By William H. Freivogel
No president has created more media. No president is such a creation of media. No president has expressed such disdain for mainstream media. No president has so frequently denied facts. No president has lied so frequently. No president has so readily embraced hoaxes and conspiracy theories. No president moved so swiftly to discredit the press and undermine it as a check on his power.
Yet, as Trump’s one-year presidential anniversary approaches, the power of the press is largely undiminished. Arguably it’s strengthened as the New York Times and Washington Post resurrected a golden age of reporting by disclosing Trump’s misdeeds. Poynter concluded recently that despite the “unprecedented attacks on the press from the highest office in the land,” the public’s confidence in the media has edged up to the highest point since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Meanwhile, Trump has diminished his own office with his crude, insulting tweets and abandonment of American values of human rights, equality, decency and dignity. And Trump is already subject to a special-counsel investigation that could find he committed the impeachable offense of obstructing justice.
Until recently, Trump’s lawyers emphasized there is no evidence of obstruction of justice. Now, as evidence of obstruction mounts, they have retreated to the untenable legal argument that the president can’t obstruct justice because he is the chief law enforcement officer.
In other words, they are arguing the president is above the law, even though our system of government is built on the premise that no one is above the law.
It’s a reminder of the famous statement by an unrepentant Richard Nixon in his interview with David Frost in 1977 – “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.”
Media made Trump president
Trump would not be president but for the media. Page-six stories in the New York Post and NBC’s “reality” TV show “The Apprentice” set the stage. An estimated $5 billion in free media in the year leading up to his election far exceeded that of his opponents.
And then there’s the fake social media that boosted his election.
One year ago, the first indications emerged that Russians had used fake social media — enhanced by non-human bots designed to promote tweets — to troll American voters with fictitious stories designed to divide us against one another. It was apparently part of the Russian effort — disclosed to Donald Trump Jr. before the Trump Tower meeting in the summer of 2016 — to swing the election in Trump’s favor.
“I love it,” Trump Jr. said at the time. He should have been picking up the phone to report the Russian plot rather than asking for dirt on Clinton.
The fake news before the election claimed the pope endorsed Trump, Clinton sold weapons to ISIS and that an FBI agent investigating Clinton’s emails had been found dead. More than 1 million tweets about “pizzagate” claimed Clinton was involved in a child sex ring operating out of the basement of a popular Washington, D.C., pizza shop called Comet Ping Pong.
The press began calling the clandestine media campaign by the Russians “fake news.” But in a nano-second, the tweeter-in-chief expropriated the term, turned it upside down and began to use it against responsible, fact-based media. Suddenly it was the Russia story that was “fake news” — not the truly fake stories the Russians had created.
All American intelligence officials believed the Russians had tried to help Trump get elected. Only their commander-in-chief did not.
Mark Zuckerberg initially dismissed the notion that fake Facebook posts had influenced the election, calling it “crazy.” But he had to eat his words this fall when it was discovered 126 million Facebook users may have seen content produced by Russian operatives and augmented by 36,000 bots.
Scorecard: Trump vs. Mainstream Media
It is true that the mainstream media made mistakes. ABC recently suspended Brian Ross for claiming Michael Flynn contacted the Russians before the election, when it was after. CNN published a poorly sourced story and had to withdraw it and fired its reporters. MSNBC and CNN slanted left as Fox slanted right.
But compare the mainstream media’s record of truth-telling to Trump’s. The Washington Post tallied more than 1,600 lies or misleading statement in his first 300 days.
The whoppers have become familiar: fraudulent votes from illegal immigrants caused him to lose the popular vote by 3 million; President Obama tapped Trump Tower; Hillary Clinton lied to the FBI; James Comey left the FBI in “tatters” and demoralized agents; the Trump family will be hurt by a tax cut actually estimated to put tens of millions in his family’s pockets; he would drain the swamp, even as he hired millionaires and billionaires from Wall Street; he accomplished more than any other president since Lincoln, even if first big legislative victory didn’t occur until December.
And then there were the two recent stunners that caused critics to wonder if Trump had lost touch with reality. Trump no longer thinks it was his voice on the Access Hollywood tape bragging about crudely assaulting women. And he’s gone back to his original sin, questioning whether Obama was born in the United States.
A consistent theme runs through all the tweets about Obama, NFL players taking a knee, illegal immigrants committing crimes, Muslim terrorists and the Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville. The theme: racism.
It is unsurprising that Trump decided to give Roy Moore a “go get ‘em” after Moore spent weeks stonewalling the credible allegations of women who said Moore fondled or assaulted them when they were underage. Unsurprising because Trump himself has stonewalled a dozen credible charges that he assaulted women in much the way he bragged he had in the Access Hollywood tape.
In the end, one has to wonder if Trump knows the difference between truth and what he believes to be true — between objective facts and what he would like to be facts. The man is at war with the truth.
The Greek chorus
The president’s extraordinary record of lying is abetted by the prosperous industry of right-wing media outlets that traffic in conspiracy theories and Trump propaganda — Breitbart, Drudge, Hannity and the like.
St. Louis has its own minor league of truth deniers. Sinclair Broadcasting replaced traditional local news with Jamie Allman on KDNL Channel 30. Allman broadcasts conservative conspiracy theories including those pushed by another local source of unreliable news, the Gateway Pundit. The Pundit is Jim Hoft, founder of the Tea Party in St. Louis. Trump likes him so much the White House gave him a press pass.
Allman and Hoft joined Hannity and Breitbart chasing the conspiracy theory that the murder of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich was connected to the Clinton campaign. As the theory goes, the Clinton campaign killed Rich who was about to disclose DNC emails to Julian Assange of WikiLeaks.
The purpose of the conspiracy theory is to show it was actually a Democratic whistleblower who turned over the damaging emails to WikiLeaks. Therefore, the Russians didn’t hack the emails and there is no Russian connection to Trump.
Except there is no proof of the theory and it runs headlong into unanimous U.S. intelligence conclusion of Russian hacking to aid Trump in the election.
Yet in the alternative universe of the right-wing media, the Gateway Pundit is a paragon of journalism. In 2015 Hoft received the Breitbart Award for Excellence.
Allman illustrates a danger Trump poses to an independent press — the possibility the Trump administration will take actions to strengthen Trump-friendly media and hurt media deemed unfriendly.
Already the Trump FCC has changed the decades-old cross-ownership rules to make it easier for companies such as right-leaning Sinclair to purchase of the Tribune TV stations. That would allow Sinclair to reach 72 percent of U.S. households. It could potentially own three TV stations in St. Louis — KDNL 30, KTVI 2 and KPLR 11.
Meanwhile, the administration has announced it will challenge the AT&T purchase of Time-Warner, which owns Trump nemesis, CNN.
The FCC also is planning to end net neutrality, the Obama-era policy requiring Internet service providers, such as cable companies and wireless firms, to treat all Internet traffic equally.
There are bright spots on the national media horizon in the Age of Trump. One is the News Guard project headed by Steven Brill of Court TV. Brill is looking to hire journalists to help separate reliable from unreliable news sites. It’s a daunting job in an Internet landscape where experts say bots account for about half of the Internet traffic.
Another bright spot is the higher level of confidence in the media found in the new Poynter study. But the numbers behind that finding reveal it as a silver lining of a black cloud. The higher level of confidence results from a big rise in confidence among Democrats. Republicans’ confidence has dipped sharply. Among the most politically educated Democrats, confidence has risen especially sharply and among the most politically educated Republicans dipped sharply.
As the first year of the Trump presidency ends, there is a Greek chorus of Trump diehards ready to accept Trump’s fake news claims and even to back government censorship of news, Poynter finds. These diehards are delighted and amused by the bad boy in the White House every time he tweaks the nose of pointy-headed intellectuals.
But Robert Mueller doesn’t look amused. And 37 percent of Americans won’t win an election.