The explosive revelations of leaked documents related to U.S. intelligence agencies’ investigation of Kremlin interference in the 2016 election — including salacious compromising information about Donald Trump supposedly in the Russians’ possession — have brought the surreal madness of our current political moment to a new level. But, aside from whatever we will eventually learn about the Russian connection, this latest episode also raises new questions about the news media’s position under the Trump presidency.
After CNN reported that both President-elect Trump and President Barack Obama had been briefed by intel chiefs on a report alleging that the Kremlin had collected what Russians call “kompromat” on Trump, the news site BuzzFeed published the 35-page report itself. Its most notorious part was the claim that on his 2013 trip to Moscow, Trump paid two prostitutes to defile the bed in his hotel room where Obama had stayed earlier. The story is unconfirmed, and the report — compiled by a retired British intelligence officer and apparently commissioned by one of Trump’s Republican rivals during the campaign — has already been disproved on one fairly important point about an alleged meeting in Prague between Russian operatives and Trump’s counsel Michael Cohen.
The day after the scandal, Trump’s long-awaited first post-election news conference turned into more of a media confrontation. Trump not only referred to BuzzFeed as a “failing pile of garbage” but lambasted CNN as “fake news” and refused to take a question from CNN reporter Jim Acosta, snapping, “Quiet,” when Acosta tried to press on. (His question concerned Trump campaign staff’s contacts with Russia.) Soon-to-be press secretary Sean Spicer threatened to have Acosta thrown out and later demanded an apology from him on Twitter.
To most journalists, and Trump critics in general, this was a frightening authoritarian display — even, as Vox’s Elizabeth Plank tweeted, “the beginning of the end of freedom of the press.” Meanwhile, numerous Trump fans — and others who dislike bias in the mainstream media — seemed delighted that Trump had journalists in their place. On a Fox News panel, conservative commentator Mollie Hemingway also took Trump’s side, praising him for being able to stand up to a “bullying media” that routinely treat ordinary Americans and their values with contempt.
But the idea that conservative Americans are helpless against the mainstream media unless the president can “punch back” for them — as Hemingway put it — is odd and even demeaning, particularly in an age of thriving conservative media. Moreover, one may be concerned about media failures at fairness, accuracy, and responsibility, and still cringe at the idea of the President of the United States using the bully pulpit to chastise the media — something that does, inevitably, raise the specter of authoritarian rule.
Reinforcing such fears, Trump ally and former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich suggested on the Sean Hannity’s Fox News show that the Trump White House could “close down the elite press” by giving more news conference time to friendly conservative outlets. One can assume that he did not mean “close down” literally, but the language is still chilling.
Some conservatives have cried double standards, pointing out that in 2009 the Obama White House tried to delegitimize Fox News and even to exclude it from the press pool. Indeed, liberal Democrats too can be hostile to adversarial media. But it is also worth noting that back then, other networks pushed back in solidarity with Fox.
Media failures have contributed to the anti-journalism backlash, and the mainstream press needs to do better. But all of us, regardless of our politics, should be alarmed by the idea of presidential power being used to reward, punish, or even “improve” the press.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.