The Weekender: In Trump’s America, the Press Must Stand Together, or Fall Alone

Donald Trump

It took literally no time for the first presidential press conference with Donald Trump to get hostile. The damn thing opened with incoming press secretary Sean Spicer attacking CNN and Buzzfeed for telling two different stories about the very same concerning topic: the possibility that Russia has compromising information about the President-Elect. Somewhere between Trump’s non-announcement about not-divesting himself from his businesses and presenting a big pile of folders filled with nothing, the 45th President of the United States took things a bit further by calling a major media outlet “fake news” for reporting a story about him he didn’t like. But then something more remarkable happened, a roomful of that reporter’s colleagues did nothing.

Media Matters summed this up nicely with the headline: “Trump Just Shot Jim Acosta In The Middle Of Fifth Avenue And The Press Didn’t Blink.” The line is a reference to something Trump said this time last year, when then-candidate Trump said that his popularity was such that he could shoot someone on Manhattan’s 5th Avenue and he wouldn’t lose a single vote. He’s yet to test that assertion, but given the fact he’s surpassed that statement about a dozen times over in levels of scandalousness, it’s not impossible to think he might be right.

The metaphorical shooting of Jim Acosta came at a moment late in the press conference where the CNN correspondent tried to address Team Trump’s assertion that a report that the President-Elect had not been given a brief stating that the Russian government had “compromat”, a dossier of damaging information Russia collects on its enemies or people it wants to blackmail, on Donald Trump. A six-person team from CNN verified and reported that America’s intelligence community delivered a two-page memo as part of a presentation on Russian hacking given to both Barack Obama and Trump. Buzzfeed also had the story, and after CNN posted about the memo, they put online the full 35 pages supposedly from the “compromat”, a collection of the compromising information the Russians supposedly have on Trump as discovered by Christopher Steele, a former MI-6 agent that did opposition research on Trump for his political rivals.

That was the proverbial stage for what happened Wednesday, the events that occurred afterward is part of a sad trend of divide and conquer that Trump and his team have been participating in while fighting press stories they rather not see published. Acosta was steamrolled, and then later threatened by Spicer that if he were to be rude to the President-Elect again, he’ll be ejected from the press conference. Wow. For the first time in history, it seems to be the responsibility of the press not to get to the truth, but to be polite and quietly wait their turn. The idea would be laughable, but despite his upbringing, Trump is hardly the exemplar of manners and good behaviour. As Trump himself would say, “Sad.”

Still, we’re not at the really sad part yet. No, the sad part is that in a roomful of reporters, having just witnessed Trump pull a Robert DeNiro in The Untouchables on Acosta, no one stopped to stick up for their colleague. The press conference went on as if it were a regular press conference, and as if the future President hadn’t just accused one of the three major 24-hour news channels of making up a verifiable and well-sourced story that should be of importance to the country: not only did a foreign country seemingly interfere in the U.S. election, but they seem to have a lot of incriminating info about the winner. No one in the gathered press demanded that Trump answer for the accusation, and no one demanded that their CNN colleague be allowed to ask his question in order to confront Trump’s accusation directly.

Of course, true sympathy for CNN is limited because they didn’t show a lot of faith and fidelity to their own news colleagues. Acosta and others were more than happy to throw Buzzfeed under the proverbial bus because they posted the unverified 35-page document with all the salacious details. Weirder still, Wikileaks, which built its house on collecting and releasing data it shouldn’t have unvetted, criticized Buzzfeed for the move. The world really has gone topsy-turvy if  Julian Assange is throwing in with the anti-leak crowd, especially mere months after airing all the Clinton campaign’s dirty laundry (likely given to Wikileaks by Russia).

But CNN also betrays itself. They hired Corey Lewandowski after he assaulted reporters while acting as Trump’s campaign manager. They fill their ranks and pundit panels with Trump supporters that offer no expertise other than the fact that they like Donald Trump and will defend just about anything that comes out of his mouth. It’s also hard to buy CNN as a serious journalistic entity on the best of days. Before Christmas, Alisyn Camerota outright refused to concede that the majority of scientists think climate change is real, Carol Costello noted that people’s eyes glaze over when the news starts talking about the environment, and lazy anchors like Wolf Blitzer and Erin Burnett let guests say whatever they want even if it’s completely wrong or misleading.

Worse still, CNN shows no sign that they understand they’re the problem. During the salad days of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, CNN reporters loved getting name checked despite the fact that Stewart was often pointing out professional ignorance or impotence. They love showing clips of Saturday Night Live or the nightly talk shows where they rake out Trump or his surrogates or staffers, and roar at the pointed commentary. There’s no self-awareness of the fact that in a perfect world, CNN would be the one calling power to account, not the one abdicating responsibility to comedians and enjoying the results. CNN is too focused on this thing called “balance” while forgetting that you can’t “balance” the truth. Acosta learned that the hard, and public, way.

Long story short, the press has been looking at how they’re going to “deal” with a Trump administration for the last couple of months, and this press conference showed everything that they shouldn’t be doing. The every-reporter-for-his-or-her-own-scoop approach isn’t going to fly because if the reporters are fighting each other, then they can’t concentrate their efforts on Trump. If those reporters are still waiting for Trump to “get with the program” they’re going to have to get over it, because it’s pretty clear that there’s no change coming. That presser was staged like any number of Trump events, and if the press had any gumption left they would have asked Trump to show them what was in the file folders that were pretty clearly bought off the shelf from Staples and filled with black copy paper.

But part of me wonders if there’s any possibility of resistance left at all? Is it too little too late? Trump’s been dinning out on the media for months, attacking their credibility, and they did nothing but stand there and watch it happen. Why? Because to paraphrase CBS head Les Moonves, it was the greatest show on Earth, and now the press is paying for that show with its credibility. Trump’s supporters don’t trust the media anyway, Trump’s detractors blame the media for treating him with kid gloves during the primary, and the result is the media doesn’t have many friends left. That means all they have is each other. It’s too bad they’ve yet to realize that.

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