Trump has al­ready de­feated the news me­dia

The Myanmar Times - - News - PAUL WALD­MAN news­room@mm­times.com

DON­ALD Trump is ei­ther a mad ge­nius who has cracked the me­dia code in a way no politi­cian be­fore him was able to do, or he’s a kind of po­lit­i­cal Mr. Ma­goo, stum­bling ran­domly about yet achiev­ing one suc­cess af­ter another. We may never know which it is.

But if we’re go­ing to main­tain our democ­racy, we have to fig­ure out how to deal with the way Trump suc­cess­fully ma­nip­u­lates the me­dia.

Per­haps, as some have sug­gested, Trump tweeted his ridicu­lous lie about mil­lions of fraud­u­lent votes on Novem­ber in or­der to dis­tract peo­ple from this lengthy in­ves­ti­ga­tion in The New York Times of the over­seas part­ner­ships that present un­prece­dented con­flict of in­ter­est prob­lems for his for­eign pol­icy. But even if that wasn’t his in­tent, it’s what hap­pened – and he ac­com­plished some other things as well.

The first thing it does when Trump kicks off a frenzy like this one is thrill his sup­port­ers (and I’ll ad­mit that I was among those who said that just play­ing to his base wouldn’t be enough to win him the elec­tion). Here’s how the cy­cle works. First, Trump says some­thing out­ra­geously false, but which his sup­port­ers ei­ther be­lieve al­ready or would like to be­lieve. Then Trump gets crit­i­cised in the me­dia for it, and his sup­port­ers say, “There they go again, the lib­eral anti-Trump me­dia.” In­stead of con­vinc­ing ev­ery­one that the claim was false, the crit­i­cism only re­in­forces for Trump’s fans the idea that noth­ing the me­dia says can be be­lieved, which fur­ther un­der­mines their abil­ity to act as neu­tral ar­biters in any de­bate.

The more out­ra­geous his claim, the more cov­er­age it gets. At first, a dis­turb­ing amount of that cov­er­age just passes along what Trump is say­ing, par­tic­u­larly in head­lines and brief men­tions on tele­vi­sion, which of­ten take the form of “Trump says world is flat.” Then the news me­dia find their foot­ing a bit and be­gin ex­plic­itly call­ing him out for the false­hood. But the more it ends up look­ing like an ar­gu­ment be­tween Trump and the me­dia, the more that even Repub­li­cans who are skep­ti­cal of Trump will get pulled to his side, be­cause they’ve long been in­vested in the idea that the me­dia are hope­lessly in­fected with lib­eral bias.

The en­tire se­quence of events en­ables Trump to cre­ate a metames­sage, which is that there’s no such thing as truth and no such thing as gen­uine au­thor­ity. Think about it: the pres­i­dent-elect is claim­ing that an elec­tion that he won was be­set by fraud, be­cause he heard it from a lu­natic ra­dio host who thinks that the Sandy Hook mas­sacre was staged us­ing child ac­tors and the 9/11 at­tacks were car­ried out by the U.S. gov­ern­ment. At the same time, the con­spir­acy-the­o­rist-in-chief is turn­ing away the in­tel­li­gence briefers who are pre­pared to de­liver him daily up­dates on the world’s hotspots and po­ten­tial dan­gers to the United States – what one might call the ac­tual con­spir­a­cies we have to be wor­ried about.

Trump has re­vealed that the en­tire jour­nal­is­tic sys­tem is based on the as­sump­tion that po­lit­i­cal ac­tors will stay within cer­tain pa­ram­e­ters of truth and san­ity. Some are more dis­hon­est than oth­ers, but there’s a limit. “The Pres­i­dent said this to­day” cov­er­age can be prob­lem­atic, but much of the time it’s per­fectly rea­son­able, since he’s the most im­por­tant per­son in the po­lit­i­cal world and his words and be­liefs have a pro­found ef­fect on what hap­pens not just here but around the globe.

Trump re­alises that when you step out­side those lim­its, you can ma­nip­u­late the me­dia at will be­cause their nor­mal ways of do­ing things are in­ad­e­quate to the task. You can take any idea, no mat­ter how pre­pos­ter­ous, and make half the coun­try be­lieve it. And when jour­nal­ists push back, it’ll only make your sup­port­ers more firm in their loy­alty.

This is part of a broader as­sault Trump is mount­ing on al­most ev­ery in­sti­tu­tion of pub­lic life in Amer­ica – the gov­ern­ment, the me­dia, the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem, even democ­racy it­self. He’s been do­ing it from the be­gin­ning, not only spread­ing lies in a vol­ume that had never been seen be­fore, but con­tin­u­ally ar­gu­ing that es­tab­lished au­thor­ity couldn’t be trusted. Un­em­ploy­ment fig­ures? A fic­tion. The jus­tice sys­tem? Bo­gus. The elec­tion? Rigged. In the con­fu­sion and root­less­ness that re­mains, the only choice is to turn things over to a strong­man who will gov­ern by his whims.

Be­fore long, we’re go­ing to have an ex­tended de­bate on a se­ri­ous pol­icy is­sue, like the Repub­li­cans’ plan to cut taxes for the wealthy or pri­va­tise Medi­care. When we do, there’s lit­tle doubt that Trump will throw up a cloud of false­hoods around it - and Repub­li­cans will re­in­force them all. As po­lit­i­cal the­o­rist Ja­cob Levy pointed out , trans­mit­ting ob­vi­ous lies shows Trump who is truly loyal by forc­ing his sub­or­di­nates and al­lies to pub­licly pro­claim that two plus two equals five. And once they do, they’re com­plicit in his lies and thus even more de­pen­dent on him.

The ques­tion isn’t whether the news me­dia will be able to cut through to the truth – that’s the easy part – it’s whether any­one will lis­ten when they do. So when Trump makes his next lu­di­crous claim, what are the op­tions?

First, they could just re­port the whole dis­agree­ment as a he said/she said, which hap­pens far too of­ten and is ob­vi­ously un­ac­cept­able. Sec­ond, they could do what many news out­lets are do­ing now, which is to make the story, “Trump said this false thing.” That’s more ac­cu­rate, but it can in­ad­ver­tently spread the lie.

If we take as a given that jour­nal­ists have to re­fute the pres­i­dent’s false­hoods, there’s one more judg­ment they can make, which is the choice for how much play they’re go­ing to give the story. There’s no law say­ing that ev­ery tweet Don­ald Trump sends has to re­sult in scream­ing head­lines and lead that night’s news broad­cast. “Trump makes false claim” can be a short item on page A14.

You can ar­gue that the fact that the pres­i­dent-elect is call­ing into ques­tion the re­sults of the elec­tion based on an in­sane con­spir­acy the­ory is, ob­jec­tively speak­ing, big news, and there­fore it must be covered as such. Per­haps. But that means that Trump is once again get­ting his way with the me­dia. I wish I had a bet­ter an­swer for what could be done about it.

– The Wash­ing­ton Post Paul Wald­man is a con­trib­u­tor to The Plum Line blog, and a se­nior writer at

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