News Editor Tom Leaman discusses whether President Trump’s continued attacks on the media threaten the accuracy and freedom of the global press.
Hostility towards the media from President Donald Trump, despite defying the very ideals of western and American culture, is threatening the accessibility of accurate and fair journalism in US and international politics. This is beginning to undermine a right no individual, not even the president, has the right to remove. Not only this, but Trump's attacks on the media threaten his own so-called 'freedom from the press', as he openly debates and shares the opinions of journalists and newspapers to his 53 million-strong Twitter following. This is surely only providing exposure to the supposedly 'failing' outlets such as the New York Times and the Washington Post (with Forbes reporting increased success for both since President Trump's election).
While his developing 'fake news' catchphrase may seem harmless, Trump's incessant criticisms of the press may go on to influence the accuracy of reporting on a global scale. As the president's audience becomes more supportive of his campaigns, it is likely that they will refuse to acknowledge genuine outlets, such as the New York Times or the Washington Post. One of the more worrying aspects of Trump's UK visit was the introduction of his 'fake news' labelling to these shores for the first time, as he claimed the Sun were 'fake' for publishing his criticisms of Theresa May’s Brexit policy.
It is exceedingly rare for the Sun to hold the moral high ground in a controversial issue regarding something they have published, but on this occasion, they are in the right regarding their controversial interview with Trump. Following criticisms of them, the Sun used its own favourite phrase against him in response to his comment about them. An accurate and free press is something that many take for granted, and Trump's blatant lies when it comes to his own words has created surprisingly few shockwaves. There was a media response of course, with various groups from within the media criticising Trump's 'easily debunked lies'.
But the very idea that an individual of such power is so obviously lying to an international audience deserved to have generated further outrage, particularly from the prime minister, who seemed to defend Trump, allegedly saying to him ‘don’t worry, it’s only the press’. The distinction between the media cult that Trump is attempting to create for himself and the accurate reporting of real-world events can only be damaging for those who attempt write and publish authentic journalism, who may begin to fear being publicly called-out by the leader of the free world. He could also potentially be encouraging other world leaders or influential people act with similar disregard for accurate reporting, escalating the issue further.
Such an indifferent response to attacks on the media from the government reflects on how understated an issue Trump's media attacks seem to be. The refusal of Trump in the UK to take a question from 'fake news' outlet CNN could develop into the decline of accurate news journalism in the United States. As Trump clearly favours some news reporters (such as Fox News) over others, they may begin to tailor their journalism in his favour to maintain their readership from his supporters, which would only have a negative influence on the accuracy of media reporting.
In Trump's suggestion on Twitter that 91% of news reporting against him is negative (and, in his eyes, fake), he seems to be attempting to twist everything the press report in his favour through sheer repetition of the same ideas. This has been compared to in the way a fanatical cult leader might use the same tactics to reinforce ideals in their followers to gain their absolute devotion and to dispel the ideas promoted by others. However, no individual can be bigger than mass media. This has been shown by his approval rating of only 41.2% (as of 30th July), demonstrating that blaming the media for any negative representation of his administration has not been the tremendous success with the American people he would have hoped it would be. There is, therefore, a glimmer of hope for those who are concerned about the potential effects of Trump's treatment of the press – the majority who disapprove of Trump represent a group in American society who will not allow Trump's manipulation of the press to be effective.
This is not to say that more should not be done to attempt to deter Trump from his shameless attacks on the press. Why Trump's advisors do not take more caution over how he addresses such issues both through his controversial use of social media and in press conferences I have no idea. Though, attempting to censor the President of the United States is probably easier said than done. From the perspective of the media, merely not being intimidated by the attacks on them during the next two to six years of the Trump administration is the most significant thing they can do. Continuing to report on real-world events as they happen, despite Trump's falsifications, would instil the idea that an accurate press acting independently is possible and indeed encouraged. Despite Trump regularly labelling it as 'failing', the New York Times remains the biggest-circulating newspaper in the United States with 2.6 million digital subscriptions and revenue of over $1 billion in 2017. Many outlets- including the Times- experienced increased subscriptions after Trump's election despite his accusations against them.
Therefore, the anti-media policies Trump promotes cannot simply shut down those who report on the things he says and does wrong. So long as the public continue to access and appreciate fair and accurate news reporting, it is and will continue to be an integral part of everyday life. No one individual has the right to challenge its status without consequences. Not even the most powerful man on earth.