In the rollercoaster relationship between the White House and the mainstream media, these past 10 days were particularly turbulent.
It started when President Donald Trump took the stage at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), and doubled down on his characterisation of the media as the ” enemy of the people“.
Press Secretary Sean Spicer then stirred up a storm of controversy by kicking out a number of media outlets, including The New York Times, CNN, BuzzFeed and the BBC, from a press briefing.
The reaction was instant, as headlines across the web, print and TV proclaimed a new low in the government’s war with the media.
Four days later, Trump addressed a joint session of Congress to announce key budget proposals. This man cut a very different figure to the Trump on stage CPAC. The optics, the tone, the language, they were sober and there was no baiting of the ‘lying press’.
Again, the reaction was instant – in much of the post-speech punditry, Trump was lauded for his ability to be “presidential”.
Watching the media pendulum swing wildly from one end to the other hints at how Trump became president in the first place.
For someone who claims to hate the media as much as he does, he knows how to put on a show for them and he knows they often can’t – and won’t – resist the bait.
The Listening Post’s Meenakshi Ravi reports.
Two speeches, two different settings: One, the annual gathering of conservatives (CPAC), the other, a joint session of the Houses of Congress. The underlying message wasn’t all that different, but the media reaction to the two speeches was different.
“CPAC was the more raw Trump, the joint session of the Congress was more refined,” said Hamid Dabashi, professor at Columbia University. After his speech in the Congress, “every paper says how ‘presidential’ the president looked and begins to soften its critical edge”.
“American journalism at this moment is simply tired of this combative status that he has created. They want to normalise Trump. They want to allow for the office of the presidency to overcome the strangeness of this occupant.”
The media’s eagerness to laud the president for looking the part was strange in and of itself. After all, getting the optics right is one the easiest parts of the job.
What made the on-air praise stranger was that much of the content of the speech didn’t hold up to scrutiny. In multiple fact checks published after the post-speech punditry, many of Trump’s claims were assessed to be misleading or flat-out lies.
“Trump has been very smart in how he has codified what the media are,” said Barbie Zelizer, professor at Annenberg School for Communication. “He pits his White House administration against the media, which in his view, is against the American public.”
Hours after Trump gave his speech on Friday, Spicer announced the daily press briefing will be off-camera and not everyone’s invited, creating a confrontation from the press pool.
“Every White House has had outlets that they feel are more friendly to them than others, so that part is not new,” said Michael Calderone, senior media reporter at The Huffington Post.
“What was surprising last week was that this is a level of access being cut off that we do not see every day, and if that baseline level of access is cut off, what are news organisations to do?”
But has the media failed in calling out Trump’s bluff?
Dabashi says the media has failed on two fronts: “One is at the level of critical thinking. They don’t have a critical awareness of what actually caused this backlash and the election of Donald Trump as their president. The other aspect is the nature of this beast, this social media, this new media, this 24/7 production of news.”
“You have an entirely impatient audience, and they have a knee-jerk, Pavlovian reaction to any tweet that Trump sends. These are structural issues.”
A month into his presidency, “the establishment media is lagging far behind. It has not structurally adjusted itself to the nature of this beast”, said Dabashi.
The critical task of journalism during Trump’s tenure is to “study this man carefully and see how his mind works. Because he has his hand on the pulse of this nation so far as the new media is concerned”.
“Understanding, decoding and combating that particular mode of communication of which he’s a master of is the critical task ahead of us,” explains Dabashi.
Callum Borchers, reporter, The Washington Post
Michael Calderone, senior media reporter, The Huffington Post
Barbie Zelizer, professor, author, former journalist
Hamid Dabashi, academic, Columbia University
Jeff Mason, White House correspondent, Reuters
Source: Al Jazeera