The White House’s efforts to quiet the media are pure clownery
March 1, 2017 12:00 AM
By Dan Simpson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The position of President Donald Trump toward the media has become ridiculous. The media are neither “the enemy of the people” nor the enemy of him and his administration for that matter.
Last week’s ploy on the part of White House spokesman Sean Spicer to exclude representatives of certain media from a briefing, to try to teach them not to be critical of Mr. Trump and himself, was pure clownery. To include other, more sycophantic favorites in the briefing was equally silly, whichever group whichever medium found itself in. For the record, representatives of heavyweights The New York Times, British Broadcasting Corp., CNN and Politico were kept out. Breitbart News and The Washington Times were let in the room.
There are some important, relevant points to be made. First, it is one of the most important jobs of the media to report on the activities of the U.S. government, including the president and White House. This fact presents a serious challenge for the media. The most obvious way to strike back at Mr. Trump would be to begin simply ignoring him. He feeds on media coverage and, no doubt in very short order, would begin to realize the price he was going to pay for continuing his childish approach to the media.
The problem with this approach on the media’s part is that one of the important roles it plays is to report on his actions, providing the facts and presenting perspective on the impact of what the president of the United States and his spear-carriers do. It would be a real challenge for the media to dry up coverage of Mr. Trump and provide the public information on what he was doing as president. It might be possible — even wise — simply to report what the government was doing, leaving out his midnight tweets and other intellectually dubious emissions.
There is another truth that Mr. Trump needs to reflect on. The American press has been around since the early 18th century, long before the United States had a president. It has covered presidents starting with George Washington, often not favorably. Mr. Washington, for example, was accused by some of the American media of wanting to be king, the country just having carried out a revolution to get rid of one. One of America’s more distinguished journalists, Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, pointed out in his column Sunday that the media will write Mr. Trump’s obituary; he won’t write its. (A good newspaper prepares these things in advance, by the way.)
There are other pertinent facts, useful in analyzing what Mr. Trump is apparently trying to do. First, to lump all of America’s media into one pile, apart from calling them “the enemy of the people,” is just ignorant. It is to put The Bellaire-Martins Ferry Times-Leader, the first paper I read and delivered as a child, in the same carrier bag as The New York Times. Mr. Spicer’s Friday triage of media into good guys and bad guys, in Mr. Trump’s and his eyes, was just flat stupid in their reading of which outlets are preferred by perceptive readers, and which by parakeets and puppies.
I know it’s not fashionable in Mr. Trump’s America to care what people from other countries think of us: They exist to be kept out, or to be taxed on what they sell us, or to be insulted (as in, so far, Mexico, Australia, Sweden and France). At the same time it is a fact that overseas foreigners — aliens? — pay close attention to U.S. media to try to get an idea of what Americans are up to. The United States does still play a role in influencing other countries’ political, economic, military and cultural policies.
If, for example, Mr. Trump were to succeed in muzzling or muffling the American media, just exactly how would our country be perceived overseas, by our friends as well as by our enemies? Can he be so daft as to imagine that foreign observers would be prepared to limit their efforts at understanding the United States to reading Breitbart News, the One America News Network and The Washington Times? Dream on.
Now, to be really serious, I don’t yet see this conflict, this piece of childishness on the part of an inexperienced administration still learning American history the hard way, as a fight for the preservation of the republic. On the other hand, it could become that. So what does one do about him if it comes to that?
The natural American constraints on Mr. Trump will begin to operate, and are beginning already to operate, as he hopefully makes the transition from New York real estate shill to president of the United States, cognizant of the responsibilities he has been chosen to shoulder. There are the media, who have outlived 44 presidents so far. There are our courts, rooted since the beginning in our firm faith in the rule of law. There is Congress, some of whom anyway can see past the last donor to have written them a check.
In the end, for Mr. Trump, the real proof of the pudding will come when the electorate sees whether he delivers on his campaign promises. Will he bring jobs to the “forgotten people”? Will he fix our infrastructure, or will he dribble our money away on pointless wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen? I include our schools in our infrastructure and wonder what his choice for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, will do to turn them into profitable enterprises for her rich friends. This week, will Mr. Trump submit a balanced budget, or will he run up our $20 trillion national debt even further with deficit spending?
What he can count on is that America’s media will follow closely what he does and report back to the American people, as we always have. If it becomes necessary to cover him less extensively to get him to be reasonable about the media, I have to say I won’t miss hearing or seeing him so much.
Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a Post-Gazette associate editor (email@example.com, 412-263-1976).
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to
firstname.lastname@example.org and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner.