It’s easy to tell what really bugs thin-skinned Donald Trump: he tweets about it regularly. His most-loathed media outlets seem to be CNN, The New York Times and Saturday Night Live. SNL is an odd choice for his ire since his hosting of the show in 2015, when he was a candidate for president, arguably played a part in the normalization of this wholly unqualified, unethical and erratic “leader.”
I’ll agree with Trump about one thing regarding SNL. Generally, I don’t find it very funny. It’s had its moments over its long history, but the show’s enduring popularity is kind of a mystery to me and its political satire component seems pretty tame these days. But Trump’s Twitter responses about what he sees as the show’s unfair treatment of him have made me a sideline fan – happy to see Alec Baldwin reviving his impersonation because I know it drives the loose cannon in the White House crazy.
Trump’s war with SNL got heated when he was still President-elect, resulting in some entertaining back-and-forths with Baldwin, such as this one:
Trump’s notion that political satire should somehow be unbiased says much about his intellect and understanding of comedy, but in December of last year his targeting of the show took a darker turn. Here, in his usual grammatically challenged fashion, he suggested potential legal action for a sketch he found unflattering.
The most-recent SNL broadcast (Feb. 16) had Trump glued to his set again and the sketch parodying his embarrassing announcement of the “national emergency” to divert funds to his beloved border wall clearly had him hitting the ceiling. This time, he wasn’t merely calling for “equal time,” but “retribution.”
He followed that up with this all-caps, enraged tweet:
This “enemy of the people” rallying cry has been a constant for Trump and exposes his dream to forge authoritarian rule. More troubling than Trump’s intense focus on how a comedy show portrays him is his larger messaging on “the media,” as if it was one single entity, not a complex group of vastly different enterprises of many different sizes, scopes and strategies. With more than four decades of significant media consolidation behind us, the limiting of different voices and content remains a great concern, but despite the non-stop propaganda about a “liberal media,” that consolidation has largely benefited more conservative corporate entities.
The internet revolution has been both a blessing and a curse as a response to that consolidation. It has allowed anyone to instantly become a media source, but with virtually no checks and balances, fake news and trolling often overwhelm real journalism and solid opinion pieces. And with a mind-boggling amount of content creation (90% of data in the history of the world was generated in the last two years), visibility in an infinite content universe is obviously a huge hurdle. As always, big money tends to be the easiest route over that hurdle.
In an endless sea of information, simple short messages also stand out. And easy answers are always appealing, no matter how badly they stand up to scrutiny. So Trump’s embracing of long-standing right-wing branding of “the media” as something not to be trusted is crude but effective. Too many Americans who have the gall to call themselves patriotic embrace this rhetoric or worse. Whether it’s the Rope. Tree. Journalist. t-shirt or Montana voters electing a Congressman who assaulted a reporter, it is frighteningly clear that these anti-media messages are not to be taken lightly. (Trump vocally supported violence against reporters at a Montana rally.) These are dangerous times.
It would be nice to think we can talk the large Trump Cult down from “Enemy of the People” thinking by pointing out that Trump actually loves the media – his media, which arguably has a wider reach than any other when you take these entities into account:
- News Corp/21st Century Fox – The news/information component of Rupert Murdoch’s massive media empire includes Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones and Company, The New York Post, dozens of TV stations, and more.
- Sinclair Broadcast Group – Owner of the largest number of TV stations in the nation.
- Salem Media Group – The nation’s fifth-largest radio chain and a multi-platform power, publishing Christian conservative magazines and popular right-wing websites such as Townhall.com and RedState.
Beyond these big conglomerates, there are countless owners of a handful of media sources that lean right. And now, we also have the fringe elements that Trump has empowered as acceptable in the mainstream, notably Breitbart.com and the insanity of Alex Jones.
Yes, it would be nice to think all this would make MAGA-types reconsider who the real enemy is, but media literacy is in such crisis that a politician can succeed with these dumbed-down terms. I think we have to hit Trump supporters where they are most sensitive: their patriotism.
The freedoms they claim to cherish rely less on the armies that protect us than on the information we receive. While “unbiased” may be an ideal, the test of good journalism is not its bias, but its accuracy. Yes, CNN and The New York Times have had their grievous errors and even their scandals, but weigh that against the real news stories they have broken (particularly The Times) over their histories. See how that journalism stacks up against Breitbart.com or school-shooting denier Alex Jones.
If you truly believe in the conservative value of distrusting government institutions (one a lot of liberals share, by the way), then why back a man whose entire political and business career is tied to people who helped shape these institutions to their current state? (His donations to the Clintons and other Democrats included.)
More vitally, how can anyone defend Trump’s attacks on “fake news” when his stunning amount of provable lies is on the record? Our financially struggling state of journalism is certainly far from perfect, but an open press, challenging state officials, is essential in protecting the delicate balance of democracy.
Letting your president label this institution, however flawed, as “the enemy of the people” is a far worse affront to the American ideal than burning a flag or taking a knee during the National Anthem – acts of protest that embody the free speech that flag should, in part, symbolize.
So when your president seeks “retribution” against a comedy show for making him unhappy, recognize this as the petulant, un-American whine that it is. We don’t threaten reporters or try to intimidate entertainers in the United States, right? That’s what they do in countries like Russia.
Richard Davis left a smart, challenging reply in the comments below. My decision to delete my Facebook account makes it impossible for me to reply directly in the FB Plugin-driven comments section, so I am doing it here:
Richard, you are absolutely right about the Justice Department's investigations of journalists taking a very troubling turn in a handful of cases during the Obama presidency. (The administration's prosecution of whistleblowers talking to journalists was more rampant and disturbing.) No one should hold that administration up as a gold standard. That said, the deserving criticism given for those actions resulted in revised DOJ media guidelines in 2013 that were at least a step toward reform, if not an apology. The vital difference here is that President Obama never encouraged distrust of journalists by the public and certainly never encouraged violence against them. That difference is massive. Trump’s rhetoric is focused on forging a societal shift in how the public is supposed to view the press…as an enemy. This is something new and ugly in presidential messaging; even Nixon didn’t actively encourage violence against reporters. The Obama administration should be called to task for their actions, but we are in a new, far uglier game now with far more damaging implications for our freedoms.