Trump and his aides have dramatically escalated their feud with news outlets, blocking reporters from a briefing and promising to ‘do something’ about unfriendly outlets.
President Donald Trump’s long-simmering and self-proclaimed “war” with the mainstream news media exploded on Friday, as Trump doubled down on his declaration that the media is an “enemy of the American people” and press secretary Sean Spicer blocked certain media outlets from a White House briefing.
The latest barrage comes after senior administration officials amped up their attacks on the media in recent days, leaving press advocates and even some members of the president’s own party uncomfortable about the fight.
“I want you all to know that we are fighting the fake news. It’s fake, phony, fake,” Trump said in his remarks at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. “A few days ago, I called the fake news ‘the enemy of the people,’ and they are. They are the enemy of the people. Because they have no sources. They just make them up when there are none.”
With no clear differentiation separating the mainstream media from so-called fake news media, the president lashed out. He condemned the use of anonymous sources, which he claimed without evidence are fake accounts drummed up by an industry with its own agenda that everyday Americans must fight against. And he ominously vowed to “do something about it.” Just hours before, his administration delivered a briefing to push back on a CNN story — but on the condition that the sources remain anonymous.
The White House’s disdain for the media reached new heights Friday afternoon when Spicer barred certain outlets, including POLITICO, from attending an off-camera gaggle in his office in lieu of the daily news briefing. Reporters from The New York Times, CNN, BBC and the Los Angeles Times also were barred, even as small, overtly political conservative outlets like Breitbart were permitted to attend. Time magazine and The Associated Press boycotted the briefing to show solidarity with their fellow news organizations, and the White House Correspondents Association condemned the White House move.
The episodes Friday mark the latest chapter in the Trump administration’s attacks on the mainstream media — long a talking point of conservatives that has gone to drastic new levels since Trump’s ascension. White House chief strategist Steve Bannon regularly refers to the media as the “opposition party” and told the crowd at CPAC on Thursday that the “corporatist, globalist media” opposes Trump’s agenda out of self-interest.
“Clearly, this is an escalation. President Trump’s charged rhetoric, inflamed rhetoric, is intended to undermine the work of the media in the U.S.,” said Carlos Lauria, program director for the Americas at the Committee to Protect Journalists, an international nonprofit that advocates press freedom. “But it also emboldens autocratic leaders around the world.”
He cited leaders in Egypt, Venezuela, Russia and Turkey who routinely accumulated new powers “by marginalizing the independent media.” The aim of such denigration, he said, is to inoculate the administration from legitimate criticisms by delegitimizing the media.
“Such a framework is familiar in authoritarian countries where the media is undermined, marginalized and attacked,” he said. “It’s very, very troubling. It sets a terrible example for the rest of the world.”
Trump himself has said he considers the media to be a more prominent foe for him than the Democratic Party, and he often roused his crowds to rain boos on journalists assembled at his campaign rallies. He routinely used his Twitter account and the lectern to attack particular reporters by name. Even the more mild-mannered Mike Pence jumped in on the attacks, lambasting the media in his stump speech for allegedly being in cahoots with the Clinton campaign.
Trump on Friday cited polls conducted by CNN, CBS, ABC and NBC News over the past two years that signaled that he wouldn’t prevail in the presidential election as evidence of the media conspiring to create “a whole false deal” to suppress GOP voter turnout.
Reporters, he said, are very smart, very cunning and very dishonest people who cry “First Amendment” when their stories are criticized, or, in the president’s word, “exposed.”
“I love the First Amendment. Nobody loves it better than me. Nobody,” Trump said. “I mean, who uses it more than I do? But the First Amendment gives all of us — it gives it to me, it gives it you, it gives it to all Americans — the right to speak our minds freely. It gives you the right and me the right to criticize fake news and criticize it strongly.”
“As you saw throughout the entire campaign, and even now, the fake news doesn’t tell the truth. Doesn’t tell the truth,” he continued. “I say it doesn’t represent the people. It never will represent the people. And we’re gonna do something about it, because we have to go out and we have to speak our minds, and we have to be honest.”
The escalating attacks have worried even some in the president’s own party and Cabinet, drawing rebukes — some harder than others. Defense Secretary James Mattis recently said he had no problem with the media, and Pence told reporters in Europe that the White House remains dedicated to a free and independent press. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Trump’s “enemy of the people” line was reminiscent of the language “dictators” use to discredit a free press.
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), one of Trump’s most vocal critics within the Republican Party, spoke out against Trump’s latest broadsides against the media.
“The First Amendment is the beating heart of America because free and vigorous debate is what our country is all about. It’s messy, but it’s beautiful, and it depends in large part on a free press that reports facts and defends truth with intellectual honesty and high standards. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the Oval Office or on the school board, every public servant should celebrate the First Amendment and teach it to our kids,” Sasse said in a statement to POLITICO on Friday.
Five weeks into his presidency, Trump has been plagued by damaging leaks detailing West Wing infighting, “tough calls” with foreign leaders and overall dysfunction coming from the nascent administration.
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Over that time, Trump’s used the term “fake news” to describe mainstream media outlets that he does not like has increased significantly.
The term first gained wide use after the election, when it was connected to hoax articles published on websites not affiliated with actual news organizations. Many of those articles, including pieces claiming falsely that Pope Francis endorsed Trump and that Hillary Clinton was involved in a child slavery ring run out of a Washington pizza parlor, gained significant traction on social media. Some, like the pizza story and a fabricated story alleging pro-Clinton voter fraud in Ohio, were even touted by prominent Trump supporters and surrogates. Many of the stories were written in favor of Trump or critical of Clinton, or both.
The trend was so startling as to warrant a rebuke from President Barack Obama in his farewell address.
“Increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there,” he said.
What is fake news?
POLITICO asks about fake news during CPAC 2017.
02/24/17 08:36 PM EST
But, very quickly, some prominent conservatives sought to weaponize the term “fake news” and used it to describe mainstream media outlets — both muddling the conversation about the hoax stories and sowing confusion among news consumers.
Before long, Trump was berating the mainstream news media as “fake news” on his Twitter feed and in speeches. He first used it on Twitter on Jan. 13 and has tweeted the term 21 times. Conservative outlets have followed suit, with The Federalist publishing a piece on “16 Fake News Stories Reporters Have Run Since Trump Won.” But unlike the hoax stories that sparked the conversations around fake news, these included mistakes by mainstream outlets, which — in almost every case — were corrected or clarified.
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CNN’s reporting Thursday night on revelations that the FBI had rebuffed a White House request to push back publicly on reports that the Trump campaign and associates had contacts with Russian intelligence officials during the presidential election seems to have sparked the latest White House attacks.
In his remarks, Trump also alluded to a Washington Post report published earlier this month. Citing nine current and former officials, the Post reported that then-national security adviser Michael Flynn had discussed lifting sanctions on Russia with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. during the presidential transition, a revelation that eventually led to his resignation. The report was accurate and ultimately led to Flynn’s firing. But even though Trump fired Flynn for misleading Pence about the conversations — which was only revealed by the Post’s reporting — he still decried the story.
“There are no nine people. I don’t believe there was one or two people,” Trump said. He provided no evidence to refute the Post’s account but suggested he has insight because he knows the sources.
“Nine people,” he continued. “And I said, ‘Give me a break,’ because I know the people. I know who they talk to. There were no nine people. But they say nine people. And somebody reads it and they think, ‘Oh, nine people, they have nine sources.’ They make up sources. They’re very dishonest people.”
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Trump even used coverage of his attacks on the media to further attack the media.
“They dropped off the word ‘fake.’ And all of a sudden, the story became: The media is the enemy,” he recalled of the coverage. “They take the word ‘fake’ out. And now I’m saying, ‘Oh, no, this is no good.’ But that’s the way they are. So I’m not against the media. I’m not against the press. I don’t mind bad stories if I deserve them. And I love good stories. But we won’t — I don’t get too many of them. But I am only against the fake news media or press. Fake. Fake. They have to leave that word.”
Trump has never offered a definition of what he means by “fake news” beyond stories he dislikes.
Lauria, of CPJ, pointed to Trump’s attacks on the use of anonymous sources as “absolutely inappropriate and shows a misunderstanding of roles of the press.”
“Some of the most important investigations in U.S. history, including Watergate, have involved anonymous sources,” he noted.
Richard Nixon, who also labeled the press as the enemy, was forced to resign in the wake of reporting on the Watergate scandal by The Washington Post.