A Presidential Tour de Force

Kenneth Kelly, Columnist

Thomas Jefferson wrote the following words to Edward Carrington in 1787:  ‘The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right. And if it were left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

On Feb. 16, 2017, what was supposed to have been a rather uneventful introduction of the new nominee for the Secretary of Labor, turned into a presidential press briefing, tour de force .

President Trump stood in the batter’s box and allowed journalist after journalist to throw their fast pitch, curve balls, knuckle balls and sliders right at him.

He managed to hit each and every one of the balls with a mixture of insult, innuendo, bullying, whining and a made-to-order set of “alternative facts,” also known as lying. He invoked the phrase “fake news” seven times, and on Feb. 17, 2017, called the media “the enemy of the American people.”

The briefing lasted 77 minutes.

One minute later, Jake Tapper was on CNN with Wolf Blitzer, head in hands, bemoaning the antics of the president, and taking great umbrage at the manner in which the president spoke to Jim Acosta and about CNN.

Two minutes later, both The Washington Post and The New York Times, had fact-checked the president and uploaded the stories to their digital platform, assigning him record numbers of Pinocchios.

Within the hour, former State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki, had written an opinion piece on CNN’s website offering free advice to Spicer & Company.

Late afternoon, Shepherd Smith of Fox News took on President Trump and his attack on both CNN and Jim Acosta. USA Today ran the story Friday, Feb. 17, 2017, complete with the tweeted vitriol directed at Smith for what his criticism of the president.

Finally, the Columbia Journalism Review ran a rather sad story titled “Journalists see Trump as a threat to their careers and calling.”

Oh no.

But what about the papers in Akron or Youngstown?

What about the local news anchors in Austin or Topeka?

What about the reaction in mid-Pennsylvania, Maine, South Carolina, the Rust Belt or the Christian Broadcast Network?

What of the people sitting on barstools in taverns, having a beer and a sandwich?

What about the base that made Donald J. Trump, President Trump?

From their point of view, the inauguration photos were “rigged,” “alternative facts” are required because of the media “bias,” there was widespread voter fraud, there are no connections between the campaign and Russia and so what if there were? The travel ban is needed, and so is a Muslim ban. The president stood up to Mexico. The president told the Prime Minister of Australia refugees were a bad deal. Obamacare is a “disaster,” and good for the president for calling on only conservative media outlets. Michael Flynn is an American hero, and best of all, finally, someone told the press were to go!

Poor media.

Poor, poor, journalists.

Poor, poor, poor, anchors, pundits, publishers, media correspondents and conglomerates.

They live a life of illusion, and whatever else may be said of President Trump, he has held a mirror up to journalists, and their revulsion is less about Trump, and more about the reflection they see in the mirror.

They condemn President Trump for his “alternative facts,” and rightly so, but there’s a smugness about their condemnation, a presumption of truth that only they know, and for all their cries of independence, most are owned by a media or entertainment conglomerate.

They’re not internet bloggers, nor are they free to write whatever they want, so to argue they are “agenda-free” or “fair and balanced,” is absurd, and the president understands this.

What is most disconcerting though, is the idea that they speak for the entire country; their “truth” is universal-or “democratic”-and any other “truth” is laughable.

You would have thought that the election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency would have taught them a lesson.

It didn’t, and that’s exactly why the assumption that within the marketplace of ideas, those ideas that are true or right will always rise to the top to “right” democracy, is “not only chancy but also doubtful” (Robert Schmuhl & Robert G. Picard, in Overholser & Jamieson, 2005, p. 147): there is currently not a single “truth,” nor is there any significant competition.

Journalism, especially at the level of cable news and major papers, is elitist; presumably, it takes a great deal of talent to be hired as a reporter or an anchor, but the problem with elitism, is that it creates a bubble, inside which is a journalistic echo chamber. Lately, their on-going one-on-ones with President Trump or his surrogates, has made journalists into the heroes of Twitter.

I often get the impression that columnists write particularly for their presumed audience. It’s hard for me to believe that E. J. Dionne of The Washington Post or Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, is really interested in what the people of mid-Pennsylvania, northeastern Ohio, or here in the rusted-out city of Johnstown, thought about the President’s press conference. There’s a “truth” in those areas, and others like them, that is a different “truth” from that of Dionne and Friedman, and yet both are functionally valid. The difference is that one “truth” is heard, the other is quashed; meanwhile, the “truth” of a steelworker who has lost his job, is largely at odds with the “truth” reported in The New York Times.

            Pontius Pilate famously asked Christ, “What is truth?” The same might be asked today, and I believe that President Trump, while capitalizing on this, was making that very point at his press conference: that there was a truth out in the heartland of America-a “truth” that elected him-that is vastly different from the “truth” of large conglomerates, or, “fake news.” President Trump said, “Much of the media in Washington, D.C.—along with New York, Los Angeles, in particular—speaks not for the people but for special interests and for those profiting off a very, very obviously broken system.”

The Washington Times for example, had a completely different take on the press conference than did The Washington Post.

WNEP in Moosic, Pa., had a very different reaction to the press briefing than did CNN.

“Truth,” has yet, to sort itself out; currently it remains a function of one’s ideology, one’s partisan bent, or simply one’s opinion. As might be then expected, it is simply created ex nihilo.

“Truth” today is generally attributed to the person, paper, or media conglomerate that can shout the loudest, thus drowning out any competing truth.

At the President’s Saturday rally in Florida, the president called a man up to the stage from the crowd, Gene Huber, who was in line at 4 a.m. Mr. Huber, overwhelmed with emotion, came up to the stage, hugged the president, and to the delight of the crowd, was asked by President Trump to say a few words. The man did, expressing his absolute support of the president, because the president spoke for people like himself. The president hugged the man again, to the roar of the crowd and Mr. Huber left the stage.

That, was “truth” for Mr. Huber, and based on crowd reaction, it was also “truth” for them. It wasn’t a policy, economic, foreign policy or healthcare “truth,” it was intensely person, almost visceral.

This “truth,” is the one the media neglects, and until this “truth” can have a legitimate seat at the table of ideas, there will be no “self-righting.”

I want to finish by saying this: I am no acolyte for President Trump. I find myself at odds with almost everything he has said or done to date. Either by design or accident, he has created a populism within the country, in which average citizens are now looking with greater scrutiny at how the government is run, and he has created a mistrust of institutions in general, some of which is healthy. From the president’s perspective, the media is just another corrupted institution in this country, that has gotten away with printing “fake news” or printing news to fit an agenda for too long—again, some of that is also true. To that end, it behooves the media to stop beating themselves on the breast, to stop becoming Twitter heroes, to realize the current state of the media within our democracy and begin to listen much more, talk much less and write with Mr. Huber in mind.

P.S.: Jefferson also said, later in his presidency, “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper.”

 

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