EDITOR’S NOTE: Last of a five-part series examining the ease with which all that we hold dear can be hijacked and turned against us in the blink of an eye. Today, the long and bloody battle Donald Trump is waging against the American press.
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Act Five, The Finale: Bypass and Denigrate the Press
By the time winter turned to spring in 2017, Donald J. Trump had been at war with the media for almost two years. Fueled by the I-told-you-so-mentality of his campaign, The Donald was prepared to make all forms of media pay for not believing in him. He emerged in November 2016 as the sorest winner in our nation’s history.
With extensive coverage of anything and everything he did during the campaign, Trump used his camera time to establish his message better than any ad executive or propaganda machine ever could, while labeling his would-be detractors as not just critical of him, but true enemies of the people.
The maneuver, which was expected to backfire after he claimed that he could get away with murder on Fifth Avenue, seemed to galvanize a jaded public to his side, and in doing so, changed the course of American political history.
By springtime, Trump, the longtime opponent of the media, had set a tone that no other modern-era president had dared, denigrating the Fourth Estate and making a power grab to consolidate the dissemination of information from a single source — himself.
The move was enough to make Hitler blush. Somehow, without a formal minister of information as sinister as Joseph Goebbels or the creation of an official ministry of information, Trump single-handedly was able to undo more than 240 years of free speech, and did so with little resistance or concern from the general public.
However, the ghost of Goebbels was not far away.
Hitler’s minister of propaganda once described the media as “as a great keyboard on which the government can play,” and Trump played the media pool like a virtuoso during his campaign.
Unlike countries such as Russia, China, Nazi Germany or North Korea, where free thought has to be totally eliminated, Trump was able to turn an overly skeptical public against the very vehicle created to keep them free. A well-known narcissist and conman, our Donnie had also been a clamoring whore for media attention. However, once elected president, he did what many would-be dictators do — attempted to eliminate the free press.
The free press is a thorn in the side of any totalitarian leader because allowing free speech and free thought takes absolute power away from those who wish to rule absolutely and without question. Thomas Jefferson once wrote: “The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted, when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.”
No student of Jeffersonian democracy, Trump launched headlong into an open war with the press, and unleashed his media assassins — the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
He hired former campaign chairperson Kellyanne Conway, who had wondered aloud if her career might be over after having represented the thought-to-be-doomed Trump campaign. She saw her fortunes turn 180-degree after Trump won, and soon Kellyanne was leading us into her universe where truth was debatable and “Alt-Facts” could explain everything. The “Con-way” proved to be a new method for presenting official White House press information, and Kellyanne spent the early months bending and shaping the truth any way she saw fit. It was madness.
But Kellyanne could not single-handedly destroy the media, she needed help. Former White House Easter Bunny Sean Spicer was named press secretary and ultimate P.R. flak, and GOP daughter Sarah Huckabee-Sanders was later added to the war party.
But the most lethal of all the Four Horsemen remained Trump’s own tiny, tweeting fingers.
From the start, Spicer set a combative tone, yelling, rolling his eyes and treating the formerly esteemed members of the White House press corps like toddlers. The sweaty man in the gray suit became the initial face of Trump’s assault on the First Amendment.
Every day was filled with Spicy’s rantings as he berated the media for asking stupid questions and intimated that the country’s new president did not have to answer to anyone.
Meanwhile, Trump continued his assault on the free press, using his @RealDonaldTrump Twitter account to label anything he didn’t like as “Fake News.” Trump crushed the truth 140-characters at a time, tweeting about anything that came to mind. His goal was to portray the press as irrelevant because his own revelations were a more direct line to “truth” than anything the media could provide.
He questioned crowd estimates at his inaugural address after The New York Times sent a picture over social media that compared his crowd to that of previous President Barack Obama. Despite what was obvious to the eye, Trump not only challenged the picture as fake and doctored, but began his push to denigrate the press at every turn.
By ignoring and belittling the Fourth Estate, Trump introduced the concept that the media was an enemy of the state, which was a violation of constitutional protocol. Using tactics right out of Uncle Adolf’s playbook, Donald Trump stuck to his big lie, repeating it over and over again.
Trump’s drumbeat was taken seriously by many who already supported him and hated the press. It became a daily and deliberate assault on fundamental American values and a new take on the propaganda machines of past dictators.
The press, which has often fancied itself as the vehicle of the everyman, routinely considered any congregation of reporters as a gathering of “the unwashed masses.” With Trump, we finally had a president who missed the irony of those concepts and treated us accordingly. By the time we could tiptoe through the tulips in April, every press briefing had become an all-out fistfight, and an unprepared White House press corps was blindsided.
Trump began sorting and rooting through members of the media, picking and choosing not just which reporters could ask a question, but then questioning the reporters themselves for having asked it. Not long after this affront, the game of elimination began.
In 2015, Univision reporter Jorge Ramos was forcibly removed from a press conference in Iowa after asking an objectionable question. He was told to return to his home country of Mexico and was never heard from again.
The next year during the campaign, Trump and Fox News had an open spat because the network at the time was not completely enamored with the soon-to-be Con-mander-in-Chief. Megyn Fox was identified as the problem after she asked Trump questions during a debate, and was given a firm talking to by both bosses, who at the time appeared to be Roger Ailes and Trump himself.
By January 2017, things would worsen for the media, CNN’s Jim Acosta was openly called an idiot by Trump and by former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). Gingrich said Spicer should ban Acosta 60 days for asking then President-elect Trump a tough question.
By February, Trump held his infamous 76-minute press conference where he lambasted the media as being unfair and out of control. Later that month, The New York Times, CNN, The Guardian, Politico, Buzzfeed and the BBC were banned from a presidential press briefing where a few handpicked members of the press were allowed inside. The Associated Press and Time magazine were invited, but boycotted.
Trump responded by spurning an invitation to the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner and fund-raiser. The last president to not attend the April event, which usually is an effort at goodwill, was Ronald Reagan in 1981 because he was recovering from being shot. Reagan still attended by phone call.
Then it got worse.
During a May 2017 meeting with Russian officials, Trump banned all American media, then announced the firing of FBI Director Jim Comey to the Russians. America only learned about what happened during the meeting after Russian media leaked information The Donald wished to be kept confidential.
Spicer highlighted the day’s events by holding a press conference outside the White House and near some shrubbery, with only a few media members in attendance. He avoided the cameras and bright lights that usually accompany them.
By June 2017, press briefings were held off-camera with White House mouthpieces only answering select questions. Audio recordings were also ruled out.
Reporter Ksenjia Pavlovic, a former political-science teacher at Yale University and editor of an internet blog called Pavlovic Today, most recently violated the ban by taping a briefing on the Periscope app then tweeting it to a feed on July 19, 2017. Her live feed was aired by mainstream media like Fox News the replay was stopped about 20-minutes into the briefing.
The last official public press briefing held in the White House was June 29, 2017 until the embargo was finally broken last week with the announcement that Spicer had resigned and financier Anthony Scaramucci had been named the new White House communications director.
Perhaps the revolution will be televised.
All along the way, Trump’s hatred for the media was resisted and chronicled by yet another First Amendment staple — comedians. Exercising their rights of free speech every night, comedians like Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, John Oliver, Trevor Noah, Jimmy Kimmel, Samantha Bee, Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers and the cast of Saturday Night Live flooded the airways with parodies of Trump’s exploits.
Although rebuked in some cases by the administration, mirth-makers served as brave replacement troops for what has been an ongoing blitzkrieg against all forms of criticism. The sometimes forgotten tenant of free speech, comedy may be merely funny here, but could easily get you killed in places like Russia, China and North Korea.
In the end, Trump’s final act in what has been an all-out assault on democracy, may be his battle against those of us who use the First Amendment to protect our nation and its democratic ideals.
As we end this series one question prevails: What will our country look like after it’s been attacked by a despot in the Oval Office?
No one seems sure, but perhaps we’ll remember that before the springtime, we had something called democracy.