Donald Trump is an expert when it comes to using the media to his advantage.
Throughout his election campaign and now into the opening weeks of his presidency he has made inflammatory, controversial statements, ensuring himself maximum airtime.
It now seems that when the media criticised or made fun of him, they were in fact inadvertently giving him exactly what he wanted, to the point where less than a month before the election, CNN’s president admitted that the whole thing had been a mistake.
They’d shown the early months of Trump’s campaign as though it were free-to-air entertainment, rather than what it turned out to be, free-to-air advertising for a very serious, and in the views of some, dangerous, candidate.
President of CNN, Jeff Zucker even went as far as to admit:
If we made a mistake last year, it’s that we put too many of his campaign rallies on in those early months.
At the time CNN were doing this, Trump’s campaign was being mocked by most areas of the media. Satirist and TV host John Oliver had already infamously joked that he wanted Trump to run for president because it would be funny.
A clip from Oliver’s show involves him looking down the camera, as if at Mr Trump himself, and saying:
I will personally write you a campaign cheque now, on behalf of this country, which does not want you to be president, but which badly wants you to run.
Yet despite this ridicule, Mr Trump was still getting what he wanted from the media. Taking advantage of the new ‘post-truth’ climate – an appeal to audience’s emotions, rather than to facts – his constantly televised rallies allowed him to spread messages such as ‘Make America Great Again’ and ‘Drain The Swamp’.
These messages not only appealed to the hearts of politically frustrated Americans – they never required backing up by facts. That the media was often broadcasting them as entertainment rather than serious political coverage was irrelevant.
Any negative polls are fake news, just like the CNN, ABC, NBC polls in the election. Sorry, people want border security and extreme vetting.Advertisement
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 6, 2017
As such, Mr Trump has always been the one in control, but now, after using the media to get where he is, all of a sudden he seems keen to stifle it.
Having profited from the political landscape of post-truth, where facts seem immaterial, he now seems intent on going one step further by creating his own version of reality by silencing the media who disagree with him – going as far as to tweet that any polls that paint a negative picture regarding his popularity are automatically ‘fake’.
This became apparent when Trump’s Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, addressed the media and made a string of false statements, including the claim that those watching President Trump’s inauguration were ‘the largest audience to witness an inauguration – period.’
When later questioned about this on NBC’s Meet The Press, Counselor to the President, Kellyanne Conway, infamously claimed that what Spicer had said were not falsehoods, but ‘alternative facts.’
The President’s press secretary trying to protect the administration is of course to be expected, so a general tone of optimism and bias is never a surprise.
However, the idea of ‘alternative facts’, or more accurately, ‘lies’, is a step beyond this, and seems indicative of the Trump Administration’s insistence on trying to control the media and the public perceptions beyond it.
This has again been highlighted by a number of orders the President has imposed on government departments.
It was recently announced that any studies or data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must undergo review by political appointees before they can be released to the public.
This could effectively mean that Trump’s Chief Environmental advisor, Myron Ebell – a notorious climate change denier – has the final say on what a scientific organisation – dealing entirely with facts – publishes on issues including global warming. This feels like a media blackout.
Likewise, USDA employees were ordered not to release public-facing documents, including news releases, photos, fact sheets and social media content, until further notice. A possible example of this content control came when a U.S National park posted a series of tweets about Climate Change, which were later deleted.
With all this, it’s no surprise that the relationship between the media and the White House is already hanging by a thread. Sean Spicer has claimed that it’s a two way street, and complained about a constant attempt to undermine Trump’s credibility and the movement he represents.
He said: “We want to have a healthy dialogue, not just with you but with the American people,” and complained that it’s demoralising for the Trump administration that the media’s ‘default narrative is always negative’.
Considering the treatment that Trump’s campaign received from day one, Spicer might have a point, but his claims are undermined by nearly everything this administration does in regards to the media.
His promise that he would always be honest to the media and to the American people was directly contradicted by his statement that ‘sometimes we can disagree with the facts’. Going further, a chief White House strategist, Steve Bannon, even suggested the media should ‘keep its mouth shut’.
Trump may feel that having been democratically elected, his administration deserves a break from such intense media scrutiny, but democracy doesn’t stop after an election.
Although nowadays we often think of the media as glitzy television presenters or deliberately controversial columnists, as an institution it remains one of the primary ways of ensuring that democratically elected leaders are scrutinised and held accountable.
By attempting to create a ‘media blackout’, and by contributing to a political atmosphere where nothing can be believed, Trump is damaging one of the pillars of democracy – the ability of civilians and voters to have access to the truth so they can form an honest opinion.
Facts in this manner are the first step towards an environment where political engagement comes from understanding and a desire for progress, rather than the environment of nastiness and hate which seems to have lingered over so much of recent politics.
It’s the job of the media to try to present actual facts, and it is detrimental to everyone if Trump’s administration halt them in their endeavours to do so.
Trump’s actions towards the media may not be the worst thing he has done in office, and it’s unlikely that his words, or any lack of them, will mask the mistakes or damaging decisions he may make.
But by progressing from post-truth politics to alternative facts, his administration is setting a dangerous precedent, and is taking us further and further into a world where the truth holds less power.
Things like post-truth and alternative facts have a way of seeping, almost instantly, into general culture and in particular into politics and the media, and when they do, they can cause severe and lasting damage to both.