Everyone who reads the news, or only the President’s twitter feed, knows that there is a major feud between the occupant of the Oval Office and the editors of every mainstream news organization in this country. In a tweet, President Trump even declared the press:
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 17, 2017
“Fake news,” of course, was originally the battle-cry of the mainstream media against alternative sites such as the pro-Trump Breitbart news, a weapon which Trump has now turned on its makers. But the mainstream media is not above the fray: major news outlets have consistently offered the reporting to support Hillary Clinton’s campaign strategy that Donald Trump is unfit for the presidency, even a month after his inauguration.
In a recent press conference (which the news media reported was 77 minutes long!) President Trump mentioned that he was enjoying the give and take with the news media, even as he expected them to publish that he was “ranting” (which the media duly characterized him as doing). It does not surprise me, given what we know of the president’s career and conversational style, that he enjoys some conflict and competion. And he probably knows that his public feud with the media is good for keeping his name on the front page: this is apparently no presidency to become “boring.” It probably even helps the mainstream media with page views, even as it panders to Trump’s political supporters (a smaller group than those who voted for him). So it’s a win-win situation, right?
The only problem is that it is bad for America as a whole.
The American form of government is ostensibly “of the people, by the people, for the people,” but in order for that to be anything other than a polite fiction (or Machiavellian agitprop), the government needs to be held accountable. Those who say “Trust me!” are almost always untrustworthy. But the people can only hold the government accountable if they know what is actually going on, and for that, they need good reporting. As Senator McCain remarked in a recent TV interview, and as President Thomas Jefferson insisted two centuries ago, American democracy requires a free and high-quality press (something Jefferson himself claimed not to have found!). Such a press can help to hold elected officials accountable, and a good American administration would cooperate with the press to preserve government accountability and transparency. This has been a feature of American government to a much greater degree than in most other governments (we have a Freedom of Information Act, for example), but it is a feature dependent upon the cooperation and integrity of both the elected government and the free press.
So when the president designates all mainstream media as “FAKE NEWS” or “the enemy of the American people,” and when the news media consistently and exclusively depicts the president as an unhinged nutcase and incompetent oaf, we Americans lose our ability to know what is really going on, and to hold our elected officials accountable.
Each side in this feud, of course, blames the other. The problem is that, as in most feuds, the fault lies on both sides.
Reporters laud themselves for their independence and neutrality, but they are not nearly as neutral as they believe. (Indeed, I was disgusted to see more than one journalist’s election post-mortem last November report that Trump won the election because the media were “too even-handed”!) While the mainstream media are not evidently “failing” (as the president alleges on Twitter), their fawning over the Clinton political campaign was only the most recent example of what many right-leaning Americans have long known: the mainstream media present a consistently skewed view of events. So when the current president complains that they present him in an exclusively negative light, I am forced to concede (though I am no fan of Donald Trump) that in this case he is telling the truth. The journalists respond by saying they have always criticized presidents (mostly true) and it is unrealistic and undemocratic to ask for an exclusively adulating media (I entirely agree). But they have not answered the charge. I must insist that it appears to me (again, as no fan of Donald Trump) that there is a difference in quality between their sharpest criticisms of Barack Obama and their thoroughgoing hatred of Donald Trump. If they maintain the appearance of objectivity, it is only because they are participating in norms of upper-class civil communication which the president is choosing not to observe. They are not serving their function as a check on American government because they have long abdicated the trust of large sectors of the American people, and they have lost that trust through consistently biased reportage, for which they can only blame themselves.
When it comes to President Trump’s fault in the current feud, I must be careful what I say, as the Lord commanded not to “curse the ruler of your people” (Exodus 22:28). Nevertheless, I think this is merely a factual statement: I have never seen a president (or any elected official) so consistently appeal to misleading and false assertions in defiance of all publicly available evidence, whether assertions about terrorist attacks that did not happen, the countries of origin of terrorist attackers, the size of a crowd, or the prevalence of fraudulent votes last November. No other president (or any elected official) in the last century or more has gone to such pains to attack the other institutions of government (a “so-called” judge?) or civil society (such as the news media). Donald Trump is used to being a CEO and his orders being the final word. CEOs do not need to consult with legislative bodies before making decisions, and they often try to make the court systems serve their business goals rather than check them. CEOs are accountable only to the board (if that), and only for the quarterly profits; whichever means they use to obtain those profits are their business, and their business secrets. Yet President Trump is no longer a CEO; he is now a public servant, at least in name, and presidents are accountable to the American people. The American public needs a chief executive who is accountable, clear, responsible, calm, and humble, who is not rattled by other people saying things about him that are not nice (though perhaps true).
So while I am unsurprised that Donald Trump enjoys his feud with the media, and the media no doubt appreciate the ratings boost given by the incessant outrage over the latest broadside in the fray, neither the President of the United States nor the purportedly “objective” media are doing their jobs. They are not keeping the trust of the American people. They are jointly undermining our democracy and our way of life. And, unless they repent of their present madness, they will have to answer to God, who judges all men justly and impartially.
“Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord,
But those who deal faithfully are His delight.” (Proverbs 12:22).