In the president’s mind, the media’s role is not to hold government to account, but simply to support it.
Donald Trump’s latest spat with the news media has – as usual – played out on Twitter. A private meeting between the president and New York Times publisher AG Sulzberger had provided the latter with an opportunity to raise concerns about the anti-press rhetoric emanating from the White House. But with both sides (Trump first of course) revealing brief accounts of the encounter, it seems fair to conclude that Sulzberger’s pleas for a less hostile approach fell on deaf ears.
The explicit point made by Sulzberger was that Trump’s inflammatory description of journalists as “enemies of the people” was likely to put individuals at risk – either of online abuse, or even physical harassment. In the wake of the killing of five journalists at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis last month, the US media is on high alert.
Certainly the atmosphere of distrust that Trump has both tapped into and magnified makes journalists’ lives more difficult. Most people don’t go to work expecting to be slagged off for doing their jobs – for the majority of journalists, it is a regular occurrence. Trolls on social media and on comment boards can cause a great deal of misery for reporters and writers.
And lest we imagine this is only an American, Trump-inspired phenomenon, let’s not forget that the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, was given a bodyguard during last year’s Labour Party conference after receiving a welter of abuse from some of Jeremy Corbyn’s more ardent supporters. Corbyn himself condemned the harassment – but only belatedly and after being urged to do so by many of his colleagues. He had previously claimed the BBC was “obsessed” with trying to discredit him.
The simple fact is political leaders know they can win support by being seen to be at loggerheads with an imagined nexus of elites – which includes a whole host of nebulous elements, from “establishment” politicians, the civil service, big corporations and of course the “mainstream media”. As such, arguing that journalists are not being fair (“fake news!”), or are biased or are even acting against the interests of ordinary people is a vote-winner – never mind if reporters face harassment as a consequence.
I suppose it ought to be said that the media is not blameless in the coarsening of political debate. Mention the phrase “enemies of the people” in the UK and the first example of its use that springs to mind is not a Trump tweet but the Daily Mail’s front page railing against traitorous judges back in 2016. So let’s not imagine that this inflammatory nonsense doesn’t cut both ways.
Nevertheless, when it comes from the most powerful man in the world, anti-journalist rhetoric should worry everyone – not just those of us in the media who may feel we have a personal stake. After all, what Trump’s remarks about his meeting with Sulzberger reveal is not just that he won’t be ending his criticisms of the press any time soon, but that he does not really believe in the freedom of the media at all.
He’s right on that last point yet Trump’s vision of accurate reporting is coverage that is favourable to his perceived achievements. He went on to warn that “I will not allow our great country to be sold out by anti-Trump haters in the dying newspaper industry.”
In this narrative, the media’s role is not to hold government to account, but simply to support it; to inform the public only of matters which the government wishes it to report; to be, in short, not free but merely a champion of the government’s partisan vision. It is, as has been said many times, the relationship between state and media that exists in countries run by totalitarian regimes.
When the Capital Gazette’s journalists were gunned down by a man with an apparent vendetta against the paper, Trump flew the stars and stripes at half-mast from the White House. But it seems unlikely that he will care too much if and when media freedom in America dies.