No one could call President Trump’s behaviour toward CNN’s Jim Acosta statesmanlike. In scenes that reverberated – or perhaps ricocheted – around the world, the then-President-elect attacked CNN in a press conference, before refusing to take a question from its representative, whilst calling it “terrible”, and asserting it constitutes “fake news”.
It was, as Acosta protested at the time, wholly inappropriate. But CNN, and other leading lights of the openly or implicitly liberal media, have no one to blame but themselves. In the course of the campaign, their conduct was appalling, and their hubris for Hillary Clinton’s election so painfully evident, that it should be of no surprise to anyone that the President sees the media as an opponent, not a referee.
As the United States woke to President-elect Trump on November 9th, the media’s failings were explicated most concisely by one of their own. Joe Scarborough, former GOP Congressman, but now host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, described how, in recent weeks, respected journalists that he knew and liked had ceased being journalists, and become cheerleaders instead.
Indeed, they were on Hillary’s side long before her path to the White House converged with Donald Trump’s. Donna Brazile, eminent journalist, long-time Clinton advocate, and employee of CNN, was shown to have leaked a debate question to the Clinton campaign, ahead of a primary-contest town-hall against Bernie Sanders. By any reasonable expectation, Brazile should have been fired with immediate effect, and played no further part in the remaining days of the campaign. However, it was not until another tranche of Wikileaks-published hacked emails showed she had leaked a second, this time in advance of a Clinton-Trump debate, that CNN gave her the very public firing she deserved.
Brazile’s dishonesty was egregious, and intended to remain clandestine. But there were many occasions on which the anti-Trump agenda was revealed in small, petulant moments or gestures that were designed to be very public. Such as on 11th August, when the CNN bulletin that flashed across millions of TV screens the nation wide was “Trump calls Obama founder of ISIS (he’s not).” For CNN to broadcast a rebuttal of a Presidential candidate’s claim in so explicit and staccato a manner was damning evidence of the network’s nod-and-a-wink abandonment of impartiality. Instead of facilitating discussion over Trump’s somewhat outlandish claim, CNN jumped on a bandwagon of look-what-he’s-done-now, voguish ridicule. It stepped down from its perch of unimpeachable impartiality, and signalled to all and sundry, that yes, whilst it had to appear neutral while the adults were looking, it was on Clinton’s side really. This was CNN’s attempt to be down with the kids – and it was absolutely shameful.
I could go on. From the New York Times’s rolling updates on the latest unverified allegation of sexual impropriety, to the entire media’s Vesuvial eruption in recent weeks over the “intelligence dossier” released by Buzzfeed and reported on by all other sources under the cowardly “covering the coverage” excuse, there has been not so much a litany of incidents of anti-Trump bias as a river of institutional prejudice.
Perhaps it was most poignantly epitomised, however, by the treatment of Nate Silver. Silver, a quiet, balding and bespectacled polling geek who rightly won critical acclaim by correctly calling every state in the 2012 election, and who now runs the popular FiveThirtyEight blog on polling, was pilloried by a number of far lesser men for his crime of rating Clinton’s probability of victory at only 70%. A Huffington Post article was headlined, “I’m a Stats Prof. This is Why Nate Silver’s Model Was All Over The Place.” It was only further down, in the body of the article, that its author conceded he had no way of knowing the full details of Silver’s model. After coming under attack from the Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim, who insisted Clinton’s probability of victory was 98%, the usually mild-mannered Silver lost his cool, alleging that his critic had “no f*cking idea” what he was talking about. I won’t comment on which party was vindicated by the result. At the time of this particular spat, Grim’s reporting was opinion, not news. But this was as clear an instance of the “cheerleading” described by Joe Scarborough as one can imagine – and when such oleaginous and negligently formed opinions are spouted by respected reporters on respected platforms, the line between meritless opinion and “fake news” becomes blurred.
And so, for all their clamouring over “fake news” and “alternative facts”, the media have only themselves to blame for their ostracisation by the new administration. This is not to defend Trump’s actions – as President, he should rise above the media’s shenanigans – but they have made it far too easy for him to get away with it. In the eyes of many of the public, the media has lost any air of impartiality: to Trump’s Joe-Public defenders – and they are legion – the concepts of impartiality and honesty are no longer the institutionally embedded lifeblood of the news media from one year to the next, but are instead simply cloaks they wear when expedient.
When there is a dearth of an impartial news media, facts take on a subjective and immaterial appearance. With the umpires now having taken sides, why should anybody believe their reported truth to be of any more veracity than that of the government and political parties it is their job to hold to account? Deprived of a disconfirming source that is sufficiently neutral to act as an arbitrator, it is far easier (and much more edifying) for people to simply pick whichever version of the facts they would prefer to be true. The media may not have told explicit lies, but by demonstrating that no ethics or professional standards were inviolate in their quest to pave Clinton’s path up Pennsylvania Avenue, they midwifed the birth of an age in which ideology reigns absolute over truth, and the centre-ground of nuanced fact and logic is little more than a body-strewn no-man’s land.
We are unlikely to see any abatement in this war of attrition in the next four years – and perhaps eight – because the reality is this: it doesn’t matter what the facts are anymore; they have become utterly irrelevant. The media’s capitulation to its own obsequious agenda has rendered truth museum-fodder. It doesn’t matter who’s telling the truth anymore; it matters who can shout “FAKE NEWS!” the loudest. And the media are about to learn that, however diminutive President Trump’s hands are, they can still hold an extremely powerful microphone.