Every U.S. president has problems with whatever iteration of “the press” exists to bedevil his time in office. Continual, creative tension between rulers and the ruled was quite deliberately baked into the Constitution. Forty-three presidents – all of them except Richard Nixon – survived the encounter. As did the press.
Not uncharacteristically, Thomas Jefferson worked both sides of the battleground, financially supporting (at a handsome $250 a year) the Democratic-Republican National Gazette against the leading Federalist newspaper. Andrew Jackson had his newspaper opponents who accused him of slavery and murder; William McKinley had his war-mongering William Randolph Hearst; several presidents struggled with Drew Pearson’s facile, 50-year combination of facts and fantasy.
In the mid-20th Century, evolving technologies altered the form but not the dynamics of the relationship, and presidents found sophisticated ways to deal with their ink-stained demons. Franklin Roosevelt used radio “fireside chats” to bypass the full-time Washington press corps; Jack Kennedy showed later presidents how live press conferences could be used to outmaneuver and sometimes outclass reporters assigned to cover him. Some JFK successors were almost his equal at that; others, not so much.
Then came the digital explosion that restructured the media environment and enveloped legacy journalism – that is, journalism produced and carefully mediated by large, long-standing newspaper and broadcast organizations – in a smog of unmediated pseudo-news. Suddenly, the informational world was a place where individuals could find “news” to satisfy their predilections and massage their biases while avoiding any “news” that did not.
As cultural critic Neil Postman wrote in an earlier context, our media world became “a neighborhood of strangers and pointless quantity; a world of fragments and discontinuities.”
Barack Obama was the first president in the ubiquitous digital age, but by nature and intellect he was not inclined to scream against the hurricane nor obsess about things he could not control.
Then came control freak Donald Trump, a man persuaded that convictions and fixed positions are for losers, and a believer that truth is irrelevant, so it doesn’t matter if he lies, deliberately or carelessly. For him, only winning counts.
He has chosen legacy journalism as the enemy that all authoritarians must create in order to deflect blame for their failures. He divides the media world into people who write what he thinks they should and those who don’t, and brands the latter “enemy of the American people.” Professionalism or accuracy do not enter his calculation.
As with so many other conventions and traditions of public life, journalistic realities do not intrude on his fantasy world. That purblindness, for instance, allowed him to call Friday for a ban on journalists using unnamed sources while, a few miles away, White House officials were presenting his side of the FBI investigation story to reporters – on condition that the sources not be named.
His obsession with news coverage and determation to demonize and neuter those who do not please him ensure, tragically, that he cannot even try to unite a bitterly divided country and act like the president of all the people, not just his narrow base.
So long as his concept of unity is everyone agreeing with him on everything, he can only perpetuate – or exacerbate – disunity, our nation’s most dangerous defect.
He has, calculatingly and unnecessarily, created a phony war that no one can win and only he can lose.
Davis Merritt, a Wichita journalist and author, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.