In President Trump’s interview with the New York Times, he declared:
Another reason that I’m going to win another four years is because newspapers, television, all forms of media will tank if I’m not there. Because without me, their ratings are going down the tubes. Without me, the New York Times will indeed be not the failing New York Times, but the failed New York Times. So they basically have to let me win. And eventually, probably six months before the election, they’ll be loving me because they’re saying, “Please, please, don’t lose Donald Trump.”
On one level, the comment is ludicrous. Despite the frenzied paranoia of the Fox News crowd, the Times doesn’t determine election winners. If it did, he wouldn’t be president. Indeed, if the Trumpists thought the Times had such power, it wouldn’t be the “Failing New York Times,” but rather the “All-Powerful New York Times.”
The comment is also revealing of Trump’s obsession with the media. While decrying the “fake news,” he’s intoxicated, addicted even, to the attention. No president has been obsessed with TV as Trump is. (He reportedly watches up to eight hours a day.) He runs to the Times to unburden himself on a regular basis, just as he seeks refuge in the comfy environs of Fox News prime-time shows. He seemingly makes pronouncements and decisions based on news coverage, not on his own administration data. While he imagines the news media “needs” him, it is Trump who craves approving coverage and rages at their criticism.
All that said, at some level he must know that without CNN’s nonstop coverage of his rallies and Fox News’s incessant cheerleading, he never could have dominated the news cycle, deprived nearly 20 GOP opponents of coverage and won the GOP nomination on a shoestring budget. If he thinks the media can deliver for him again, it is in part because he got such a tremendous boost from the media in 2016. And to the extent that he is allowed a forum in which to babble on without fear of interruption, follow-up questions or contradiction, he’s figured out that no other politician would be allowed to get through an interview like the one he gave on Thursday without a scrape.
But alas, his notion that the media will be “nice to him” — a childlike prism by which he judges and personalizes all interactions (They love me! Great guys!) — bears no relationship to reality. He routinely attacks individual members of the press and the First Amendment in general (he rails at the notion the press gets to “write whatever it wants”). He accuses the media of making up sources and refusing to acknowledge his supposed greatness. He’s no longer in a symbiotic relationship in which he gives members of the media ratings and they give him unfettered access to the airwaves.
Trump’s supporters and even some critics accuse the media of being overly aggressive, even adversarial. That, however, is precisely the role of a free and independent media — to challenge, debunk, reveal and enlighten. With a president this dishonest and delusional, they have their work cut out for them. But the notion that the media should balance any negative story with a positive one, or put dishonest spinners on the air to “give his side” misunderstands the press’s role and the notion of “balance.” Truth, not a false show of balance, is the media’s mission. (Fairness is something else entirely, entailing the obligation to solicit the administration’s side of events, accurately describe its conduct and find the widest array of sources to provide a complete picture of events.) The media, as we have learned, has a unique role to play with a president addicted to dissembling. It must preserve the notion of objective reality and continually hold the president accountable for his lies. If that seems adversarial, it is only because Trump has an adversarial relationship with reality.
Trust in the media now exceeds trust in Trump in many polls. That’s a sign of a healthy media, an alert electorate and trouble for the narcissist in chief. He really cannot control what members of the media say, which makes their role as independent sources of information among the most potent threats to his presidency.