President Trump has opened up a new front in his war against the media, this time with NBC News in his sights. But is the conflict taming the press or simply making it stronger?
Trump has used attacks on the media to fire up his base since his campaign began. There are few more reliable applause lines at his rallies than his attacks on the “fake news media.”
Yet at the same time, news organizations have reaped journalistic and commercial rewards from a White House that is unparalleled in its drama and volatility.
Media outlets across the board have seen their audiences grow, often in ways that seem correlated with their willingness to confront Trump.
“It is a matter of record that, for a number of media outlets, there is this thing called the ‘Trump bump’ that has helped with circulation and paid subscriptions and traffic,” said Rick Edmonds, who covers the media business for the Poynter Institute.
MSNBC, the most liberal of the three cable news networks, has been enjoying its best-ever ratings during the Trump presidency. The New York Times, far from “failing” as Trump often insists in his tweets, has seen subscriptions surge.
The pattern is not confined to news journalism.
The latest late-night ratings show Stephen Colbert of CBS and Jimmy Kimmel of ABC winning viewers with their politically-flavored material, while NBC’s Jimmy Fallon, who typically displays less bite in that area, has seen his viewership decline. NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” enjoyed its best ratings in decades during its most recent season, when Trump skits were the main draw.
Individual journalists have also experienced both sides of the Trump coin.
Katy Tur of NBC News was a frequent target of Trump’s campaign trail rhetoric; on at least one occasion, she had to be walked to her car by Secret Service agents who feared for her safety. But Tur’s book about that campaign, “Unbelievable,” received warm reviews and is in its third week on the New York Times bestseller list.
Those kinds of data points have to be balanced against the more abstract question of whether Trump has succeeded in undermining the credibility of the media among his supporters.
“There are some disturbing [polling] numbers in terms of media credibility and he is exploiting that,” said Charlie Sykes, a one-time conservative radio talk-show host who is critical of Trump and of the broader right-wing media ecosystem.
The president, apparently upset with NBC for stories on Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonTrump relationship with Tillerson has been tense for months: report Bill O’Reilly: With Trump, Tillerson coverage, the media takes us all for ‘morons’ Overnight Defense: Tillerson, Trump deny report of rift | Tillerson says he never considered resigning | Trump expresses ‘total confidence’ in secretary | Rubio asks Army to kick out West Point grad MORE and his own alleged comments about nuclear weapons, suggested in a tweet Wednesday morning that the network’s broadcasting license could be revoked.
In fact, the NBC network possesses no single license — it is the individual stations that make up the network that are licensed.
But that was only one jab in a broader flurry. During a brief interaction with reporters in the Oval Office late on Wednesday, Trump declared that it was “frankly disgusting the press is able to write whatever they want to write. And people should look into it.”
The frontal attack on the First Amendment provoked immediate and fierce blowback.
“Trump’s latest threat to NBC is reckless and unfounded, and such rhetoric continues to jeopardize the integrity of our democracy,” said Amanda Fayer, a senior advisor to the Free the Press Coalition.
In a statement provided to The Hill, Alexandra Ellerbeck, the North America coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists said, “Heavily censored countries such as Azerbaijan, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey license news outlets according to whether their leaders agree with their coverage. Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump pens op-ed on kindergartners learning tech Bharara, Yates tamp down expectations Mueller will bring criminal charges Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax security employee left after breach | Lawmakers float bill to reform warrantless surveillance | Intel leaders keeping collusion probe open MORE’s assertion that NBC’s license could be challenged not only puts him in unfavorable company but emboldens other governments to embrace authoritarian tendencies.”
Sykes noted that, four days before Trump’s tweet about broadcasting licenses, the president had also demanded “equal time” in coverage — an apparent allusion to the “Fairness Doctrine,” a regulatory law on broadcasters that was undone during the Reagan presidency.
“A few days ago he is talking about the Fairness Doctrine and today he is talking about whether NBC should lose its license. So here you have the president of the United States suggesting that he could use government power to retaliate against his critics in the media.
“It is one thing for Donald Trump to be a media critic. It is something very different for the president of the United States to muse about using the coercive powers of government to punish his critics,” Sykes added.
Trump’s recent attacks are hardly unexpected. His previous blasts have included sharing a tweet that showed an illustration of a train apparently hitting a CNN reporter. (He deleted the retweet within minutes.) He also tweeted a manipulated image that showed him wrestling a figure to the ground whose head was covered by the CNN logo.
In February, he described the news media generally as “the enemy of the American people.”
Some media critics on the right applaud the general thrust of Trump’s attacks even as they raise an eyebrow at some specifics.
Tim Graham, the director of media analysis for the Media Research Center, said that there was no real chance that Trump would press the Federal Communications Commission to take action against NBC or any other network.
“It’s Twitter bluster,” Graham said. “But it drives them insane — that is part of the fun, I guess.”
Graham insisted, however, that media bias was real. He questioned, for instance, whether reports of dissent between then-Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonChris Murphy’s profile rises with gun tragedies DNC, RNC step up cyber protections Gun proposal picks up GOP support MORE and then-President Obama would have got the same coverage as those between Tillerson and Trump.
He also suggested that a degree of pomposity on the part of the media had contributed to a loss of public credibility.
“The news media has just too high an opinion of themselves: ‘We are the guarantors of democracy. We are the only ones who care about truth.’ No, you don’t. You don’t care about truth any more than any other sector of the media or any other sector of the political system,” he asserted.
Voices within the mainstream media, however, lament that unless more efforts are made to win the public over to their side — not in terms of individual outlets, but in terms of the importance of a free press generally — they might be stuck in a permanent war with the president.
“Organizations want to be forceful in responding to threats and attacks, but they also don’t want their voice to become background noise,” said Andrew Seaman, the Ethics Committee Chairperson of the Society of Professional Journalists.
“Personally, I think news and journalism organizations must make a substantial commitment to educating people about the press and the First Amendment. Otherwise, we’ll all be stuck in this endless tug of war.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.