Will the Media Rise to the Trump Challenge or Just Fall into His Trap?

by Matthew Freeman

November 29, 2016

Ever since Richard Nixon's vice president, Maryland's own Spiro Agnew, described the nation's ink-stained journalists as "nattering nabobs of negativism," attacks on the media have been reliably base-pleasing material for conservative politicians. But Donald Trump is in a category all his own. For most pols, attacking the press is a way to deflect criticism. For Trump, it was a defining element of his candidacy. At his rallies, he kept the press corps literally penned up so that he could more easily invite his audiences to scorn them. He's continued the same media-hostile approach during the transition, despite an apparent expectation that he would somehow become normalized by virtue of his election. There's no reason to think he will change after he's inaugurated.

Last week was littered with examples of hostility. Trump had an off-the-record session with television news heavyweights in which he reamed out CNN and NBC reporters and execs, calling them "liars" and saying that coverage of him during the campaign had been "outrageous" and "dishonest." He then toyed with The New York Times, scheduling, cancelling (by tweet), then rescheduling a session with Gray Lady editors and reporters. He's also so far refused to submit to standard media pool coverage of his comings and goings, something that's been a given for decades.

Moving from news media to entertainment media, he all but invited media scorn by rage-tweeting his disapproval of the cast of Hamilton for daring to urge Vice President-Elect Mike Pence to "uphold American values" and "work on behalf of all of us." And for bonus points, he took to Twitter to bash Saturday Night Live for mocking him, barely a year after he hosted the show.

With Trump, it's always hard to tell where narcissism ends and strategy begins, but it's worth noting that while many in Washington and New York are shaking their heads at such behavior from a soon-to-be leader of the free world, many of his supporters are probably taking deep satisfaction watching him stick it to the "media elite." In fact, Trump's not just bashing the media; he's using the media to define himself. He ran a mostly policy-free campaign, after all, relying not on proposed solutions to win voter support but on aspirational claims interspersed with appeals to base resentment and hostility toward immigrants, "nasty women," Muslims, and more. In particular, his unbridled attacks on the media made clear to voters who think the mainstream media is out of touch, contemptuous of the values by which they were raised, that Trump is the rare reality TV star who agrees with them.

So consider the challenge that poses for the media in the dawning Trump era. How will it cover this new breed of president? Will it continue to swing at pitches in the dirt like the Hamilton brouhaha, giving over valuable column inches and broadcast minutes to Trump-defining, base-pleasing irrelevancies? Will the White House press corps spend its energies fighting with the Trump administration's spokespeople for face time with a president who'd clearly rather phone into Sean Hannity's talk show than sit down with an actual reporter? Or will the media focus in on the policy choices Trump is making that will directly affect Americans' lives?

So far, the results aren't promising. And that frames one of the great challenges Americans will face in the next four years. CPR has focused considerable energy on the work of the relatively obscure White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), the home of the so-called "regulatory czar." By executive order, OIRA reviews and often revises proposed regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and a host of other regulatory agencies. In doing so, it's not looking to maximize safety and health. Rather, it imposes requirements for cost-benefit analysis that routinely undervalue things like asthma attacks that don't happen because the air is clean, while overstating the costs of the air pollution controls that deliver those benefits. And on the basis of that biased analysis, OIRA waters down protections or blocks rules altogether. It's also the place where industry lobbyists have their best shot at politicizing the regulatory process, as OIRA invites lobbyists in to dump on proposed regulations, essentially repeating the public input process that led to the proposed regulation in the first place, but this time conducting it behind closed doors, before an audience of politically attuned White House staffers, instead of agency issue experts.

Can we expect editors and producers who are swinging at curve ball after curve ball from President Trump to push reporters to vigorously track developments at OIRA? Will the press pass up the opportunity to report on 140-character brickbats from the leader of the free world in order to dig into the details of a distorted cost-benefit analysis of a pending rule?

That's the challenge we're likely to face in the Trump era. CPR plans to keep its ever vigilant eye on OIRA and the various regulatory agencies, and we'll faithfully report out what we find and what we think about it. For all our sakes, let's hope the media is reflecting on its appropriate role, even as Donald Trump is rolling it inappropriately.

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Also from Matthew Freeman

Media relations consultant Matthew Freeman helps coordinate CPR's media outreach efforts and manage its online communications. His media relations experience in Washington spans more than 30 years, and his client list includes a range of organizations active on the environment, education, civil rights and liberties, health care, progressive organizing in the interfaith community, and more.

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