Donald Trump Marginalizes, then Manipulates the Mainstream Media
No American president had a more strained relationship with the press than Richard Nixon. Consumed by paranoia and stoked with bitterness, Nixon loathed the mainstream media. He didn’t even bother trying to conceal this malice. That was made abundantly self-evident by sharp words and contorted body language during his press conferences in front of cameras which gradually morphed into the twisted political degradation known as the Watergate cover up, ultimately leading to his downfall.
Six years later, Ronald Reagan had learned these harshest of lessons from Watergate. He recognized that a president could be far more effective working with the media rather than shutting them out, or as in Nixon’s case counterattacking with everything from targeted IRS audits to a top-secret “Enemies List.” To the contrary, Reagan often toyed with members of the press corps, even those who were viewed as his administration’s harshest critics, including most notably Helen Thomas (UPI) and Sam Donaldson (ABC). Unlike Nixon, if Reagan was uncomfortable with questions, he never showed it. Nonetheless, Reagan’s advisers always remained cautious. They were both careful and clever. Reagan’s political handlers frequently kept the news media at a distance. By design, members of the press were corralled apart from daily White House business, wherever and whenever possible. Sure, they were sometimes paraded in for photo ops, or allowed to ask a few questions briefly when the proceedings were deemed advantageous towards pushing an agenda. Otherwise, they were kept at bay. For two full terms totaling eight years, reporters were forced to shout questions at Reagan from long distances away, making the journalists who’s job it was too keep the public informed seem both rude and disrespectful. Not exactly a hallmark of what’s supposed to be a free press and representative democracy, the manipulation was masterful. The news media appeared loud and obnoxious. Reagan seemed like an innocent victim just trying to do his job as president.
Donald Trump, the current front runner likely destined to become the Republican nominee for president appears to have taken historic lessons learned from both Nixon and Reagan to a whole new dimension. Consider his latest “press conference,” held on the night he just won two more primaries, thus inching perilously closer to the nomination. Similar to last week’s celebration-speech, Trump once again positioned himself onstage in front of several American flags and after speaking impromptu for about 20 minutes, took questions from the news media. But first, he spent some time tearing them down, to the boisterous cheers and stomach-turning laughter from an audience packed with Trump backers.
It was a stunning display of conceit that gave credence to growing concerns that we’re now witnessing the United States of American teeter as close to totalitarianism as we’ve ever come.
Pointing directly at the press corps assembled towards the rear of a large ballroom, candidate Trump thrust his arm forward and twice called out the media as “dishonest” before, oddly enough, taking questions from those he so admonishes, and who frankly were guilty compatriots to the burning dumpster blaze now threatening to explode into an American political Hiroshima. As if to insulate himself before a potential onslaught of unscripted criticism, first Trump worked the crowd into a frenzy and then purposely turned the floor over to reporters who were, comparatively speaking, dull and bookish-looking — and to most in the audience there wanting a show and fireworks — annoying, frankly. Not one of the hundreds of star-struck sycophants packed inside the ballroom demonstrated any interest hear some policy-wonk question or wanted “The Donald” questioned by some nerdy reporter in a tweed coat with glasses scribbling into a notepad. The reporters were made to feel so utterly inconsequential, they weren’t even provided with microphones. The press had become, for lack of a better description, campaign props. Extras. Unarmed gladiators in Circus Maxitrumpus.
What America witnessed on Saturday night was an orchestrated abomination. Everything about the press conference was sham, from the way the media were awkwardly positioned in the room, to intentional the lack of audio, to Trump himself looking like a field general onstage yelling back at reporters to “sit down” — all this after desperately trying to be heard over the audience’s booing and shouting while attempting to ask a question.
Positioning the news media towards the back of the hall and self-contained inside a tiny pen, surrounded by hundreds of Trump supporters shouting and hoisting signs, amounted to a flock of rabbits being released inside a cage packed with rabid coyotes sniffing blood. But first, Trump made certain to rile up his faithful fawners, not only calling the media dishonest, but then picking on reporters by name before calling on them adjoined with a quip before they were “allowed” to ask a question. If the question was the least bit controversial, the crowd instantly turned and gelled into a mob, attempting to drown out the reporter with hoops and hollers. This was so easy to do, since none of the media were given even a single a microphone, which is normally the standard procedure for press conferences. Hence, the ten million viewers watching this painful shit show unfold on live television heard the barely audible voice of a reporter, followed by Trump onstage bombastically talking over the questioner, rudely interrupting in mid-sentence, and on at least three occasions commanding the reporter curtly to “sit down.” A few times, Trump even ignored the question and moved on. What an stunning mutilation of the democratic process. For those appalled by recent Republican debates, this was even more horrifying.
Then there was this threat, which seriously threatens the hallmarks of a free press. Trump said, and I quote directly from his remarks: “I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money….we’re going to open up those libel laws so when The New York Times writes a hit piece , or The Washington Post, which is there for different reasons, writes a hit piece we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance to win because they’re totally protected.”
Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page retorted: “In other words Trump promises to pursue those who dare to use the First Amendment for what it was intended to protect — you’re right to criticize the powerful….even for Trump, his assault on the media was breathtakingly detached from reality.”
Earlier tonight, we just got our first glimpse of what a Trump Presidency might look like, and it’s not pretty. It’s frightening, in fact. Even if you distrust the mainstream media and view them — as I do — that they are corporate-owned, establishment ass-kissers, there are still some journalists out there who do good work. We must remind ourselves that media is one of the only firewalls protecting us against creeping authoritarianism. Once the press becomes marginalized, those in power can pretty much do what they want, without any oversight. Trump, already acutely dangerous to American democracy, not to mention fragile global affairs based on a lengthy list of mind-boggling statements which have offended just about everyone, will become even more entrenched as a powerful figure if he succeeds using the mainstream media as one of his Tonka toys. We must not allow this to happen.
Compared to Donald Trump, Richard Nixon never looked so innocuous.