Yesterday, the White House fired another shot in its never-ending campaign to troll the media into fighting battles they won’t win. First, this big batch of crazy about terrorist attacks flew out of Trump’s mouth earlier in the day:
“It’s gotten to a point where it’s not even being reported. And in many cases the very, very dishonest press doesn’t want to report it. They have their reasons, and you understand that.”
Sean Spicer sprang into damage control, changing “not even being reported” to “under reported.”
Hmmmm, so Spicer compared the coverage of terror attacks to the massive protests which have defined Donald Trump’s presidency to this point. Can’t imagine why he’d do that…
Anyway, here’s the list the White House promised:
Or, put another way: “Here's the list the White House sent of things they want us to talk about, and if Western media sources could do it with righteous indignation, that would be even better.”
Yes, this list is stupid. Yes, they spelled attacker wrong in every way imaginable, and San Bernardino was missing one r, as “San Bernadino.” It looks like homework put together by a drunk high school student the morning it was due. The only reason this list exists is because Donald Trump and the White House need a new talking point while also building support for the travel ban. Some members of the media understand this.
Others do not (note: Matt Pearce is far from the only journalist who reacted like this last night).
This defensive posture is exactly what (President) Steve Bannon wants. By doing what feels right and defending himself and his colleagues, Pearce plays into the tribal image that Bannon is trying to paint. As he proved the Los Angeles Times' clear front-page coverage of these terror attacks, Pearce backed himself into a corner. Donald Trump asserts that the media are a bunch of self-involved liars, and when you write “I” or “we” four times in a span of four tweets on this subject, you allow the first half of that charge to be easily depicted, while the rest of your words fade into black. I'm not saying that Pearce is self-involved by pushing back with logical force, but that by taking Bannon's bait, he's putting words out there which fit into the larger narrative that this White House is trying to spin, making him appear self-involved to the layman who simply sees him as just another member of the faceless and agenda-driven mainstream media. This administration wants the media talking about themselves as much as possible.
Once Trump is able to use your words to say “see? The media has an agenda that's all about them,” it becomes much easier for the “lying” portion of the charge to stick. The recent narrative has not been good for team Trump—especially the tidbit about the Donald not realizing that he was signing an executive order appointing (President) Bannon to the National Security Council (although, given how many outrageous charges against Trump have been walked back so far, we should hold out for a few more weeks before letting that nugget crystallize in our brains).
Trump is clearly trying to change the topic to a fight with the media, and many are seemingly taking the bait. We have moved from a “reporters reported/Trump said” cycle to a “Trump said/reporters said” one. This is his home turf. The mainstream media are not well-liked by the majority of Americans, and all Trump has to do is nail the right notes, and he will be able to gin up more support for his policies. This is trolling 101—hit someone on a topic they can't resist, and let their overreaction make you look good by comparison.
It's difficult to not extensively cover what the White House says, given how central it is to so many important stories, but every outlet has acknowledged that this is a new era for journalism, so that long-standing belief should be challenged. However, adhering to White House talking points is more than just a normal standard outlets apply themselves to, and this is where the central issue of access comes in. For too long, too many journalists simply relied on their proximity to power to write their stories for them. After all, pleasing people high up on the bureaucratic food-chain means that you get imbued with some of their influence.
As we all know by now, despite what Politico, Reuters, and a host of other large outlets reported, Trump said that he “rebuilt the military,” but that’s not remotely what happened—mainly because the most powerful and well-organized army in the history of mankind doesn’t need to be “rebuilt.” This is not to say that every journalist at Politico or Reuters simply relies on their access, but with stories like that going out, enough clearly are that it’s a problem.
Access journalism was easier to hide in previous administrations simply because they weren’t batshit insane. Despite both of their comedy of errors, plenty of seemingly mundane items were reported out of the Obama and Bush administrations, and it simply blended into the background of a litany of stories on government operations. In short, it made a reporter look official, and no one cared enough about the story to think any further than that. A journalist who basically just repeated what their contacts told them could enjoy a long career under that model. No more.
Donald Trump has no credibility, so repeating whatever the Trump administration says without context destroys a journalist’s credibility to the same degree. Engaging him in these silly “he said/she said” battles over D.C. minutiae that most people could care less about is an exercise in that same type of journalism via retweet, but with enough righteousness added so Steve Bannon can portray them as the “out-of-touch coastal elites” that has become the name de guerre for the mainstream media.
So what is a journalist to do when the White House changes the narrative? After all, it’s difficult not to defend yourself when attacked—especially when it’s a raid on your integrity. However, this is all part of a larger game that Steve Bannon is playing, and his tale has legitimacy because of these harsh truths sown by the media over the past few decades. Combine it with the population’s general apathy towards self-governance and lack of knowledge about our government, and journalists have to be much more strategic in how they combat an administration determined to undermine them.
For example, mixed martial arts fighters in the UFC mainly come in three styles: wrestlers who want to pin you up against the cage and grind you into dust, submission specialists who want to fight you on the ground, and strikers who want to stand up and trade punches. Steve Bannon is a submission specialist, and the media are expert strikers, yet for some reason, they want to take this fight to the ground where Bannon has the advantage.
If Donald Trump takes the narrative to the ground, the media should counter-punch, then escape his clutches in order to bring the fight back to their feet. How can they do this? Easy. The administration’s hurricane of nonsense provides plenty of opportunities to knock them off course. Sean Spicer told reporters on Air Force One:
“Sometimes the polls don’t reflect what you see in the media. You see a wide degree of support for this president’s policies—to protect this country, to create jobs, to grow the economy—and yet, a lot of those stories and the successes he’s had in a mere two and a half weeks in office, aren’t exactly covered to the degree to which they should be.”
The first question afterwards had to do with Trump’s charge that the media doesn’t report on some attacks, but it should have been “so which success stories about creating jobs and growing the economy does the president feel should get more coverage?” Trump’s charge clearly has no legitimacy, so why waste your time fighting it?
Now the focus is on the group of people worth 300 electoral votes that Trump spoke to, AND the protesters flooding America’s streets. The “Real America” trope is and always has been nativist bullshit designed to separate us, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a big swath of people out there who feel excluded from the greater waypoints this nation is headed towards. Every single time Trump pivots to pick a fight with the media, the media should fire back with questions about policies that he promised or is trying to implement.
Stop reporting on your own narrative.
If we spend the following week(s) harping on how much coverage about terrorist attacks is “enough,” then we may as well just start volunteering for Trump’s 2020 campaign. This impulse to unilaterally follow whatever talking points that come out of the White House is what lost the media popular support in the first place, and now that we have a certified clown car of madness running things, this laziness is even more apparent. The mainstream media gets too caught up in the technicalities of Washington, making the rest of us outside that bubble feel further alienated. There is a direct correlation between these two polls of Americans’ declining trust in government and media.
Jounalists deal with trolls on Twitter all day long, yet some can’t seem to spot obvious trolling when it comes from the White House. That’s scary. It implies that the position you make the argument from may be more important than the argument itself. Journalists should talk about this list, but not in a defensive manner. Belittle its hilarious mistakes and then move on. Donald Trump may have been exactly what our media needed, as too many of them are now starting to see his face in their legacy’s mirror.
Jacob Weindling is Paste’s business and media editor, as well as a staff writer for politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.