In one of his first White House press conferences following Donald Trump’s inauguration, Press Secretary Sean Spicer controversially accused the media of dishonestly reporting on the size of the crowds at the President’s swearing in.
Whereas troves of evidence, including widely circulating aerial photographs comparing the masses at former President Barack Obama’s 2008 inauguration to last Friday’s ceremony, prove that the crowd was lacking, Mr Spicer spent around five minutes criticising the mainstream media before ending the conference without allowing any questions from reporters.
“This was the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe,” Mr Spicer said.
“These attempts to lessen the enthusiasm of the inauguration are shameful and wrong.”
This isn’t the first time the Trump administration has accused the press of misreporting and working against the former business tycoon.
During his explosive stint on the campaign trail, Trump consistently waged a veritable war on the press, verbally abusing and turning crowds of his supporters against reporters at his rallies, as well as decrying what he and many others saw as a rise of “fake news” designed to undermine the legitimacy of both candidates.
With the Presidency secure, Trump’s staff, including former campaign manager and now Counsellor to the President Kellyanne Conway, have in recent days been peddling what they refer to as “alternative facts” or versions of events that happen to fall in line with the administration’s agenda.
While the thought of politicians lying is far from a new one, President Trump’s distortion of the truth is of particular concern for its scale, its recklessness and its engulfing disregard for established norms and institutions.
In the past, figures of authority unhappy with media reports about them have also accused elements of the press of misreporting, but their contention usually takes the form of continued denial of any wrongdoing. It usually ends there.
By comparison, President Trump’s reaction to what he views as unfair or false reportage is to attack the news media industry in its entirety.
Given the important part the media plays in today’s society, and whether wilful or born of Trump’s political inexperience, this threatens to dangerously undermine democracy itself.
While public opinion of mainstream news outlets falters from time to time, media practitioners, whose freedoms are protected in charters and constitutions all around the world for good reason, play a vital role in maintaining functional democratic systems.
As the representatives of an independent Fourth Estate, journalists hold the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government to account by informing and educating the public about issues and decisions that may affect their daily lives and shining a light on potential corruption, malpractice or abuse.
While there are certainly news outlets that deal in sensationalism and political bias, the reliability of the industry as a whole is not jeopardised. Media corporations are themselves held accountable to public opinion and a variety of ethics and regulation boards.
With this in mind, by instructing his Press Secretary to publicly vow that the White House would flip this notion on its head and attempt to hold the “dishonest” media to account in the future, Trump elucidated his disturbing game plan:
- Throw into doubt the established facts
- Delegitimise the mainstream media by convincing the public they cannot be trusted, while at the same time painting the White House as the sole harbinger of truth
- Enforce his administration’s agenda, comfortable in the knowledge that a distrusted media is a weak media incapable of holding him to account for his actions and policies.
It’s simple. If the public does not trust the media, how could it believe future reports of misconduct, human rights violations, or commentary that suggests his policies are failing?
Targeting the press like this is in the domain of autocrats afraid of criticism. In the Trump era, vigilance, independent adversarial journalism and critical analysis are more important than ever before.