DEBATE: Is the media overreacting to President Trump’s attack on CNN?
Of course the media is overreacting to Donald Trump’s sledging of varied media outlets – they haven’t realised yet that they’re being played. The US, just like the UK, has a media structure which supports a certain set of policies and evinces a certain groupthink about what the permissible boundaries of policy are. There are, outside those chattering classes, rather a large number of people who think differently. Trump is using Twitter to signal to exactly those people, without going through the filter of the media. That he’s also slagging off the incumbents at the same time just adds to the power. I liken this to the terrible shock these same media people got a decade ago when comment sections appeared in the UK press. Writers were most affronted to find out that not everyone accepted their pearls of wisdom uncritically. Getting outraged about Trump’s insults isn’t just overreaction, it’s counterproductive. Creating outrage is much of the point in the first place.
Trump wants his supporters to view him as the sole source for the truth. In the tradition of ascendant authoritarians throughout history, he attacks the few systemic constraints on his personal power, including the news media. Trump has been consistent about little, but his attacks on the legitimacy and the freedom of the press have been constant. There is a reason for that. Trump’s attacks on journalism are meant to cause you to distrust any entity that reveals his corruption. When you do not know who to trust or what is fact and what is false, you become vulnerable. You begin to distrust yourself and your own judgment. When you distrust yourself, you become disempowered. And authoritarians want people disempowered. So while some might wish to minimise Trump’s rage-tweeting and verbal attacks against the press as impulsive outbursts or as distractions, know this: they are those things. But they are also much more. Trump’s attacks on journalism are an attempt to destroy the very foundation of democracy: the empowerment of the people.