In the unilateral war declared on the media by President Trump, the last few days saw a battleground shift: the media started to fight back.
A couple of remarkable moments stood out: Shepard Smith on Fox News angrily addressed the administration from his anchor chair on Thursday, giving a ringing defense of the media’s right – nay, responsibility – to demand answers from the president, particularly as regards to what he knew about Russian interference in the election and when he knew it.
Another Fox anchor, Chris Wallace, said on Sunday that Trump “crossed a line” when he tweeted that the media were “the enemy of the people.”
“It’s a different thing when it’s a president [calling the media an enemy of the people]” he said on “Fox and Friends.” Wallace observed that he would probably get creamed by Fox viewers for saying so (he did), but that they should bear in mind that eventually there may be another party in power when they will want a vibrant media in place.
Later the same day, Wallace shot back at White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, advising him that “we don’t have a state-run media” and to show more respect to the role played by the Fourth Estate.
“Reince, here’s the problem,” he said. “I don’t have any problem with you complaining about an individual story… But the president went a lot further than that. He said that the ‘fake media,’ not certain stories, the ‘fake media,’ are an enemy to the country. We don’t have a state-run media in this country. That’s what they have in dictatorships.”
It seems the media is awakening everywhere to the notion that sitting back silently while the president incites his base against an entire profession – which is usually the accepted posture – is not an option. The decision by “Morning Joe” to ban Kellyanne Conway from their show because “she is not credible” was a volley in that battle.
This weekend was a turning point. In addition to the two Fox anchors drawing a line in the sand (and we’ll see if Fox News continues to tolerate this), Carl Bernstein said Trump’s attacks on the media are “more dangerous than Nixon’s” and, on Friday night, Bill Maher called on Republicans of conscience to speak up. And, indeed, John McCain did just that.
On Saturday’s “Meet the Press,” McCain said, “If you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and, many times, adversarial press. And without it, I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That’s how dictators get started.”
Jonathan Karl on ABC did the same, accepting Trump’s remarks as a challenge:
“We are not about to stop doing our jobs because yet another president is unhappy with what he reads or hears or sees on TV news. There’s a reason the founders put freedom of the press in the very first amendment to the constitution. As long as American democracy remains healthy, there will be reporters willing to pursue the truth, even if that means incurring the wrath of the most powerful person in the world.”
Then there was this hilarious response by CNN to Trump’s delirious, unhinged performance at his Thursday press conference, with a mashup of his histrionic gestures.
The media as a whole is used to being a punching bag for public officials – that’s part of the role, and one we deal with, usually without response. After all, we hold the pen.
But as Trump busies himself day after day with blaming the media for everything that’s gone wrong in his month-long, chaos-central presidency, there seems to be a consensus that the vilification of the media is dangerous to our democracy.
And it is dangerous.
Make no mistake: Trump’s inability to control the media, the mass message, is the most important thing standing in the way of his turning his reign into an autocracy. In the absence of a Senate or House that will exercise oversight – Republicans at the moment are apparently too scared to find their own moral compass – and as Trump attempts to neuter critics within the federal agencies and courts, it is incumbent on the media to call out the president’s lies, prevarications and potential crimes.
Trump’s base who voted to reject politics as usual and thumb their nose at the establishment may still believe in their man.
But I’m hard pressed to believe that the nation’s establishment as a whole – and in this I’ll include both political parties, the media, the financial world, policy makers and business leaders – don’t believe that there is something deeply wrong in this presidency.
The media’s unwillingness to take Trump’s attempts to delegitimize them are a first step on a road back to sanity.