At the northeast corner of the National Archives building sits Robert Aitken’s sculpture “The Future,” inscribed with some famous words from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”: “What is past is prologue.”
If you buy that, it’s possible to have a solid idea of what Donald Trump’s presidency will be like for the American media and for citizens who depend on that flawed but essential institution.
The short form: hellish.
Consider, for example, the saga of Serge Kovaleski, the highly regarded New York Times reporter whose disability limits the use of his arms.
Yes, this is the reporter whom Trump mocked during the campaign — waving his arms in a crude but unmistakable imitation of Kovaleski’s movements. When criticized for doing so, Trump vehemently denied that mocking Kovaleski was even possible because he didn’t know him. (Which was also a lie.) All this, because Trump wanted to promote a myth — talk about “fake news” — that thousands of Muslims in New Jersey celebrated 9/11, which he falsely claimed Kovaleski reported while working at The Washington Post. Any reasonable person looking back at the facts would find that absurd.
What can this small chapter tell us about what’s to come?
That Trump will be what columnist Frida Ghitis of the Miami Herald calls “the gaslighter in chief” — that he will pull out all the stops to make people think that they should believe him, not their own eyes. (“Gaslighting” is a reference to the 1940s movie in which a manipulative husband psychologically abuses his wife by denying the reality that the gaslights in their home are growing dimmer and dimmer.)
“The techniques,” Ghitis wrote, “include saying and doing things and then denying it, blaming others for misunderstanding, disparaging their concerns as oversensitivity, claiming outrageous statements were jokes or misunderstandings, and other forms of twilighting the truth.”
But that’s just part of what experience teaches us to expect from Trump.
Here’s another: Trump will punish journalists for doing their jobs. Famously touchy and unable to endure serious scrutiny, he has always been litigious — although, as journalist Tim O’Brien has pointed out based on Trump’s failed suit against him, sometimes unsuccessfully so.
Imagine that tendency, now with executive powers, a compliant attorney general and a lily-livered Congress. Trump’s reign will probably be awash in investigations and prosecutions of journalists for doing their jobs, stirring up the ugliest of class wars along the way.
What’s worse, as investigative reporter James Risen wrote recently, President Obama has set the stage with his administration’s use of the once-forgotten Espionage Act to prosecute government whistleblowers and threaten journalists; the blueprint awaits.
Another: He will relentlessly manipulate. For example, Trump’s first news conference as president-elect last week featured a crowd of paid staffers who cheered his every statement, creating a false picture for viewers.
After all, his public image as reflected in media coverage is perhaps his highest priority. And he has assembled plenty of expert help.
As Emily Bell argued in the Columbia Journalism Review, Trump is a media entity unto himself: “For Trump, the medium is not just the message, it is the office, too.” His coterie stands ready: “His chief of strategy Steve Bannon was most recently editor in chief at Breitbart . . . Jared Kushner, the son-in-law with Trump’s ear, owned the New York Observer. Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire who put Gawker out of business by backing the multimillion-dollar lawsuit brought by Hulk Hogan, is also in the trusted inner circle of supporters.” And media mogul Rupert Murdoch, head of Fox, is said to talk to Trump several times a week.
So, we can expect President Trump to lie to the media, manipulate reality and go after those who upset the notion that adulation is his birthright.
After last week’s news conference, Russian journalist Alexey Kovalev wrote “A message to my doomed colleagues in the American media .” He warned: “This man owns you. He understands perfectly well that he is the news. You can’t ignore him. You’re always playing by his rules — which he can change at any time without any notice.”
To those who say let’s wait and see, or maybe it won’t be as bad as you think, or stay hopeful, I’m having none of it.
Journalists are in for the fight of their lives. And they are going to have to be better than ever before, just to do their jobs.
They will need to work together, be prepared for legal persecution, toughen up for punishing attacks and figure out new ways to uncover and present the truth.
Even so — if the past really is prologue — that may not be enough.
For more by Margaret Sullivan, visit wapo.st/sullivan