The Trump-media Duel: both Sides Seem to Benefit

London- The European media refer to it as “the latest American soap opera”. To the Russian media, however, it looks more like “a new American civil war.”

The “it” in question is the seemingly endless fight between the United States newly elected President Donald J Trump and a good chunk of the American mainstream media that he describes as purveyors of “fake news.”

That the mainstream media in America never liked Trump is no secret. When the real estate giant threw his hat into the ring to become the Republican Party’s presidential nominee almost two years ago, mainstream media (MSM) saw him as a buffoon who would only add color to the drag race without affecting the outcome.

The MSM expected a dynastic duel between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush. When Bush was knocked out of the race after just a few weeks, MSM believed that whoever the Republicans fielded as nominee would stand no chance against the Democrat juggernaut piloted by the invincible Hillary.

Even Fox News and the Wall Street Journal that have consistently supported the Republicans were reluctant to take Trump seriously, until the very last moments.

The belief that Trump was no more than a side-show turned out to serve his interests. He got almost wall-to-wall coverage by TV networks and newspapers that wouldn’t dream of him as President.

In other words the anti-Trump media unwittingly helped spread his message, enthuse his electoral base in swing states, and eventually send him to the White House on a wave of anti-establishment resentment. That resentment has enabled Trump to brand the media as “enemy of the people”.

According to the latest opinion polls a majority of American voters agree with Trump on that score. Moreover, according to the latest Suffolk University/USA Today poll, more than four in 10 agree with Trump that the media is biased against him. Another positive poll for Trump is that 52 percent said they believe the economy is in a state of recovery — up 9 points since December and 18 points since September. Further, 55 percent of those surveyed said the president has shown leadership in his first 40 days in office.

In other words, Trump is, once again, benefiting from real or imagined media hostility towards him. That hostility helped get him elected and is now helping hide the weaknesses of his administration.

Dominating the daily, even the hourly, news agenda, Trump’s duel with the media leaves little space for covering his policies, or lack of them, in any length. Desperate calls by Robert Reich, a former member of Bill Clinton’s Cabinet, that Democrats should engage Trump in “a substantive debate on issues” have fallen on deaf ears. Even Senator Bernie Sanders, who has his own fan base among the Democrats, has been unable to pull the debate towards the ideological battlefield.

The fog fomented by the “fake news” tussle hides the fact that 40 days after his inauguration, Trump has not bene able to chair a single full meeting of his Cabinet and that in many government departments key appointments keep being postponed week after week. At the current rate it might take Trump until next May to have a full working Cabinet capable of running an efficient government after massive purges of political adversaries.

But what if the “fake news” and “enemy of the people” posturing also serve the interests of the mainstream media or at least the segment that has always hated Trump?

The New York Times, one of the five biggest circulation dailies in the United States and a key target for Trumps invectives, reports an 8 percent rise in its overall audience, notably thanks to a sharp hike in the number of visitors to its website. Casting itself as the custodian of press freedom and the First Amendment to the US Constitution, that is to say “freedom of expression”, the paper singles out the social media as a potential danger to democracy itself.

In an interview, Matthew Hindman, a professor of media and public affairs in George Washington University, claims that Trump’s election has disrupted the democratic process. “If you took the label off, someone looking at the United States you would have to be worried about democratic failure or transitioning toward a hybrid regime.”

Such a regime, in his view, would keep the trappings of democracy, including seemingly free elections, while leaders would control the election process, the media and the scope of permissible debate. “What you get is a country that is de facto less free.”

The Times also ran an interview with Scott Goodstein who has managed websites supporting both former President Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders.

“The internet has been a great thing for getting additional layers of transparency. It was true for Donald Trump as it was for Bernie Sanders,” Goodstein says. “The internet ended smoke-filled back rooms, deal-cutting moved from back room to a true campaign, with a more general population. Maybe an unwashed population, but that’s the beauty of American politics with 350 million people.”

Nevertheless, Goodstein, perhaps like the mainstream media, believes that the internet is good when it serves the established narrative but dangerous when it provides a platform for “extremist views.”

Another media expert, Nathaniel Persily has even published an essay with the title “Can American Democracy Survive the Internet?”

All this means that the mainstream media, or “fake news” according to Trump, is weaving a new legitimacy as the custodian of freedoms against a new establishment represented by Trump and his team.

The New York Times isn’t alone in seeing its circulation numbers recover from years of decline. The Los Angeles Times, on the verge of closing down in 2015, is now gaining a fresh lease of life as an anti-Trump organ in a state that massively voted against him.

The Cable News Network (CNN) is another of Trump’s favorite targets in the “fake news” tussle. However it, too, seems to be benefiting from the controversy and has seen its audience grow faster than ever in the past decade.
So far, the Trump-media duel has been useful and profitable for both. The question is whether it will benefit or harm the “American democracy” that both sides claim to be fighting for.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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