Donald Trump says he has a “running war with the media,” but as with so many statements made by this combustible, fragile man-child who has inexplicably ascended to the nation’s highest office, it’s a lie. His war is only with media that dares to challenge him.
It’s a tyrant’s strategy and those who buy into it are willing suckers in a most dangerous con game.
Of all the reckless actions and statements made by Trump, both during the 2016 campaign and his deeply troubling early days as President, this demonizing of journalists is the most chilling because its aim is so transparent and undemocratic: to silence anyone who questions him.
Why has such an obviously oppressive tactic been accepted by so many Americans? Well, Trump benefits from a longstanding effort by right-leaning corporate and political forces to turn middle America against press outlets that don’t suit their purposes. The escalated deregulation and consolidation of media over the last 30-plus years has resulted in these forces controlling much of the “mainstream media” landscape while claiming to stand outside of it.
It is has been a brilliantly cynical and destructive masquerade.
“Mainstream media” now means “liberally biased” to those who believe that Limbaugh and the army of like-minded talk radio shows, Hannity and the Fox News pundits, and propaganda outlets like Breitbart.com are alternative voices, instead of the influential, well funded, and yes, very mainstream operations they really are.
The media, of course, is an immense array of information and opinions, but by defining “the media” as “them” in his “us vs. them” scenario, Trump seeks to delegitimize dissenting voices. His juvenile hyperbole (calling journalists “among the most dishonest human beings on Earth”) appeals to those who want easy answers spoon-fed to them instead of doing their civic homework.
That is not to say there haven’t been far too many instances of bad, sloppy journalism—a condition that’s worsened in a splintered media landscape with limited resources for tough, investigative reporting. But when a sitting president can get away with granting inflammatory former Breitbart operative Steve Bannon a seat of power while calling CNN “fake news,” we have entered a very dark era indeed.
The late alt-right hero Andrew Breitbart himself called his ally Bannon, “the Leni Riefenstahl of the Tea Party movement.” For those who don’t know, Riefenstahl was a brilliant filmmaker who made propaganda films for Nazi Germany. Bannon is pushing the all-consuming “media” label into more venomous language as his position as Trump’s Minister of Propaganda broadens. He made headlines recently calling for the media to “keep its mouth shut” and labeling it “the opposition party.” With advisor Kellyanne Conway championing “alternative facts,” the administration crossed over into Orwellian territory.
My hope is that it is not too late for Trump’s defenders to have their eyes opened and realize they’ve been used by the very forces they think they are rebelling against—rich and powerful insiders only looking to consolidate their power.
This isn’t about left-versus-right politics anymore. This is something else…something clearly deviating from our nation’s stated principles. And if it isn’t stopped very soon, America’s reputation as the “leader of the free world” may soon be missing the adjective in that phrase.
I’m a film critic, not a statesman or news reporter. So I turn to the cinema as an attempted wake-up call, with the following selection of movies Trump defenders need to see for a better understanding of media, manipulation and megalomania.
All the President’s Men (1976) – The exposé of the Watergate scandal is one of the most important demonstrations of journalism speaking truth to power. This procedural drama, detailing The Washington Post’s investigation into the criminal political activity of the Nixon administration, seems more relevant than ever considering how illegally obtained information impacted the 2016 election.
A Face in the Crowd (1957) – In Elia Kazan’s now frighteningly prescient look at the dangers of so-called populism, Andy Griffith plays a fiery entertainer celebrated as the “voice of grassroots wisdom.” His ability to manipulate the public makes him a political force and a terribly dangerous man. Sound familiar?
Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) – One of the proudest moments in television journalism came early in its existence, when CBS’ Edward R. Murrow stood up to the vile, witch-hunting methods of Senator Joseph McCarthy on the air. George Clooney’s film recreates the events surrounding that historic moment. The story reminds us that advocacy and reporting are not in conflict, as long as the advocacy is driven by facts (not alternative ones). As Murrow notes in the scene above, there are not always “two equal and logical sides” to every argument. While it has been good to see NBC’s Chuck Todd and others stand up to Team Trump bullying, we have yet to have the essential “Murrow moment” from a modern press corps too worried about accusations of bias from the powers that be.
The Insider (1999) – Trump’s campaign to denigrate journalism isn’t just about protecting his governing power, but also distracting people from his already checkered business career (Trump University, multiple charges of not paying contractors, racial discrimination in his rental properties). Big business, even more than government, has tried to silence reporters and their sources for exposing their misdeeds. Michael Mann’s riveting drama about tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) and the 60 Minutes producer (Al Pacino) who fought to air his story also serves as a grim reminder that the corporate overlords of news organizations are often the first to cave to pressure.
Medium Cool (1969) – Haskell Wexler’s docudrama merges real footage of the protests and violence by police and demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago with a loose narrative about a news cameraman trying to remain emotionally removed from the tumult around him. This is an important time capsule of an era when the country almost seemed ready to split in two again, and it may be just a small hint of what is to come in the Trump years if the Commander in Chief continues his style of throwing gasoline on every fire in sight.
Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism (2004) – While a little ham-fisted in execution, this documentary is still a vital record of how the Fox News Channel was established by Rupert Murdoch and Republican strategist Roger Ailes as a conservative political messaging arm – not an enterprise for journalism. The acceptance of Fox as a legitimate news source is arguably where our “post-truth” political climate was first normalized.
Rebranding White Nationalism: Inside Richard Spencer’s Alt-Right (2016) – This documentary short produced by The Atlantic can be seen in its entirety above. It must be seen by those too quick to dismiss charges of racism against the Trump administration. Yes, Trump did finally disavow white nationalism after footage of Spencer leading his followers in cheers of “Hail Trump! Hail our people!” emerged, but when Bannon was still heading Breitbart.com, the site ran an article that seemed fairly friendly to alt-right extremists and even included a mention of Spencer as an “intellectual” of the movement. To understand Bannon’s idea of acceptable media, the kind of ugly following Brietbart.com attracted under his leadership has to be taken into account.
Sweet Smell of Success (1957) – The combustible mixture of arrogance, pettiness, cruelty and corruption seen in the guise of influential columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) now also functions as a master class in Trump/Bannon tactics. And the willingness of Tony Curtis’ desperate PR agent to sell his soul to curry Hunsecker’s favor mirrors the amoral reversal of many traditional Republicans who, after first properly decrying Trump’s methods, later embraced him to consolidate their party’s control.