If you came away from Donald Trump’s first press conference with the impression that he had bested the media, you’re hardly alone. The media got the same impression, and they’re less than happy about it. The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins writes that the press conference yesterday was the culmination of Trump’s winning streak against media antagonists, which left them uniquely vulnerable to Trump.
And of course, the Buzzfeed debacle didn’t help matters:
Indeed, the press corps Trump faced Wednesday seemed more divided and less sure of itself than the one that grilled him six months ago, when he last held a formal press conference. With his surprise victory last November, Trump didn’t just beat and embarrass his foes in the political press—he burned down their villages, defiled their temples, and danced on the graves of their dead. In the months that followed, news outlets entered into prolonged periods of soul-searching and self-flagellation while Trump took victory laps. Some of the same reporters and pundits who once laughed off his chances at victory were reduced to aggregating his tweets, pleading for access, and posing for chummy group photos at Mar-a-Lago.
At the dawn of the Trump presidency, America’s political press corps is feeling anxious, territorial, threatened—and the president-elect showed Wednesday that he’s ready to take advantage.
In the 18 hours leading up to Trump’s news conference, the press had been busy obsessing over BuzzFeed’s controversial publication of a dossier containing salacious, and unverified, claims about his relationship with Russia. Knowing they would field questions about the story, Trump and his team came prepared with a divide-and-conquer strategy—seizing on the intra-industry ethics debate surrounding the report to drive a wedge between their media adversaries.
Chris Cillizza also declared Trump the winner, although he doesn’t connect the dots in the same way Coppins does:
By the time Trump was done with his lunchtime press conference — one filled with half -truths and distortions — he had won the day.
How? By turning the Russia story into a debate over fake news and the media — and in so doing, turning the media against itself.
This was no accident. From Trump’s opening statement, it was clear that he wanted to make the story of the day one about the media and its foibles.
Would that be the same media that has spent the last several weeks hyperventilating about “fake news”? Why, yes it would be, despite the lack of any evidence that it’s a new phenomenon (hardly) and any hint of correlation to voting, let alone causation. In fact, the hyperventilation began with Buzzfeed, which makes its credibility-shattering debacle this week all the more ironic, as I write in my column at The Fiscal Times today:
That certainly put an even more ironic twist on a report from the tip of the spear on “fake news.” Buzzfeed had acknowledged that the report had some obvious errors in it and that it had done nothing to verify its contents – and yet published it anyway.
Its editor in chief, Ben Smith, e-mailed staff to explain that he “erred on the side of publishing” because the memos were “in wide circulation at the highest levels of American government and the media.” The context of that circulation seems to have eluded Smith, however; other media outlets didn’t publish it because it was impossible to verify, and intelligence agencies had it but considered it “disinformation” – which Buzzfeed then made public, doing the damage that intel agencies had wanted to warn against. And almost immediately, the other major media outlets reported on Buzzfeed’s report, exponentially adding to the damage.
What gives this “fake news” yet another level of irony is the fact that some of it had been published in the past. David Corn had covered the outlines of the dossier at the far-Left magazine Mother Jones in October without delving too far into the details. Some of the more lurid information from the dossier had been picked up by 4chan in the same time frame, one of the more notorious sources for supposed “fake news.” The allegations didn’t attract much attention at the time despite their lurid and sensational qualities.
The fever swamps and ideologically driven media didn’t fan this into a flame – it took the mainstream media to do that, and specifically the outlet that first created a nonsensical hysteria about ideologically driven “fake news.”
Given that history since the election and especially the Buzzfeed debacle of the previous 24 hours, it’s no great mystery as to why Trump wanted to make the presser about the media’s “foibles.” The mystery is why the media hasn’t learned to stop providing them.
Some of the commentary after the conference suggests that the media should refrain from criticizing other outlets in the Age Of Trump. Coppins offers an implicit warning against circling the wagons:
Competition elevates journalism; disagreements, debates, and Twitter feuds are inevitable. In this particular case, as my colleague David Graham wrote, there is serious reason to question BuzzFeed’s decision to publish such explosive allegations without verifying them.
But it’s also true that when a politician succeeds in pitting members of the press corps against each other, it’s usually the politician who wins. And on Wednesday, Donald Trump seemed less interested in parsing the finer points of journalistic ethics than in pursuing his own feud with the media, and encouraging its members to feud with each other.
Here’s a better reason not to circle the wagons: the media’s customers have been convinced for quite a long time now that these outlets already act in lockstep in pursuit of their own agenda. Doing so explicitly will only make matters worse, especially in service to truly egregious conduct. If media outlets want Trump to keep beating them, they couldn’t pick a better strategy for it.