Donald Trump vs. CNN: How the White House Just Escalated Its War on the Free Press

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures and declares "You're fired!" at a rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, on June 17, 2015. REUTERS/Dominick Reuter

Tuesday was a glorious day for those who believe that the free press is all that's keeping America from being made great again. It saw the right escalate its war on the media, in part because of mistakes committed by CNN and The New York Times. Those errors may have been troubling, but they were corrected quickly and unambiguously.

Far more troubling was the response of the pro-Trump camp, which zealously sought to discount all journalism on the basis of those two mistakes, to weaken an emboldened press corps by revealing its supposed anti-Trump biases. Those biases may exist, but if they do, the White House has done a marvelous job of confirming them at every opportunity with its own incompetence, maliciousness and dishonesty.

What the president really wants was best articulated in a New York Times interview with chief White House strategist Steve Bannon earlier this year. "The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while," the splenetic nationalist said. "The media here is the opposition party."

White House aides were "elated" w/CNN resignations & view media fight now as easier to win. Spot-on @hadas_gold:

— Josh Dawsey (@jdawsey1) June 28, 2017

Tuesday's developments were unrelated, except they showed how eagerly Donald Trump's supporters will pounce on the media mistakes while ignoring the president's penchant for conspiracy theories and "alternative facts," if not outright deceptions. They see nothing wrong with holding CNN to a far higher standard than the White House, to scrutinize the words of a Times editorial while dismissing Trump's tweets as harmless presidential fun.

CNN's troubles stemmed from a story, published last Thursday, about Anthony Scaramucci, a New York financier and Trump supporter. The article made allegations about Scaramucci's supposed dealings with Kirill Dmitriev, who heads a Russian investment fund. Scaramucci complained to CNN head Jeff Zucker, reportedly threatening a $100 million lawsuit. The story was retracted, three staffers resigned, and Scaramucci tweeted, "Apology accepted. Everyone makes mistakes. Moving on."

Related: Trump's perfect press secretary

But while Scaramucci took the high road, Trump took the low one. He lambasted CNN in tweets unbefitting a candidate for the Palookaville Municipal Advisory Council, let alone the leader of the free world:

So they caught Fake News CNN cold, but what about NBC, CBS & ABC? What about the failing @nytimes & @washingtonpost? They are all Fake News!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 27, 2017

Fake News CNN is looking at big management changes now that they got caught falsely pushing their phony Russian stories. Ratings way down!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 27, 2017

His deputy press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, channeled the same contemptuous attitude at Tuesday's daily White House press briefing. She railed against the "constant barrage of fake news that is directed at this president." Of course, she couldn't name a single story that was "fake." Sanders did, however, take a swipe at CNN, which she said had "been repeatedly wrong and had to point that out or had to correct it."

Yes, absolutely. When a news outlet is wrong—and every news outlet gets it wrong sometimes—it acknowledges its mistakes and corrects them. Meanwhile, Trump trots out his press secretary to lie about inauguration crowds while spreading lies about the FBI, Hillary Clinton and anyone else he sees as an opponent. It's no secret that Trump's favorite show is Fox & Friends, which CNN's media reporter Brian Stelter calls "Trump's safe space" because it showers the president "with positive attention."

Tuesday also saw Sarah Palin, former Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential nominee, file a lawsuit against The New York Times, for an editorial published in mid-June. The Times editorial in question, titled "America's Lethal Politics," came after the shooting of Representative Steve Scalise in northern Virginia. The shooter, James Hodgkinson, was a vociferous supporter of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

In its editorial, the Times alluded to the 2011 of shooting of Representative Gabby Giffords by Jared Lee Loughner. The original piece suggested Loughner was motivated by right-wing rhetoric. It specifically cited a map published by a political group affiliated with Sarah Palin. The editorial, as originally published, described the map as showing "Giffords and 19 other Democrats under stylized cross hairs."

But the descriptions of Loughner's intentions, and Palin's map, were both erroneous. The Times was forced to issue a two-part correction:

An editorial on Thursday about the shooting of Representative Steve Scalise incorrectly stated that a link existed between political rhetoric and the 2011 shooting of Representative Gabby Giffords. In fact, no such link was established. The editorial also incorrectly described a map distributed by a political action committee before that shooting. It depicted electoral districts, not individual Democratic lawmakers, beneath stylized cross hairs.

That wasn't enough for Palin, who filed suit against the Times on Tuesday. Notably, two of the lawyers she is using successfully litigated the invasion of privacy suit filed by Terry Gene Bollea, professionally known as Hulk Hogan, against the gossip website Gawker, which had published a sex tape of Bollea in sexual congress with the wife of a friend. Bollea was awarded more than $100 million by the jury, a decision that led to Gawker's demise.

Michael J. Niborski, a partner in the Los Angeles office of Pryor Cashman LLP whose expertise is defamation, says Palin may well have standing in her suit against the Times. "A media defendant does not automatically escape the possibility of liability under a libel claim by issuing a retraction or a correction," he tells me in an email. "Palin's attorneys will certainly argue that the two corrections were insufficient as a matter of law to even qualify as a correction and retraction. But even if they were, they did not serve to mitigate any of the damage caused to her reputation and feelings by the initial article."

Let's get something basic out of the way. The Times should have gotten the facts right, especially in an editorial that was presumably reviewed by multiple members of its editorial board. I say this as someone who spent several years as a member of the editorial board of the New York Daily News. While the role of the unsigned editorial has no doubt diminished, it remains the voice of the newspaper (specifically, its publisher). The facts around the Giffords shooting were not obscure or in dispute. The Times had a duty to get them right—and, given its journalistic talent, should have done so. It doesn't have to like Palin, but it does have to be honest about what she did and didn't say.

At the same time, the paper swiftly corrected its errors. That's what a publication is supposed to do. That's what CNN did too. The free press can't be flawless, but it must be accountable.

Palin, meanwhile, is preposterous in complaining about offended sensibilities, as much as Trump is crowing about CNN's supposed deceptions. The suit her lawyers filed says that it "took Mrs. Palin years to overcome the detrimental impacts of the false speculation that she caused Loughner to commit murder. Unfortunately, members of the media perceive Mrs. Palin as a convenient target for attacks against conservative policies and a subject likely to spark readership interest."

(2/2) ...WHY someone would no longer be in public eye? Think constant libel & slander have anything to do with it? 🤔

— Sarah Palin (@SarahPalinUSA) June 15, 2017

One wonders why Palin's tender sensitivities weren't similarly injured during the 2008 presidential race, when her campaign rallies—on behalf of GOP nominee John McCain—frequently descended into expressions of hatred against then-candidate Barack Obama. She eagerly stoked that anger, accusing Obama of "palling around with terrorists," leading some to wonder if violence against the Democratic candidate was inevitable.

Palin didn't get any calmer after the election, when she joined the bastion of civility and sensitivity that is Fox News. She called the president "Barack Hussein Obama," using his foreign-sounding middle name to suggest the he wasn't quite American. Last year, during the presidential race, she called Obama "a special kind of stupid." Later, after Trump won the 2016 election, she went to the White House with country singer Ted Nugent, who'd once told Obama to "suck on my machine gun" and deemed Hillary Clinton a "worthless bitch," among many other inciteful statements.

Ted Nugent called Obama a “subhuman mongrel,” has said “all men are not created equal,” and said Jews “hate good”

The company @potus keeps:

— Tom Namako (@TomNamako) April 20, 2017

Sarah Palin—"voice of conservative values" and beacon of faith and family, according to her Times lawsuit—didn't appear troubled by any of that.

But as Niborski explains, it is possible that what she really wants isn't money. "Part of the goal of certain plaintiffs is not necessarily to win a libel case, but rather to force media defendants to spend money on defending themselves, and therefore make it less likely that they will target a certain public figure in the future." In other words, Palin's goal is to punish the Times, just as it was Bollea's goal to punish Gawker.

There was another media-related development on Tuesday, one that didn't involve a lawsuit. David A. Fahrenthold of The Washington Post found that some of Trump's golf resorts are decorated with a fake Time magazine cover that crows about his Apprentice being a "television smash."

It takes a certain kind of chutzpah to attack the free press while using fake magazine covers for decor. More than that, it takes a profound insecurity, the kind of thing most people overcome in high school. What Trump fears, above all, is not that we will uncover some Nixonian plot involving Russia. Rather, what makes Trump afraid is that we, the people, will see him for his astonishing smallness of spirit, his lack of vision, his boundless vanity.

A man who wraps himself in fakery will see fakery everywhere.