U.S.

Why the Media Keeps Losing to Donald Trump

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02/10/17
In the Magazine
President Donald Trump speaks during a press conference on January 11 at Manhattan's Trump Tower. Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Donald Trump is obsessed with the media. And the media is obsessed with Trump. Let’s take it as a given that this obsession is unhealthy. The last time there was such a level of neurotic fixation and overwhelming distrust between a president and the press was during the Nixon administration. The current White House would be well aware that the press won that war—and that the stakes now can be mortal.

Indeed, each side believes that, given its druthers, the other would kill it. So how does this bitter and potentially lethal game play out?

The media view is that the Trump people are not only mendacious but nincompoops—“alternative facts,” ha-ha. To the media, it is a given that Trump is largely out of control and that the people around him are struggling at all times to save him from himself—and largely failing. This view persists (again in a series of unsourced stories this past week), despite Trump’s victory flattening almost every media assumption about his supposed haplessness and lack of strategy.

Related: The truth behind Megyn Kelly’s NBC deal

It is the Trump view that the media has been so wrong in its predictions, and made to look in the eyes of the public so woeful and ludicrous, that it must now double down in an effort to prove its thesis about the president and restore its honor. (The Trump White House now hammers a persistent theme: Why was nobody fired in the mainstream media for such dunderheaded election coverage?)

The media strategy is to show Trump to be an inept and craven sociopath. The Trump strategy is to show that media people are hopeless prigs out of touch with the nation (e.g., CNN’s media correspondent, Brian Stelter, who turns to the camera every Sunday morning and delivers a pious sermon about Trump’s perfidiousness) and nursing personal grudges.

Accordingly, “alternative facts.” It’s curious to pick a battle whose outcome won’t change anything—like over the actual size of the inaugural crowd. But both sides grabbed it. Hence, the argument becomes about relative reaction. Who is perceived as overreacting more? Whose apoplexy is greater?

In the media’s view—literal to a fault, in this instance—a lie is a lie. Therefore, Trump is a liar, making the issue of the size of the inaugural crowd a moral one. Trump’s misstatement is grievous and profoundly discreditable, in this view.

In the Trump team’s view, that the media would turn a so-what issue into a veritable crisis of confidence—and that it rises to this level of high dudgeon on such a regular basis—discredits the media and adds to its crisis of credibility, which is at least as great—and, the Trump team, would argue vastly greater—as its own.

Perhaps the most salient measure here is that the media took repeated end-of-the-world umbrage during the campaign to no discernible effect. Arguably, its constant sense of injury helped Trump.

Of course, the media believes the opposite. (While, in almost every instance, it is wrong to speak of the media as a single entity, the Trump view of media sameness and consensus is not unreasonable here.) The media believes that it speaks for Hillary Clinton’s national ballot box majority, for the millions who have now marched against Trump, for the demographically expanding left wing (although not in the right-wing states) and, as well, for obvious common sense. And the media believes that everybody believes what it believes. How could they not? It’s Donald Trump!

So far, call it a draw (although the Trumpers in the West Wing wouldn’t call it that, daily reminding the media, to its blood-boiling annoyance, that they won).

The media’s holy grail is, as it’s been for much of the campaign, about what will stick. Of the myriad likely damaging possibilities, which one will be so prima facie damaging (pay no attention to the many instances that many people already thought were, or would be) or so shocking and insulting to the body politic that it will be the end, or at least the beginning of the end, of Trump? Nothing counts but delivering a mortal wound, so everything is delivered as though it is a mortal wound.

The Trump people recognize this and, it would seem, even encourage it. A key difference between the Trump and Nixon administrations is the relative lack of paranoia in this new White House. There is contempt but not paranoia (that may, of course, come). The Trump strategy, conscious or not, is to invite overreaction—to program for it. Kellyanne Conway, with effortless smile, is more official media tormentor than simple spokesperson. The Trump team’s overt threats against the media—which is quite easy to placate if, in fact, you want to placate it—reliably serve to stoke several news cycles of the media’s breast-beating and self-serving virtue, never a pleasant sight.

Of course, the media’s inability to damage Trump leads it to try all the more. The list of attempts is long: the dossier, the tax returns, emoluments, conflicts of interest, etc. The weight of all this, the media clearly believes, ultimately brings him down. In turn, the more stuff that is piled on, the Trump team believes, the more it is all diminished.

This might lead to a natural constitutional crisis: Here is a media united in its opposition to the president and determined to find and pursue that charge, that guilty opening. How can there not be one—it believes—that will surely bring this presidency down? And here is a White House that believes the media’s single goal, and entire reason for being, is its destruction—and that its own survival, its legitimacy, depends on some version of breaking the media tide in the same dramatic way it intends to break the tide of immigrants it sees as so loathsome. (“We’re going to have to rethink our relationship here,” said Conway, with impeccable cool and pointed chill, to NBC’s Chuck Todd.)

On the other hand, it is not at all unlikely that each side, no matter how determined to kill the other, emerges into a new and beneficial normal—and perfect balance, with news media ratings and profits soaring and the many Trump dramas commanding our undivided attention.

Until one side makes an error or gains the advantage, and there’s a kill.