The Donald, The Media And The Next Four Years

25/01/2017 17:26 GMT | Updated 26/01/2018 10:12 GMT
Susan Walsh/AP

When Donald Trump rose to give his inauguration address on 20 January it was clear that we were at an apex in the American journey.

As he himself noted during a speech filled with barking, vague, campaign rhetoric, this was not just a new President but a wholesale changing of the guard in American politics.

But in the days following the inauguration, we have caught a first glimpse of what President Trump might mean for the power of the press and how his revolutionary approach to communications could spell a dangerous break with the traditional role and power of the White House Press Corps.

By deliberately eroding trust in the news media - not on any specific issue but by creating a perception of fundamental dishonesty - Trump is dismantling the power that journalists hold over governments and replacing it with his own brand of direct-to-consumer messaging.

Somewhere in-between fake news, alternative facts and echo chambers, we may have just unwittingly entered a new age of political mass communication and time might be up for the primacy of the so-called fourth estate.

Fake news and alternative facts

American leaders have always been wary of the power of the press - one need only look back to Richard Nixon, whose administration was taken down to political reporting such as the Watergate scandal.

Since the early 90s, politics on both sides of the Atlantic has been a game played by the rules of the news media. Clinton, Blair, Obama, Cameron and to a slightly lesser extent George Bush, have all been credited their victories by savvy and effective use of the news media within their campaigns.

Spin doctors, in awe of the reach and influence of the press, play the most significant and sexy roles in government life, charming journalists, dishing out exclusives and preparing marquee speeches. And In the UK, the meeting with Rupert Murdoch is widely acknowledged to be the most significant meeting for a would-be PM.

But why does all this effort go into press relations? Because the news media has, for the past 50 years and more, shaped the views of the public more than any other force. And political journalists make the final call on the success of administrations.

The reason that journalists hold power is because of the impact their words can have with voters.

Life in President Trump's administration won't play to these rules. Things are going to be different. And they might never be the same again. Here's why:

Firstly, Donald Trump has worked hard throughout his campaign to sow public distrust across the news media. Whether it is berating CNN reporters by shouting 'you're fake news,' to avoid questions, or repeatedly questioning the integrity of journalists and newspapers that call him out on contradictions, Donald has managed to created doubt in the mind of voters around media organisations that are not of their political persuasion.

By scapegoating elements of the American press, Trump has stripped back some of their power. But this phenomenon also has another impact on the press: the way people consume news are changing. People increasingly see news via snippets shared through Social Media and within the prism of their own beliefs. Even if parts of the press are 'fact-checking' and calling Trump out on his behaviour, you can guarantee that this coverage might not filter down to millions of voters who are not consuming this angle on events.

Couple this with 'gaslighting' or, arguing over the basic premise of facts - a favourite tactic of Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway throughout her career - and Washington correspondents have a tougher time of reaching people with their coverage if they are not already part of that demographic.

What this all adds up to is a Washington press that is sapped of power and fighting to stay relevant.

The 140 character President

Secondly is that Donald Trump uses social media as a primary, not a secondary news source. Where Barack Obama might have sent a tweet outlining new policy or programme, the launch of the activity would have been co-ordinated through traditional press relations, with a focus on in-depth and positive coverage in traditional political channels.

Trump has expressed his intention to continue Tweeting in the same way as President as he was a candidate. This method of news generation - where single tweets can instantaneously become global headlines - means that Trump directly controls the timing and the nature of news stories.

With the ability to 'break' news eroded by this tactic, reporters increasingly become analysts and commentators: the very people who are now at 'peak distrust' with the American public. Again, Trump wins, the media lose.

Distraction, distortion and bullying

The final point is also the most sinister. Donald Trump - I believe - actively seeks to carry out a protracted and ugly 'air-war' with the mainstream media throughout his Presidency, for the reason that it will mask any chinks in. the frail armour that is his policy

Donald Trump is not only seeking to limit the power of the media by encouraging his supporters to distrust it, he also simultaneously seeks to use his knowledge and skill of news values to create a permanent distraction to the minutiae of his administration.

By playing a game of tit-for-tat and who-said-what with the Press Corp, Trump will always have the upper hand and the continued support of his base, who will in turn become even angrier with the tactics of the news media.

Shaun Spicer, Kellyanne Conway and Reince Preibus - firmly part of the inner circle - have already come out swinging against a press that is set on 'de-legitimising' the President. In Spicer's first White House Press Briefing, he warned journalists that if they didn't play to these new rules they would find themselves out in the cold. In his second Briefing, Spicer told one reporter: 'I think we can disagree about the facts.'

Fundamentally, the Trump administration is happy for the press corps to cover the President in this way. The more focus there is on arguing over details, the less the American public will care about what the press in Washington have to say, and the more Trump can continue to blame the news media for bogging down his Presidency and its bold ambitions. The words 'the media is the enemy of the people's President,' is a threat that will not be too far from Donald's lips.

When, predictably, the jobs do not all reappear from Mexico, or the wall is not built, or veterans do not receive improved care, and the 'drugs, gangs and rapists' of the inner cities are not removed, dishonest reporting will be one of the major scapegoats. The groundwork for this is already being set by the Trump team.

This is a carefully thought out and terrifyingly modern way of media manipulation without ever impinging on the concept of a free press. Let's never forget that Trump is a man obsessed with the media. During the 80s and 90s when The Donald was a B-list New York celebrity, he scoured every newspaper looking for mentions of his own name. This narcissistic tendency also gave Trump an intricate knowledge of the power of the media and how it could be used to further his own ambition.

What is more, is that whatever your views on the Trump administration, it will write the next chapter of the guide to political communications. If Trump and his team are able to effectively bring the Washington press to heel through its strategy, it may alter the journalist/President relationship irreparably.

Let us remember, politicians want to speak directly to people. The political press exists because they are the conduit. If the Donald can find a way to bypass this process and still win votes, others can too.

So where does this leave the news media?

Battered, bruised, but strangely bigger than ever, the fourth estate is at a tipping point. News is still the most powerful force in politics; journalists can still bring the Donald to his knees, but they must try harder, they must do better, they must get used to the idea that the cosy relationships of the past 30 years are over, and find a new way of reaching a distrusting public with a strong and simple message.