The press and the president

Abdel-Moneim Said
Wednesday 31 Oct 2018

Despite being more antagonistic towards the press than any president in US history, Trump continues to control the narrative, ultimately getting his way

The relationship between heads of state and the media is inherently tense. On the one hand, they rely on each other.

Government leaders need the media to promote their policies and political and ideological outlooks, while the media needs government leaders as sources and as items in its news and other programmes.

On the other hand, they are antitheses. Government leaders want secrecy. Journalists want to unearth and expose secrets. The former think that they represent national interests because of the legitimacy they possess as heads of state.

The latter sees itself as the first step in the process of keeping political officials accountable. The result of this combination of mutual dependency and antithesis is a state of tension that can, on occasion, escalate into a type of war.

US history has continually epitomised this state and the tension would occasionally escalate to seething when secrecy was at play or when journalists acted as though they were representatives of public opinion.

But President Donald Trump treats journalists like no president before him. He has declared a state of war against them and even branded them as America’s “enemy”.

They are the constant source of “fake news”, the cause of division in society, forever biased in order to promote their own interests rather than the higher national interest.

This is not so much a battle over freedom of expression or broadcasting information before the time is right, as it is a political battle of the first order between an elected president who had prevailed in the polls over the press’s preferred candidate, Hillary Clinton.

Since that electoral battle, he has continued to prevail in one battle after the other.

It is sometimes possible to see this as a battle between liberal philosophy or the liberal movement and conservative philosophy or (generally white) ultranationalism.

We see this confrontation in most Western countries these days. However, it is particularly salient in the US where the warfare is open, the hostility raw and the language used is unfamiliar and unexpected for a “democratic” society.

The profound changes that are sweeping democratic societies have reached a point where the term “non-liberal democracy” has been coined to express the transformation.

A non-liberal democracy is one that retains the procedures that have to be followed under the constitution and the law, but in which there is no tolerance for or willingness to listen to the “other side”. The inevitable result is a sharp polarisation harmful to public policy.

President Trump, since his election, has had to overcome two kinds of deficiencies.

The first is that he won the Electoral College vote but not the popular vote. When the Electoral College decides the outcome of a presidential election, rather than the will of the majority, this can become a constant source of nagging.

The second is the strong suspicions raised by the still ongoing investigation into Russian tampering in the polls in favour of Trump who may be the first president in US history to praise Russia and its president.

The story of Trump’s election did not end on the day the election results were announced. He may not have experienced the challenge that occurred in the case of George Bush Jr. who also won only thanks to the Electoral College. But, even though Trump’s legitimacy is solid, he has had to remain in campaign mode ever since he first moved into the White House.

In democratic societies, the leadership’s battle with the press is commonly conducted via political parties, the president’s supporters and those who agree with his policies and disapprove of the policies advocated by the other sides in the political process.

Heads of state (with perhaps the exception of Richard Nixon) always strive to keep their office above the fray. They also court certain journalists and media figures and grant them exclusive interviews.

Bob Woodward had this kind of status. He has conducted numerous deep and thought-provoking interviews with Clinton, Bush Jr and Obama and written from these several books.

When Woodward tried but failed to get an interview with Trump, that failure led to Fear, which is based on inside sources in the White House, instead of the president himself.

Trump’s way of handling his relationship with the press and media is unlike any of the methods of his predecessors and maybe his successors as well. His is the direct, gloves-off approach and this made his popularity soar almost overnight.

In most public opinion polls, Trump had an approval rating of 40 per cent which, while obviously short of a majority, was sufficient to win the elections due to the zeal and dedication of his supporters and because the remaining 60 per cent, while keen to voice their views, often failed to report to the polls in sufficient numbers on voting day.

The Latino community, frequently targeted by Trump during his election campaign, certainly has no love lost for him. But it has the lowest voter turnout rate of any minority in US history.

Recently, Trump has found a new method for dealing with the press. He has begun to pick certain causes and rally public opinion behind them in a way that casts the opposition media as a proponent of mad-capped attitudes that run counter to US interests.

Trump emerged the victor in the battle surrounding Brett Kavanaugh, not only because his nominee for the Supreme Court was confirmed but also because Trump won a five to four majority in favour of the conservatives on the Supreme Court.

Trump homed in on Kavanaugh’s judicial career and the high esteem the judge enjoys among his colleagues and he pitted these factors against an alleged rape that occurred decades ago and the lack of any evidence that would stand up in court.

Truth was not what counted here, but rather the ability to rally public opinion around what was said to be true. The media relied on the argument that a woman and university professor would never lie about such a thing as having been the victim of a sexual assault.

Trump relied on his “base” which held that an allegation should never be accepted without evidence to substantiate it. Trump came out further ahead when the press, after losing its battle in the newspapers, the television screens and the social networking sites, lost again in the street where demonstrations were staged to keep the Senate from confirming Kavanaugh.

The pattern reoccurred in the case of the caravan of migrants from Honduras and Guatemala that set off on a march through Mexico towards the US border and that collected, along the way, thousands of others who want to seek asylum in the US.

The US press cast the event as a cause of the poor and downtrodden desperate to escape the misery and oppression in their own countries, setting their hopes on the US just as millions of other people had done before them.

The call went out to apply the law which meant, firstly, that the caravan needed a sponsor in order to set the judicial procedures in motion for each individual in the caravan and, secondly, that there is a humanitarian tragedy that is putting Trump and the US government under the glare of criticism and censure.

Trump, for his part, found that one of the main themes of his electoral campaign had returned physically embodied in that march of thousands that not only terrifies his white Republican conservative base but also many others in the US who have come to see migration and asylum as a kind of invasion.

Not only did Trump seize the opportunity to capitalise on this fear by saying that the migrants had criminals and rapists among them. He also added to their numbers “Middle Easterners” which, over there, translates as “terrorists”. Trump had pledged to build a wall between the US and Mexico.

It appears that he got what he wanted, whether the US press likes it or not.

* The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The press and the president 

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