Donald J. Trump has become President of the United States, an event that has reduced the United States to being an object of ridicule the world over. Trump’s less endearing behavior includes berating political opponents and those whom he characterizes as disloyal Americans. At the top of Trump’s list is the media.
Trump’s war against the media is being delivered in a more overt and direct way than the last Republican President – but no administration on record (with the possible exception of John Adams one team over two hundred years ago) has manipulated the media and undermined journalism more than that of the Bush/Cheney Administration. Trump’s bombastic and fiery behavior combined with the advice and counsel of Republican operatives could conspire to make the next four or eight years just as bad.
The Bush Administration used faux nationalism and phony patriotism not only to cajole all but the bravest of Democrats in line as we often talk about on this site and others like ours – but they completely roughed the media into submission, to the point where the press during the height of the blunders that saw thousands of Americans dead essentially served more as a state media ala Pravda or the propaganda ministry in Nazi Germany, than a free and fair press.
The media’s submissiveness in the Bush years got us flag waving and public shaming or even firing of anyone who dared to question the rush to war which was based on Anglo-American misunderstandings of the Middle East, an ideological doctrine and faulty or even manufactured intelligence. The Administration was able to curry favor with the likes of Judith Miller to “report” what were essentially propaganda talking points as news stories. Vice President Cheney’s office even reportedly would leak favorable stories to the likes the newspapers regarding the war and foreign policy then “suggest” to TV networks that they book the reporters that “broke” the news on panel programs. It worked like a charm as the American nation was kept in the dark about most realities of Iraq unless they were reading the British press or magazines such as The Nation.
The Bush administration even planted a phony reporter in White House press briefings. James Gunkert (aka Jeff Gannon) was planted in press briefings to ask the types of leading questions that shaped a narrative and perhaps even influenced the tone of questions asked by the real journalists representing legitimate news organizations in the White House press corp. Gunkert’s presence coincided with the height of deception about the Iraq War and even the leaking of the identity of an undercover CIA agent.
The response from the mainstream press to all of this was largely submission. Challenging the Bush White House left news agencies and reporters frozen out. Those like Ashleigh Banfield who questioned the journalism of the network she worked for (the same network, MSNBC/NBC that had earlier fired Phil Donahue as linked above) ended up being dropped. Only in 2006, when the Democrats captured Congress did the TV networks begin to cover the Bush Administration and war policies objectively.
The experience of the Bush years is why it was so disturbing to see the non-reaction of the White House press corp to the abusive behavior of the then-President Elect toward CNN’s Jim Acosta last week. Acosta was shouted down Trump as being “fake news” and instead of getting up and walking out of the briefing or insisting that Acosta’s question be answered, the assembled press continued the briefing uninterrupted. This set the precedent very clearly and justifiably for Trump and this team that they can berate the media and get away with it. Thus, Kellyanne Conway, someone who I previously had described in an internal Democratic Party email in 2002 as a “positively brilliant pollster” when she did work for the Palm Beach Republican Party has turned into nothing more than an abusive media flak. It also gave Sean Spicer free reign to go into the White House Press Briefing Room and without precedent chastise media reports about the number of people attending the inauguration, a matter of mere trivia that has no relevance in the real world. The loudest credible complaints about Trump’s behavior seems to be coming from Republicans such as David Frum and Evan McMullin, while Democrats (and aligned MSNBC commentators) stick to largely irrelevant politicized talking points and most of the media itself falls in line.
It’s important to understand much like George W. Bush’s reign, the media seems scared and passive and willing to enable Trump after being bullied. While some like Acosta and his colleagues at CNN might stand up for themselves and the profession of journalism, others seem prepared to make Trump’s White House as bad as Bush’s from a media coverage standpoint – the passiveness with which Bush was covered led to thousands of dead Americans in a needless war. Let us hope the same does not ensue under Trump.