After a month of being insulted morning, noon and night by the American press, President Donald J. Trump celebrated his first month in office by holding a press conference in which he gave back as good as he got. The press scurried to their word processors to report that the President raved, railed and ranted out of control, exactly as he — very much in control — predicted they would do during the conference. He then elected to skip the White House Correspondent’s Association Dinner, which (for no reason clear to me) was also headline news evidence of his going off the tracks.
What this portends, according to the press, is that freedom of the press is about to perish. “Journalists Should Be Terrified,” shrieked a Slate.com headline. “Trump Is A Threat To Press Freedom,” moaned the Chairman of the Committee To Protect Journalists. 1984, zipping to the top of the Amazon fiction bestseller list has become the guidebook to the era. That quintessence of totalitarianism can “Decode Trump’s First 100 Days,” opined CNN.
Now the casual observer might note that Trump has done exactly nothing whatever to curb the freedom of the press. Zero. Nada. Nonetheless, the notion is spreading like rumors of Ebola that the press and media are experiencing an Orwellian crackdown and that freedom of speech is guttering out like a flame underneath the storm of Trumpian oppression.
Are the press and public really both living in the same universe? Have we the people missed something, or has this “oppressed” press and media not been beating the living tar out of Donald Trump and everyone associated with him, day and night, 24/7, since the day he announced?
I have never seen the press, not even during Watergate, so continually and relentlessly lash into a politician, or do it with a more blatant display of unabashed contempt and smug impunity. You literally cannot pick up a paper without an anti-Trump tirade, headline, comment, or opinion piece. In the course of the traditional Presidential “Honeymoon Period,” the papers have called his wife a hooker, his son Barron autistic, declared his administration collapsing even before its heads have been announced, and judged Trump himself mentally and morally unfit. The joke about Presidential assassination from Ross Douthat of the Times was precursor to a raging stream of social media death threats and further calls for violent assassination, some by members of the press. The week before the election seventeen women came out accusing Trump of pawing or raping them and all the papers ran with it, supporting evidence or no; the Post ran a full-page cover of Trump’s face with the caption “CHILD MOLESTER!” The day after, all the accusers vanished or retracted. Press follow-up on the accusers? Zero. Buzzfeed even ran stories it admitted had no supporting evidence or foundation about Trump paying Russian prostitutes to pee on a bed once occupied by Obama. They ran them anyway!
Is this the picture of an ‘oppressed’ press? An oppressive press, yes. A press that thinks it can target anyone it wishes and print or say or anything it damn well pleases, true or false, with total immunity from governmental prosecution. But surely the last thing it is is a press that is under any kind of constraints, or fear of constraints. When a newspaper editor under Lincoln criticized his policies, he was jailed. When a journalist attacked Stalin he went to the Gulag. When Bill Maher gives Trump the finger on TV, or Shields and Brooks say on PBS, “We are the opposition party,” they become culture heroes and end up on the Tonight Show.
Whatever else the press may be — and “irresponsible to the point of pathology” would not be a bad characterization — clearly no one is keeping them from saying whatever they want, and equally clearly they have no real fear or apprehension that anyone will stop them. Far from being oppressed, they almost seem begging for some oppression, so that they can play the part of victim in a drama that is occurring nowhere except in their own heads.
What is Trump doing about it? Nothing. They’re calling him names every moment. Every once in a while he calls them names right back. So what? Harry Truman called the press some colorful names too. One may regret Trump’s occasional wallowing in the same trough as the press, but this isn’t any restriction of speech: it’s a demonstration of it. I know the press is screaming about impending political darkness, but stop looking at things from the angle of what they’re saying and look at what is actually happening: what is happening is not a constrained press, but a press that has thrown off all constraint and is saying whatever it damned well pleases. Whatever else you may call this, it isn’t curtailment of freedom of the press. It’s freedom of the press gone thermonuclear.
This does not mean that the press actually is free. Any journalist wishing to test that theory can simply deploy the “N” word and bid his career farewell. It’s merely a press free from government oppression. Yet something genuinely weird is going on, something so weird there is no easy explanation for it. A few months before the election I checked some sources to find out how many papers supported Trump and how many Clinton. it turned out that out of 1,937 American newspapers, only one supported Trump — and that one was owned by his son-in-law.
Well, it just is not possible for every last paper in the country but one to support one single candidate; not when half the electorate supports the other. Especially not when the newspaper business is in fiscal crisis, and that half of the electorate is their customer base. That’s fiscal suicide. Universal coordination of opinion in defiance of corporate profit is positively Soviet. And since this is not the Soviet Union, and I don’t believe in any sort of conspiratorial hand, this monolithic unity stumps me. But clearly it has nothing to do with government oppression coming from Trump when it’s overwhelmingly directed against him.
Yet even so we may well be witnessing the twilight of the press. Certainly the mainstream media is heading for a major fall. That fall has nothing to do with Trump, though he is, as always, using the development cannily. It has to do with the rise of alternative media. Yes, the Times has a million subscribers. But Breitbart has over 200 million pageviews a month. Who do you think gets more readership? And — since Breitbart is in many ways the creation of Steve Bannon — do we really imagine Trump is going to shut it down?
While the traditional media owned by the six leading conglomerates loath Trump to a man, the internet- and Youtube- and podcast-driven independent media, from Drudge to Zero Hedge to Stefan Molyneux to Infowars, are taking over a vast and ever-increasing amount of readership market share. We may lament at the quality of some of the alternatives, but they are by no means all curios of the alt-right. Znet and Jacobin are part of the scene on the left and by no means lacking in substance.
These new media are nothing if not alive, vivid, and (unlike mainstream media) open to a wide variety of voices from left, right, and every other direction. Not only is this emerging news media genuinely (or at least relatively) independent, they’re part of a system virtually impervious to Trump or any other President. The internet was designed to allow communications in the aftermath of a nuclear war, and generations of hackers since have raised getting around government interference to an art form. What government does not want to see Julian Assange’s head roll? But Wikileaks publishes in blithe disregard of them all. Let us take some comfort from this: the mainstream media could vanish tomorrow, and news and discussion outside government control would still flourish.
But the mainstream media won’t go away. And Trump doesn’t want them to, for he plays them like a Isaac Stern plays a Stradivarius. He likes hearing them scream, and provokes it. It shows the public that he’s an outsider, that the Establishment hates him. It reassures them that negative news about him is probably slanted and fake. It distracts. If he wants to draw press attention away from some political machination, he’ll just muse aloud as to why Megyn Kelly really has no boobs to speak of, and the press will yowl “Sexist Pig!” for weeks on end, obliterating all other news stories, but still putting Trump’s face in front of the screen morning till night.
Shutting the press down would look bad even if it were possible. But using the press and making fools out of them is entertaining, gets him plenty of free screen time, and pays off with the voters. It’s not a serious confrontation, it’s a Kabuki performance: Trump the embattled Man of the People versus the Lying Press. He’s not going to throw that away. It’s too useful, and he enjoys it too much.
So should we fear the death of the press as we know it? Alas, no. The press is not having its freedom threatened — on the contrary, it’s never been or acted more freely. Trump has no reason whatever to shut it down, and plenty of reason to keep playing it like a fiddle. Alternative news sources are all over the place, and uniquely impervious to government crackdown. One barely even needs the news at all in an environment where smartphones surround and livestream every news events in real time. Log on and see it happening!
Soviet style control isn’t coming; if anything, one could make a better case that it’s already here and is on the way out. Will the traditional mainstream media survive as is? In the long term, probably not.
But that is not a tragedy: it’s an opportunity.
What then should we do? Close up the papers, turn off the TV off, boot up the iPad. 4chan, Drudge, Unz, Connorpost, RT, RealClearPolitics — there’s a wealth of news sources out there, and simply no way to shut them down.
Relax. Explore. Enjoy.