Donald Trump's war on media



18, Feb 2017

President Trump, in his first solo press conference, accused the media of dishonestly portraying his administration. He asserted his administration was functioning like a “fine-tuned machine”. Trump had, during his campaign, enjoyed unabashed coverage of media outlets seeking to improve their ratings. The POTUS-press relationship has a history of varying complications, aggravated by social media and television. Leaks, a central issue, were also brought up in the conference.

What did President Trump say about the media in his first press conference?

In addition to insisting there was “zero chaos” since he assumed Presidency – despite an administration ridden with leaks; a core immigration-order blocked by the federal courts; non-progress on the promised “Great Wonderful Wall”; no further action to repeal and replace Obamacare; several vacant seats in the Cabinet – Trump decried the media as misleading the public.

  • He said most of the media were unhappy with his administration’s commitment and the progress thus achieved, and this led them to malign the valuable work done.
  • He accused much of the media in Washington, DC, along with New York, Los Angeles, in particular of representing special interests that feed on a failed system rather than the people. He acknowledged some media as “fantastic” but said most were far from it.
  • His ire was greater against the political media in particular.He denounced the increasing controversy about his aides’ connections with Russia as fake news concocted by a hostile news media.
  • A reporter pointedly asked “Aren't you concerned, sir, you are undermining the people's faith in the first amendment, freedom of the press, the press in the country when you call stories you don't like fake news Why not just say it's a story I don't like —”, Trump said he wanted an honest press. He told the reporters, “The public doesn't believe you people anymore” and while perhaps he was responsible in some way, if instead of blatantly negative coverage, if the media played it straight, he would be their most ardent cheerleader.
  • He also explicitly categorized some questions as insulting and bad – a question on increasing anti-Semitism observed and concern over irresponsiveness of the President, fair – a question on the ‘fairness’ of his assertion that leaks of classified information are revolting even as he cheered on when Wikileaks released the Clinton campaign’s details, good and very good – questions on FLOTUS’s (the First Lady of the United States) role in future and about his plan to fix inner cities.

CNN, BBC, New York Times and Wall Street Journal were the named targets of his contempt and anger.

Why is the CNN-Trump war even more interesting?

It was not a war-like situation always

  • Cut to somewhere around September 2014, CNN was in dire straits. Its ratings had never been this low for almost two decades and it needed a miracle to stay afloat in a new media environment that unceasingly supplied unlimited real-time news.That miracle manifested as Donald Trump.
  • Jim Rutenberg, writing in New York Times in March 2016 observed the network’s ratings to have ramped up by 170 percent, thanks to the debates and extensive coverage of Trump.The moolah raked in was 40 times what CNN earned on an average night, reportedly according to Advertising Age.
  • This gain was capitalized to the fullest extent by Trump. “I can’t recall a situation in which a network was so dependent on a candidate. Usually, it’s the other way around”, wrote author Neal Gabler.

Rutenberg points out that CNN was not alone in facilitating the triumph of Trump; in that sense it is a little unfair to hold it solely responsible. According to the New York Times’s Upshot team, Trump’s news coverage in the second week of March 2016 was worth $1.9 billion. Clinton and Cruz received less than $750 million and more than $300 million respectively. The rush to furnish “Trump news” was exhibited by the newspaper media as well. Trump reportedly commented, “It’s crazy” how “I do a tweet on something, something not even significant, and they break into their news within seconds”.

Initially Trump held the view that “any publicity is good publicity” and would help him get where he wanted to. On reaching there, he finds opportunity to highlight the “negativity” of the coverage. He has a propensity to prepend adjectives and keep them as long as required – “Crooked Hillary” during his campaign; “failing New York Times” now.

As for CNN, Trump’s pointed dislike translates to more viewers.

When have the POTUS and press been at conflict with one another?

I'm kind of sitting back and enjoying Trump's war with the press,” Leon Panetta, the former White House chief of staff, CIA director, and defense secretary, told a staff writer at The Atlantic recently. “I've worked in one way or another under nine presidents. There isn't one of them that had a loving relationship with the press. The nature of it is presidents hate bad stories.

  • Evidence leads one to infer that the POTUS and the press shared a less close relationship in Obama’s presidency than they did in about 50 years before that.
  • Under Obama, the White House, on the one hand, developed tools that allowed it to tailor the news release and content to its own time and requirement. The press, on the other, centered its attention on the purpose of getting a story that would be popular on social media. This combined to create a situation where actual news almost always misses being made.

According to CJR, in addition to the usual custom of holding a town hall meeting or giving an exclusive to a specialty publication when a new policy has to be made known to a friendly audience, the White House under Obama got its own in-house video reporting. This allowed it to directly convey its messages through its website, removing the need for press corps if it wanted.

As limited access became even more limited, the press corps found themselves relying on outside sources to collect information on White House policy and decisions – without an understanding of how those decisions are made – and analyze it as news. There were only a few cases when they could deeply probe the matter under consideration and provide an extensive analysis.

Several administrations hit out at The Washington Post especially since it exposed the Watergate scandal, when President Nixon forbade reporters from entering any area of the White House other than the press briefing room. The Post was not allowed to cover any social event.

  • President Johnson is said to have tried to pull the strings on what and how the media reported events.
  • Gerald Ford hinted The Post gave him the reputation of a clumsy and awkward person. In 1975, Ford visited Salzburg and fell as he was climbing down the stairs of Air Force One. The post reportedly ran the image of that moment and in its article said “the fall summarized the journey. Stumble, fumble, tumble and jumble.” Ford, in his memoir, would say, “From that moment on, every time I stumbled or bumped my head or fell in the snow, reporters zeroed in on that to the exclusion of almost everything else. The news coverage was harmful.”

Susan Milligan, in CJR, analyzes the influence of two communication mediums on the Pres-Press relationship.


  • The theatrical component provided in recent times by television was extended to daily press briefings as well. When reporters discovered this strategy worked – it garnered lot of viewership during the Monica Lewinsky scandal – the purpose of telecasting briefings became about getting into the spotlight rather than presenting substance-filled relevant content.

Social media

  • In tailoring the news and tone of questioning to generate demand or virality on social media, the coverage compromises on utility. Josh Earnest, White House secretary under President Obama, reportedly stopped holding off-camera sessions – once seen as valuable as with a few questions, correspondents would grasp an understanding of the schedule for the day – because it now became all about tweeting what he said.
  • Social media provided news organizations and news reporters to create their brand for the internet audience.With pressure to “push the brand” intensifying, catchy content came to dominate.

Where is the sign Trump is feeling the strain of the newfound relationship?

His eagerness to go back to campaign mode is anything but restrained. On Saturday he is expected to hold what his associates call a campaign rally – he highlighted this in the press conference – for President Trump in 2020. It takes him back to the good ol’ times when he didn’t have to be accountable for what he said – a luxury he does not have as POTUS.

  • In a previous joint conference with Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, Trump seemed to appreciate a question which helped him focus on the seriousness of the national security situation - OK. Thank you. Many, many problems. When I was campaigning, I said it's not a good situation. Now that I see it — including with our intelligence briefings — we have problems that a lot of people have no idea how bad they are, how serious they are. Not only internationally, but when you come right here…. We have problems just about every corner of the globe, no matter where you look.
  • This tone was reinforced in his solo press conference where he said he had inherited a mess and though citizens were very happy with the results of his administration’s efforts, most of the media was unhappy his team had done so well.

Who have withstood the attempts to shut them off?

  • Social media users were not put off when government departments shut down official Twitter accounts of government departments to keep the trolls away. Instead environmentalists, science lovers and anonymous employees of US National Park Service combined forces against Trump on Twitter – Trump’s favorite medium of communication. They use the hashtag #resist to get their message across.
  • The official Twitter account of National Park Service was suspended following Trump’s inauguration – after an employee brought it to notice that the climate change pages on had been removed and helped circulate a tweet by a reporter comparing Trump’s inauguration crowd with Obama’s.
  • It took but 24 hours for the National Park services, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and Environmental Protection Agency to launch their counter-attack as resistance accounts.

Humor was a part of the counter effort - We cannot confirm which species has the smallest hands. New specimens are being found daily by scientists around the world. But the opportunity was used to highlight the facts about climate change and call upon people to join the Science March in March in Washington, DC, among 150 plus cities across the world.

How do leaks happen?

The Trump administration has been plagued with leaks – the Flynn Controversy that had begun before Trump’s inauguration, leaks of telephone calls he held with the Australian PM and Mexican President, a report by a former British spy suggesting Trump was vulnerable to blackmail.

  • Executive officials in possession of classified information may choose to divulge it, usually to journalists without the formal approval of the administration, thereby leaking it in an informal and unauthorized manner.
  • Stephen Hess, senior fellow emeritus in Governance Studies at Brookings Institution and longtime researcher on leaks says leaks are of different types:ego leaks when officials share information to inflate their sense of importance; goodwill leaks given out in anticipation of a future favor; policy leaks to generate support for or backlash against a proposal; animus leaks seeking to settle a grudge; whistleblower leak which intend that public benefits from the information.

Famous leaks of US history that exposed truths include The Pentagon Papers, Watergate Scandal, Iraq War Logs, and the PRISM leak.

  • Ron Kaufman, who worked in George H.W. Bush’s White House, argued that leaks in the Trump’s administration are not new:“There are always leaks. Every president in history has said the press hates me and there are too many leaks”.
  • However, the motive of the leaders is “somewhat unprecedented”, according to Louis Clark, executive director of a whistleblower protection group. Clark said the impression shared by people that these leaks are direct attacks of the President, make the leaks different.
  • Jesselyn Radack, a former U.S. Justice Department lawyer told VOA in an interview:“Oftentimes, administrations leak trial balloons to push policy ideas. Trump’s leaks seem much more dangerous. They’re all over the place. They don’t seem like strategic leaks”
  • Hess says the leaks are a reflection of the fear of the Civil Service – especially the Intelligence Community – that the President is “inexperienced, amateurish and dangerous”.
  • Though leaks are criminalized by laws, government officials frequently leak classified information for various purposes. But the government’s handling of the situations seems biased. Liza Goitein of the Brennan Center for Justice says that the over-classification of information means the disclosures are the only form of national security reporting. She adds, “Disclosures that paint an administration in a positive light are tolerated or even implicitly encouraged. Disclosures that embarrass an administration or reveal wrongdoing are deemed ‘criminal.’ This has been the case under the past two administrations, and will likely continue under this one.”

Trump – if his response to the situation is an indicator – will likely follow Obama’s hardline stance against leaks. He has asked the Department of Justice to look into leaks concerning his former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

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Tags | POTUS President Trump