Friday, June 3, 2016

The Media and Donald Trump Don't Get Along, And That's Wonderful

The public was treated to a delightfully contentious press conference this past Tuesday as presidential candidate Donald Trump briefed reporters about his donation to veteran groups. The topic of the press conference has been in the news a lot lately, though it could scarcely matter less.

The basic idea is that Trump held a fundraiser for veterans and declared at some point during the event that they had reached $6 million. After the event, however, the donations were not quickly disbursed (which isn't uncommon), and thus a scandal was born. Where did the money go? Wait, it only adds up to $5.6 million? Liar! Did Trump ever give his own money as promised? And, most important of all, who in the world possibly cares?

As near as I can tell, the first few questions have real answers. But the last one remains a mystery--probably just the media and the Hillary campaign which has decided this issue's going to be a real zinger (it isn't).

But while the topic of the press gathering was meaningless on all counts,* the outcome of the press conference was quite interesting. The best montage I could find is featured here from Fox News (the relevant part stops at around 4:00).

It's really extraordinary because Trump just goes off on them--and of course, there's every reason to suspect he planned to do so. Criticizing the media plays very well with his voters and possibly with Americans in general. Certainly it will with those considering voting for Trump. As a bonus, it also happens to be entirely warranted. Maybe not on this particular issue--I'm proud to say I haven't followed it closely enough to have an opinion on the matter. But in general, the political press absolutely deserves as much criticism as Trump or anyone else is willing to give.

You should watch the video, for entertainment if nothing else. But in case you don't, here were some highlights. He called one reporter "a sleaze", the general group "unbelievably dishonest" , and said they should be "ashamed" of themselves.

In response to the abuse, one of the reporters, apparently shaken, asked if it was always going to be like this.

Reporter: "I think you've set a new bar today for being contentious with the press corps, calling us 'losers' to our faces and all that...[interruptions]...Is this what it's going to be like covering you when you're president?"

Trump: "Yeah. It is...Yeah, it is going to be like this, David."

It's not clear whether our lovable reporter David was hoping for a peace offering or just deciding whether to go into another line of work. But, his question is revealing. As it stands, the press corps typically enjoys a very friendly and pleasant relationship with people in power, including presidents. That's why they have a highly publicized White House Correspondents' Dinner ("Nerd Prom") where everyone enjoys champagne while making light (or ignoring) of all the atrocities the amiable President invariably committed in the past year. It's also why the New York Times sees fit to publish fawning pieces like this one on our current president--Sure he's murdered children, but he has so much integrity and grace when he does it! (And yes, I understand David Brooks' job** is not primarily to cover the President. Still, it seems to be symptomatic of the decidedly friendly relationship between the mainstream press and the president).

Naturally, the same New York Times covered the Trump story, and expressed disbelief at Trump's refusal to acknowledge the valuable role played by press. Here's an excerpt from their coverage:
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an expert on the presidency and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said Mr. Trump appeared to be making assumptions about journalism that were “so faulty as to be bizarre.” 
“The notion that the press would be writing stories praising him for keeping a promise he made in public to veterans, months after he made the promise, suggests he simply does not understand the function of the press,” she said.
Ah yes, the function of the press. Certainly, I applaud all the intrepid reporters who are working to nail down Donald Trump's stance on the key subject of rounding. But, they could also ask him about almost anything else, and it would be more important to the upcoming election. How about his stance on the War in Yemen that no one talks about (but which America is supplying and actively assisting)? Maybe Venezuela? Maybe the unsustainable rise in corporate debt, fueled by artificially low interest rates? Nope.

Of course, this problem isn't unique to Donald Trump. It's how the media treats everyone with power. Occasionally, superficial issues will blow up into scandal--did Barack really just wear a tan suit!? But real issues rarely come up. And it's not hard to see why. You don't call out your friends.

In turn, this is why we should want there to be palpable tension between the press corps and the president. When the president stops violating the constitution, international law, and whatever promise he made 3 weeks ago ("boots on the ground" anyone?), then it will be okay for the press and the president to be on friendly terms. But that's not going to happen anytime soon, and until it does, there is an unlimited amount of real material out there waiting to be investigated and asked about.

Recent history strongly suggests we can't count on journalistic integrity or professional curiosity to get the media asking the hard questions politicians deserve. Here's hoping the mutual contempt offered by Trump will produce a better result.

*Note, the reason this doesn't matter has nothing to do with veterans or war. It doesn't matter because it has no bearing on America or the possible policies Trump would implement. The only question that matters is whether Trump defrauded anyone. Assuming he did not do so, it doesn't really matter if he may have embellished slightly on the value of total donations. Politicians tell far bigger lies all the time, and those actually hurt people.

**Note, this isn't the same David that was at the press conference, pure coincidence.

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