On Thursday, top White House adviser Stephen K. Bannon told those gathered at the Conservative Political Action Conference to gird for a never-ending “fight” with the mainstream media. On Friday, President Trump took the stage and spent 12 minutes throwing punches at straw men.
At the start of his speech, Trump doubled down on his much-criticized tweet labeling the media “the enemy of the American people.”
“A few days ago, I called the fake news media the enemy of the people, and they are,” Trump said. “They are the enemy of the people.”
But then Trump argued that it wasn't the entire media that was the enemy — just the “fake news media,” which is an apparently somewhat smaller portion of the entire media. He accused the media of mischaracterizing his tweet.
“In fact, in covering my comments, the dishonest media did not explain that I called the fake news the enemy of the people — the fake news,” Trump said. “They dropped off the word 'fake.' And all of a sudden the story became the media is the enemy.”
This is the first indication the White House has given that Trump's now-week-old tweet was being misconstrued. And in Trump's tweet, it bears noting, he referred to all three major broadcast networks, the New York Times and CNN — a huge portion of the mainstream media, all of which he lumped into the “fake news media” and declared an “enemy of the American people.”
Moments later, Trump suggested that those who differed with his calling the media the enemy of the American people were saying the media was above criticism.
“They say that we can't criticize their coverage because of the First Amendment,” he said.
This is some pretty impressive spin, but it's just not true. There is nobody in the mainstream media who is saying they are above criticism; the counterargument to Trump's “enemy of the American people” argument is that he is trying to undermine the free press, period, and that he's not actually taking issue specifically with what the media is reporting — which in the vast majority of cases, he's not. (More on this later.)
Trump then turned his focus to the many leaks and anonymous sources who have said things he doesn't like. Trump even went so far as to say that anybody who says something to a journalist about him should be on the record and not granted anonymity.
“They shouldn't be allowed to use sources unless they use somebody's name,” Trump said. “Let their name be put out there. Let their name be put out. 'A source says that Donald Trump is a horrible, horrible human being' — let 'em say it to my face.”
This is a guy, mind you, who as a businessman once posed as his own publicist to anonymously feed positive information about himself to reporters, going by the names “John Barron” and “John Miller.” He's also a guy whose White House regularly holds “background briefings” featuring anonymous administration sources giving reporters information — including just an hour before Trump's speech.
Trump's complaints about anonymous sources also, notably, don't include many specifics. He cited one story that included nine anonymous sources — apparently The Washington Post's original story reporting that Trump's then-national security adviser, Michael Flynn, had spoken about sanctions with Russia's ambassador to the United States before Trump became president — possibly in violation of the law.
But this is a curious example, since the reporting has been confirmed and Flynn was forced to resign — at Trump's behest. The White House has admitted that Flynn misled them about having discussed sanctions. It's a completely nonsensical story to cite while making the case that anonymous sources are wrong.
And finally, Trump ended his lengthy comments about the media with something of a call to arms — in much the same way Bannon did the day before.
“[The media] doesn't represent the people; it never will represent the people,” Trump said. “And we're going to do something about it, because we have to go out and have to speak our minds, and we have to be honest.”
That comment looks more ominous written out than it sounded coming out of Trump's mouth. But given Trump's no-holds-barred, truth-challenged attempts to discredit the media — either in whole or just those falling under the broadly applied “fake news media” label — it's hard not to take it as such.
But it's all evidence of Trump's flawed case against the media. Many of his complaints don't deal in specifics. He'd rather throw a blanket of "fake news" over it all and rile up his crowds. And when Trump does raise specific quibbles, it often falls apart.
This isn't to say the media is above criticism; it's not, and we do get things wrong. But while prosecuting his case against us, it'd be helpful if his arguments were more substantial.