and the ever-present potential for leaks and whistle-blowers, the truth should out one way or another.

Things have changed, though, and there’s one word that explains why: access. Simply put, journalists need access to government sources to write their stories, and that makes them dependent on the same government that they’re supposed to investigate and hold accountable for wrongdoing. And you can see that shift exemplified in the career of Bob Woodward, whose Watergate fame has ensured him lifetime access to the inner workings of different Administrations…so long as he limits his observations to anodyne book reports in the vein of Bush at War. And Washington is more than aware of this change in power, and they’ve been exploiting it long before Trump took office. Hell, it’s not even limited to people in government: it’s mostly been forgotten by now, but we should remember that during the Summer of 2015, Hillary Clinton’s campaign took some drastic measures to limit the free movement of reporters at her campaign events. When scenes like the one below go without much comment or outrage, you can’t expect the general public to go to bat for the Fourth Estate at all:

And we were wondering why the email issue was in the news for so long. Anyways, this all puts Trump’s actions in context, but we shouldn’t elide the danger. The muzzling of the media by government and campaigns is possible because of the media’s need for access and increasing difficulty in turning a profit in the digital age, but it’s happened without much public protest because most Americans don’t trust the media. And as much as I’d like to link this with the more general decline in trust in institutions, the Gallup poll I just linked will tell you that the decline has been asymmetric, with Republicans in particular believing that mainstream journalism is biased in favor of the left. And this has consistently been a part of Trump’s strategy from the beginning, accusing critical journalists of treating him unfairly, whether it’s Megyn Kelly or the Washington Post or whoever happens to be his particular bugbear today. By discrediting the sources of negative news about his Administration, he insulates his base from information sources that will say anything other than how hunky-dory his Presidency has been so far.

Now, it’s one thing for his Administration to discriminate against certain news agencies, but we’ll know we’re in real trouble if any of the networks that Trump has blacklisted start making concessions towards him and moderate their coverage in an attempt to get back in his good graces. And as gloomy as I’ve been in a lot of the posts I’ve written here, I still don’t see that as too likely. For one, journalists still have a lot of pride in the role they play in our democracy. As much as the Clinton camp may have disliked it, you could see that pride at work in their overzealous scandal-mongering of her presidential campaigns; they all aspired to be Bob Woodward, but the young Woodward, the one who did investigative reporting and could challenge the White House. And for another, Trump’s Administration hasn’t had a shortage of leaks so far, which means that outlets like the Washington Post aren’t starved for news items. All of this means that I still don’t really expect the Post or the New York Times or other outlets to start kowtowing to Trump; the harder they try to clamp down on negative coverage, the more leaks will slip through their fingers.

But while I’m managing expectations, I should also weigh in on the fragmentation of the news media. I’ve already written at some length about the polarization of America along geographic and moral lines, and it’s unsurprising that the media, driven by profit and rather desperate as it is, has catered to this divergence, with certain networks catering to specific sides of the divide. Now, the example of Fox is well known, but I’d say it’s also important to consider the example of MSNBC, which reinvented itself during the Bush Administration to be the left-leaning alternative to Fox; where it had previously welcomed the likes of Tucker Carlson, it’s now become the network of Rachel Maddow. Both networks can do what they want, of course, but what they’ve done is define a niche in which to market their respective products, as opposed to trying to appeal to the country as a whole. We just don’t have a Walter Cronkite anymore. And this has implications for the Trump Administration and whatever criminal misconduct may emerge from it. In this environment, I don’t expect a Watergate-level scandal anytime soon, even if Watergate-level or even worse wrongdoing comes to light, simply because scandal itself has become a partisan affair. The coverage simply wouldn’t reach over to the Fox-Breitbart side of the divide in the same form that it would appear in the New York Times. And even if it did, impeachment is still the responsibility of Congress, so I’m afraid that that will have to remain in the realm of liberal fantasy for the foreseeable future. None of this means the Fourth Estate shouldn’t do its level best to find the facts in what already seems a profoundly corrupt Administration, but whatever they find, we should still expect Trump to leave office not with a bang, but with a whimper, when his presidential term(s) expire.

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