President Donald Trump’s constant bickering with the media is a lose-lose-lose situation for all involved.
It’s a zero sum game for Trump, the media and especially the American public.
Trump’s repeated description of the media as “the enemy of the people” is starting to sound even more childish and petulant than it was when he began this rant during his campaign last year. The longer he continues with it the less presidential he sounds and the more he is likely to drive away moderate supporters.
Trump’s speech to Congress on Tuesday night was the most presidential he has sounded since he got into the race. While the speech was long on promises and short on specifics — like most other presidential speeches — it at least was not a diatribe directed at his enemies, real or imagined.
He called for unity on a number of issues at a time when we have become as politically polarized as we’ve been since just prior to World War II and during the Vietnam War.
But by belaboring this issue with the media and so-called “fake news,” Trump is just pandering to the basest elements of his base.
There is no such thing as fake news. There is either news or incorrect information. The term “fake news” is oxymoronic.
Trump does not need to play footsie with the media, as did Bill Clinton and Barack Obama; he just needs to accept the fact that the media are going to continue to excoriate him because he has made enemies of some of the most powerful members of that relatively elite group.
Trump and his staff would do well to look back at the presidency of Harry S. Truman and take some lessons from how he handled a hostile media. The media were constantly sniping at Truman over national security, charges of corruption and communism in his administration and his handling of the Korean War. They also gleefully predicted his loss to Thomas Dewey in the 1948 presidential election.
They were wrong in 1948 just as they were wrong in 2016.
On at least one occasion Truman even called out a reporter he disliked. When Truman read a review in the Washington Post that panned the singing of his daughter, Margaret, the president wrote to the music critic who penned the article, calling him “an eight ulcer man working on four ulcer pay ... Someday I hope to meet you. When that happens, you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes and perhaps a supporter below!”
Despite the constant media criticism, Truman pressed on and largely ignored his many critics, determined to do what was best for the post World War II nation.
Trump would be well served to follow Truman’s example because as Mark Twain once wrote, “Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.”
That holds true today to some degree, but you can add to it, “Never pick a fight with people who have unlimited air time and unlimited space on the Internet.”
As Trump grows into the office — and I am hoping he does for the sake of the nation — he would render his critics relatively impotent if he avoided the social media sewers that are Twitter and, to a lesser degree, Facebook.
Meanwhile, the media are as complicit in this little feud as is the president. Their howls of outrage over Trump’s criticism of the media sound a great deal like Shakespeare’s admonition in Hamlet that they “doth protest too much.”
Methinks that when there is as much pushback from the media as there has been on this there is a certain amount of guilty conscience involved.
The media considered Trump an amusing curiosity as a business executive and reality TV star. As a candidate, they saw him as a joke but they felt they had to devote an inordinate amount of ink and air time to his campaign because it looked like a slow-motion train wreck that did not have the slightest chance of succeeding.
Trump’s frequently outrageous statements had to be reported because that is what the media do; they run to and avidly — if not breathlessly — report on what they believe to be disasters in the making.
But the media through their unlimited campaign coverage of Trump boosted his image in the eyes of disenchanted and disenfranchised middle America and left the Democrats struggling to find some relevance in an election in which the voters wanted something new and different, not the same old, same old.
One of the basic tenets of journalism is that the reporter, or the news organization, should not make itself the subject of any story except under certain circumstances. Yet, because of Trump’s continued criticisms, that is what the media have done; they have made themselves the focus of the story and have tried with little success to defend themselves in the public’s eye.
The media in this country have a problem and it is one of their own making; they have lost the trust of much of the public.
A Gallup poll last September showed that only 32 percent of Americans has a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in the media. That is down 8 percentage points from 2015 and is the lowest since the poll started in 1972.
So why is that?
Part of it is the Republican hammering on the media in those years when Democrats were in power. Part of it is the rise of the Internet and alternate news sources that reinforce already held views about the media.
But there are other reasons that became quite apparent to me during the 40 years I spent working as a reporter and editor for a series of newspapers in Florida and Georgia. Many in the media, particularly those who write about politics, tend to have an overinflated view of themselves as champions of the public good when, in fact, many media types in Washington and New York and other major cities have little regard for the average voter.
They consider those voters clueless bumpkins. That was quite evident in November when the media demonstrated how out of touch they are with the voting public.
There also is a sense of moral superiority among many members of the media. They believe they know what is right for you and the rest of the world and if you don’t agree with them you are dumber than a bag of ball-peen hammers. Just look at the language they use to describe those who voted for Trump: racists, deplorables, losers, uneducated, homophobic, sexists, alt-right, etc., etc., etc.
I am hoping Trump will start to moderate his tone about the media and become more presidential. I also am hoping the media will do a bit more introspection about why they are failing to reach the voting public and get back to a more diplomatic adversarial relationship with the White House.
If Trump and the media continue with this nonsense they both run the risk of their feud becoming an irrelevant bore not worth anyone’s time or attention all the while distracting from more pressing international and domestic issues that face us.
Ron Martz is Marine Corps veteran (1965-68), journalist and former educator. He lives in Northeast Georgia. His columns appear monthly.