Ever since Kellyanne Conway coined the phrase ‘alternative facts’ in a Meet the Press interview hosted by Chuck Todd, it has become clear that the Trump administration has a loose interpretation of what constitutes objective data or statistics. If a news outlet expresses a statement that is contrary to the Trump camp’s agenda, it is often met with overt hostility if not outright denial. Trump’s standard operating procedure against the media is evident at this point. If he regards a major network as tough on him, he labels it as a ‘failing’ news outlet (his name for The New York Times), ‘fake news’, or ‘very fake news’ (his new name for CNN). He then proceeds to talk about how these news outlets have a lower approval rating than him. This article will address two central questions: Is the Trump administration’s approach to confronting the media an anomaly, or are there other examples of presidents taking such an antagonistic tone towards the media? Furthermore, will Trump’s war on the media be effective, or will it inevitably backfire? To answer these questions, I will look at the Obama administration’s efforts of handling leaks, its main opposition outlet, Fox News, and the precedent these interactions set for Trump.
Under the Obama administration, the White House participated in one of the most aggressive campaigns against intelligence leaks in U.S. history. The Department of Justice investigated not only whistle-blowers, but also journalists such as Jim Risen of The New York Times. The Trump administration has the potential to continue this policy and engage in a full legal pursuit that could put journalists in jail for reporting on ‘fake news.’ Ironically, Trump could use the tools laid out by Obama’s precedent to engage in a concentrated ‘war on leaks.’
This is deeply relevant because Trump has been very critical of leaks reported by the media, particularly with regards to his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who was forced to resign less than a month into the presidency. He recently tweeted, ‘Classified information (being) illegally given out by ‘intelligence’ like candy. Very un-American!’ Despite how Trump is trying to imply that leaks are somehow ‘un-American,’ many analysts consider it a fact of life in Washington politics. Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, went as far as to categorise leaks into four distinct groupings in one of his books. Leaks are not necessarily a bad thing, as they result in increased government transparency and force administrations to take responsibility for illicit activity (as was the case with Nixon, for example). Trump seems willing to do almost anything to keep government dealings behind closed doors, at the expense of the mainstream American networks.
Not only did the Obama administration set an example for how to approach leaks, it also took a very antagonistic tone to the network Fox News. Obama’s approach was distinct from Trump’s ‘war on the media,’ as it was only targeted towards one news network rather than multiple sources. Additionally, the Obama administration never went as far to say that Fox was the ‘enemy of the American people.’ Still, there are some parallels between how the Obama administration treated Fox and how Trump regarded ‘fake news’ networks.
In October 2009, Obama’s cabinet felt as if it was under attack by the advocacy journalism of Fox that masked itself as ‘fair and balanced.’ This sentiment caused the top aides of the present to declare a supposed war on Fox News. On 18 October 2009, David Axelrod, a senior adviser to President Obama, said the White House would no longer treat Fox News like other news organisations. On that same day, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel claimed Fox was ‘not a news organisation so much as it has a perspective.’
What happened following the Obama administrations declaration to wage ‘war on Fox News’ was the last thing the White House expected. Rather than take the opportunity to condemn Fox, the network’s major competitors rallied to its side and undermined the Obama cabinet’s efforts. The competitors of Fox News, such as CNN and The New York Times, even refused to participate in a series of interviews with a White House official after Fox news was excluded. The result of this confrontation was the Obama administration backing down from its attack on Fox News, in an attempt to pursue a relationship of mutual understanding rather than overt hostility.
David Axelrod later spoke about how the Obama administration’s war against Fox News lacked efficacy, regardless if it was justified. He said ‘declaring a war on a network – or in Trump’s case, all but one – is not an effective tactic… most responsible journalists recognise the danger when one organisation, even Fox News, is out on a ‘list.’
Eight years later, the press is now dealing with the Trump administration. Recently Trump excluded a slew of prominent media outlets (most notably CNN, The New York Times, and Buzzfeed) from a White House press ‘gaggle’ lead by Sean Spicer. Conservative networks such as Breitbart News, Washington Times, and One America were invited to Spicer’s closed-door meetings.
The Associated Press and Time magazine chose to boycott Spicer’s gaggle last Friday, and Fox News’ anchors Bret Baier, Shepard Smith, and Chris Wallace voiced a sentiment of solidarity with the excluded networks. Baier in particular tweeted about how CNN and The New York Times stood up for Fox News when they were marginalised by the Obama administration, and its only right Fox should return the favour. However, not everyone on Fox News felt the same way. Bill O’Reilly argued while Obama’s attacks on Fox lacked a fair basis, Trump’s war on the media is more warranted. He claimed, ‘it’s harder to run the country because these dishonest people are undermining the whole process.’ Other members of the media also appear to be backing Trump’s position. The White House press corps now features pro-Trump blogs that seem perfectly happy to side against the press corps.
Former Senior Advisor to Obama, Daniel Pfeiffer, believes the situation has changed since the 2009 war on Fox. Back in 2009, networks operated under the same general framework that had existed for decades. But now, Trump can voice his unfiltered message through social media platforms such as Twitter or through friendly outlets such as Fox or Breitbart, effectively bypassing potentially critical mainstream media outlets.
Will Trump’s war against the press prove to be an effective strategy? Based on polls, it appears as if Trump’s approach to the media has been met with opposition. A poll from Quinnipiac University asked registered voters the question ‘who do you trust more to tell you the truth about important issues?’ Despite an apparent scepticism towards the news, 37 per cent of people picked the media while only 37 per cent picked President Trump. Fox News conducted a similar poll, and concluded that there was a rather even split; 45 per cent trusted Trump more, while 42 per cent picked reporters who provided coverage on the White House. At the very least, these two polls seem to indicate there are limitations to Trump’s strategies. The media is traditionally viewed as having a watchdog role over both political parties. Perhaps the moment Trump labelled the media as the ‘enemy of the American people’ will prove to be an enormous political blunder.