Donald Trump is waging a war with the American press. He’s confrontational, provocative, subversive, perverse and downright unapologetic. He’s called the press a gamut of things: “failing pile of garbage”, “dishonest”, “crooked”, “fake”, among other adjectives. Last week however, at his first press conference, Trump used the platform to launch a targeted attack against an unsuspecting media. In what seemed to be an uncanny divide-and-rule policy, he stonewalled questions from reporters belonging to certain news organisations, while pandering and answering to others. It seemed as though he was trying to build a subliminal wall between news organisations, creating competitive rivals within the press fraternity.
At the conference, while CNN Senior White House Correspondent Jim Acosta struggled to counter Trump’s attack on CNN regarding the organization’s reportage of the Trump-Russia ties with a question, the President-elect refused to acknowledge it. “No! Not you. No! Your organization is terrible,” Trump responded emphatically. Acosta of course didn’t back down that easily. He continued to reiterate his question, “Mr. President-elect, since you have been attacking our news organisation, can you give us a chance?” To which Trump responded pointedly, “Don’t be rude. No, I’m not going to give you a question.”
But on Wednesday, the press responded with a scathing letter, outlining its refusal to bend, break, bow or back down to Trump’s juvenile tantrums. The Columbia Journalism Review published an open letter penned by the US Press Corps to the President-elect, which was for the first time seemed to be a unified, verbally-armoured call for battle by the Press:
“You may decide that giving reporters access to your administration has no upside,” wrote CJR’s Kyle Pope. “We think that would be a mistake on your part, but again, it’s your choice. We are very good at finding alternative ways to get information; indeed, some of the best reporting during the campaign came from news organisations that were banned from your rallies. Telling reporters that they won’t get access to something isn’t what we’d prefer, but it’s a challenge we relish.”
It’s a challenge alright, but the question which arises is this: Is the American Press capable of living up to the challenge Trump has set out for it? Truth be told, the press is driven by big corporate corporations which are inherently capitalistic. To put it simply, journalism is vulnerable to capitalism. Back in the day, for instance, Rupert Murdoch, the owner of News Corp. made it his agenda to downgrade the standards of journalism in order to increase sales for his paper, The Sun. He introduced the the “Page Three Girl”, which featured a topless woman on each issue’s third page. Evidently, this increased the sales of the paper. In fact, media critic Robert McChesney wrote in Corporate Media and the Threat to Democracy, that “to do effective journalism is expensive and corporate managers realise that the surest way to fatten profits is to fire editors and reporters.” The press owned by big media corporations is therefore susceptible to exhibiting a pro-business, profit-minting slant. It’s evident that it serves corporate capitalism and the wealthy American elite.
Trump is a powerful businessman, and on January 20, he’ll be the most powerful human being in the world. He already has media moghul, Rupert Murdoch (Fox News Chief and the owner of The Wall Street Journal, New York Post, and other publications) on his side. However, one can argue that not every owner of a news publication is pro-Trump. Take Jeff Bezos, the owner of The Washington Post for example, who has been tremendously critical of Trump. He has gone out to say that Trump’s actions will “erode democracy”. And let’s also not forget the hair-splitting, controversial and virulent war between the President-elect and The New York Times, where the former has repeatedly called The Times a “failing” publication. The Times’ publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. however, has gone on record (November 2016) to say that Trump would be covered without a bias. “The Times is certainly not afraid — our investigative report has demonstrated our courage many times over. That fearless, hard-fought journalism will always stand as the backbone of The Times, no matter the President.” This of course, is a snapshot of those who stand with Trump and those who don’t.
Regardless of those who are against Trump, the President-elect is aware of the inimitable command he wields, which is why he isn’t thinking twice before launching into a diatribe against the media. And veteran American journalists are aware of the dark cloud that looms over the freedom of the US Press Corps. Last year, multi-award winning journalist, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour used Committee to Protect Journalists Award ceremony to voice her concerns regarding the likeliness of the free press being handcuffed, “We are not there, but postcard from the world: this is how it goes with authoritarians like Sisi, Erdoğan, Putin, the Ayatollahs, Duterte, et al…First the media is accused of inciting, then sympathizing, then associating—until they suddenly find themselves accused of being full-fledged terrorists and subversives. Then they end up in handcuffs, in cages, in kangaroo courts, in prison—and then who knows?” At the same event, The New Yorker’s editor David Remnick echoed Amanpour’s views by saying, “This year the threats to the press freedom are quite close to home. It’s right here.”
Trump’s era foreshadows a dark, macabre reality for the American Press Corps. It will have to unite and really fight this battle hard. Last night, when Barack Obama spoke at his final press conference as the President of the United States, he ended his speech with, “Thank you very much, press corps. Good luck!” Then he knocked on wood, twice, before walking off the stage.
Good luck, US Press Corps. Good luck.