NORTH SALEM, N.Y.— It’s been an exciting time, the first full week of the Trump presidency. Never have we seen a president move with such speed to keep his campaign promises on such a full range of issues. The pace of activity with which President Trump is moving in his first days in office is unprecedented, a gallop rather than a stately, dignified pace that is slow as molasses and barely productive. That Trump is a workaholic who has two speeds – full steam ahead and off, and mostly the former -- keeps becoming more plain.
And the media is trying to keep pace with him. In their case, however, rather than being productive, it feels like they are emitting a new primal scream of rage and despair every day as their national nightmare takes shape. The harder and the louder they scream at every event, the more they will become irrelevant as people, inevitably, begin to tune them out. As John Podhoretz, writing in Commentary Magazine, said earlier this week, “If every word out of Donald Trump’s mouth is greeted with shrieks of horror and rage and anger and despair and hysteria by his opponents, they are going to find it impossible to serve as any kind of effective opposition to him.”
That last point is a crucial one to consider. Judging by the behavior that the national media is exhibiting, they do not have an effective strategy in place to deal with the Trump administration. And, further, they have little understanding of how to work with it to achieve a productive relationship. Instead of attempting to create one, I expect, in the short term (probably the long term as well) we will only see more of the same, rinse and repeat. The political media, by and large, are made up of Democrats, many of whom are activists, and they have long since given up any attempt at objectivity when it comes to their political interests.
As a case in point, late in the first week of Trump’s presidency, there is yet another story of outrage making headlines everywhere. Another day in the Trump administration, and the national press is once again blaring an incendiary headline at the top of its lungs.
So, what is this kerfuffle about? On Jan. 26, chief White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon gave an interview to Michael M. Grynbaum of the New York Times, titled, “Trump Strategist Stephen Bannon Says Media Should ‘Keep Its Mouth Shut.’” Instead of making nice, Bannon spoke in very blunt language, calling the media “the opposition party.” And then the kicker: “The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.” Bannon continued, telling Grynbaum, “They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States.” That last point rings entirely true to anyone who is watching the battle between Trump and the media from the sidelines. No one on the Republican side can forget that large percentages of the political media, as a group, went all in for Clinton, abandoning objectivity on Trump in a way they had never done heretofore. Yet, when Bannon labels them the “opposition party,” they only take umbrage.
Writing in USA Today, law professor Glenn Reynolds makes a salient point on what is going on in this argument between the two sides. “The first thing to understand is that one of the changes going on with Trump generally is the renegotiation of various post-World War II institutional arrangements. … For decades, the press got special status because it was seen as both powerful and institutionally responsible… Now those things have changed. If the press were powerful, it would have beaten Trump. If it were responsible, it wouldn’t be running away with fake news whenever it sees a chance to run something damaging to Trump.” Reynolds advises the press that if it wants to checkmate Trump, it should start employing neutral, non-partisan language and report soberly. At that point, Trump would not be able to use the press to create outrage. If only the press would or could understand this.
Last summer, Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, notoriously described the press the White House routinely deals with: “The average reporter we talk to is 27-years-old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.” He went on to explain that because of this, it was very easy to manipulate them into presenting the narrative the White House favored as “facts,” making their jobs much easier.
Given Ben Rhodes’ summation about the press as “know nothings,” Bannon’s advice to them to shut their mouths for a while to listen and learn is wise advice, however hard to hear. Trump keeps beating them at this war of attrition, but instead of standing back for a moment to reformulate their position, they seem intent on struggling to win the daily tit for tat skirmishes. As a political observer, it seems obvious that this will not happen until the press makes an effort to lose their obvious partisanship and begin to recover the institutional responsibility they enjoyed several decades back, so they can once again become a respected national institution. Unfortunately, the hopes of this happening seem vanishingly small.
Mara Schiffren is a Writer and Health Coach who lives in North Salem