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Why the media shouldn’t go to ‘war’ with Trump

Trump has declared war, for all intents and purposes, and some argue the media is unilaterally disarming.

President Donald Trump speaks as he meets with state leaders about prison reform, Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018, at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

President Trump has shifted lately from labeling the media “fake news” to the “enemy of the American people.” And his White House has taken an increasingly adversarial posture toward the press, including cutting off access and sharply scaling back its use of daily briefings. It seems it has decided the media is no longer worth dealing with and is much more valuable as a boogeyman. None of this is completely new, but the relationship has degraded considerably in recent weeks.

Trump seems to want a war with his “enemy.” But should the media oblige him? And if it doesn’t, isn’t it unilaterally disarming?

CNN’s Brian Stelter and media critic Jay Rosen just had an interesting exchange about all this, and it included Stelter, a longtime media reporter who previously wrote for the New York Times, sympathizing with that premise. It’s a question that once would have seemed unthinkable — the media, after all, is supposed to be studiously unbiased and treat everyone the same — but he thinks is at least worth asking.

The conversation began with Rosen’s invocation of Washington Post editor Martin Baron’s famous quote from early in the Trump administration: “The way I view it is, we’re not at war with the administration, we’re at work. We’re doing our jobs.” Here are the highlights:

And here is Stelter’s response:

Stelter hasn’t come down solidly on either side of this argument, it bears emphasizing, but the fact that he’s even entertaining it struck me. And the question of whether “the world has fundamentally changed” is a valid one.

I’d attribute that change to a few factors: (a) Our media environment has become niche and polarized, (b) Trump has also waged war on the truth, brazenly disregarding established facts to the tune of more than 4,000 falsehoods or misleading statements, and (c) The media’s current approach doesn’t seem to have done anything to convert Rosen’s 30 percent of the country that almost reflexively disregards everything we do. Pulling all of these together: Trump’s disdain for objective facts has created a situation in which the media is forced to hold him accountable (and ostensibly cover him negatively) almost constantly, but this also has the effect of turning off people who think he’s great. Ipso facto, they no longer depend upon us for their news.

All of that said, my main problem with this idea is this: The war metaphor isn’t completely apt. In war, you do lose if you unilaterally disarm and don’t fight back. There is no other way, really. But the media’s relationship with Trump needn’t be akin to combat, which is a zero-sum, win-lose calculation. Trump and the media don’t have the same goals. Trump’s are to gain power and accomplish things; the media’s are to deliver information and to hold people such as Trump accountable.

A better metaphor would be that this is a game, and the media is the referee. Part of winning that game for the players may be to work the ref to try to get more favorable calls, and part of the way they may rally their fans is to make the ref into the enemy — to blame everything bad on the ref. The ref certainly wants both teams and their fans to retain faith in their judgment and fairness, but they don’t necessarily lose just because the team who is complaining the most wins the game.

And in fact, even if you do grant the “war” metaphor, there is plenty of reason to believe the media is actually winning the battle with Trump, both because more people trust the media and because news organizations like The Washington Post and the New York Times are newly profitable in the Trump era.

But my biggest issue with the idea of a war with Trump is that it’s not going to resolve the conflict. Rosen argues that the 30 percent who inherently distrust the media could soon be 40 or 45 percent. I doubt a more adversarial war with Trump would prevent that. In fact, it’d probably only expedite and solidify it.

Our country and our media environment have become more and more polarized and more and more tribal for years; that didn’t start with Trump. In a lot of ways, he simply seized upon distrust that was already there and solidified the right’s hatred of the mainstream media. He has used the media as a tool to solidify his base.

But there is no evidence that it’s going to necessarily mean Republicans retain power, and it’s no guarantee he’ll be reelected. His falsehood-filled, media-bashing, base-catering approach worked because he had a historically unpopular Democratic opponent, and it works now because he has a GOP-led Congress. It is not something that can be applied to every election by every GOP candidate from here on out. It’s not political genius; it simply worked in this case.

Put plainly: War right now would be highly preemptive, when there is real reason to believe that strong sanctions can and will still work.