World

In slamming media, Trump divides US

Easy for US President to use media as scapegoat as even in good times, the media can be hard to like

There was a brief moment after Mr Donald Trump's election when it was conceivable to ask whether he would strive to be a "unifier" or a "divider".

The moment passed quickly as Mr Trump made it clear that he did not intend to abandon the style of politics - insulting and divisive - that got him elected.

His declaration last week that the media is "the enemy of the American people" was but the latest reminder.

His theory of politics is that it is okay to offend five voters if seven other voters approve.

Dividing the country is the name of the game.

The objective is to create a coalition of the resentful.

Polarisation is not the only consequence, there are the underlying purpose and philosophy.

In his strategy, it is easy to use the media as a scapegoat for disappointments.

Even in good times, the media can be hard to like.

No one elected us, our political and cultural values are skewed liberal, and we are often arrogant in our assumed role as guardians of American democracy, holding elected officials accountable and defending free speech.

It is also well-known that our popularity has plummeted.

The latest Gallup poll found that only 32 per cent of adults "trust the mass media", down from 55 per cent in 1999.

As ex- Washington Post reporter and expert on free speech Sanford Ungar has reminded us, the confrontations over the war in Vietnam in the 1960s and Watergate in the early 1970s seem every bit as bitter and contentious as today's media wars.

In another Gallup poll, the media's standing was even lower. Only 20 per cent expressed strong confidence in newspapers, 21 per cent in TV news and 19 per cent in Internet news.

Just why confidence has collapsed is not clear. In part, it may reflect a general loss of trust in institutions.

Last year, confidence in Congress was 9 per cent, down from 28 per cent in 1998.

EROSION OF CONFIDENCE

The explosion of news sources on cable and the Internet might have played a part.

Many sources, such as MSNBC and Fox News, are openly ideological. The more choices people have, the more they may think poorly of the ones they do not make.

Regardless of cause, the present media-White House brawls are hardly without precedent.

As ex-Washington Post reporter and expert on free speech Sanford Ungar has reminded us, the confrontations over the war in Vietnam in the 1960s and Watergate in the early 1970s seem every bit as bitter and contentious as today's media wars.

And history suggests the slugfests will not abate any time soon.

For the press, it is a matter of honour and self-interest. If we do not bring truth to power, why should we exist?

Mr Trump is correct when he asserted that the media has an agenda. One part is simply to expose what the Trump administration is - or is not - doing.

Someone has to protect sensible policies as well as democratic and Constitutional norms, all of which many believe are assaulted by Mr Trump.

But beyond this lies a silent goal: The search for some impeachable offence.

If found, this would clearly justify the media's obsessive attention to Mr Trump's every move and policy.

But if not found, the press risks losing more of its credibility by conducting a political witch hunt.

Meanwhile, Mr Trump is good for business. He increases readership, page views and cash flow.

Ironically, he is fortifying financially prominent adversaries. But this is unlikely to change his behaviour.

He seems to have three reasons for attacking the press.

One is to discredit media criticism, especially of his own falsehoods, exaggerations and misleading statements.

After his recent press conference, The Washington Post's fact checkers - Mr Glenn Kessler and Ms Michelle Ye Hee Lee - found 15 examples of falsehoods or dubious claims.

If people do not believe the press, findings like these will matter less, if at all.

The second is to associate all opponents with despised media "elites", so their unpopularity rubs off on his other critics.

But Mr Trump's final reason for attacking the press may be the most powerful: He seems to enjoy it.

He likes denouncing journalists as dishonest scum of the earth. It is invigorating.

Mr Trump cannot be a unifying figure when he is having so much fun being Divider in Chief.

The writer is an economics columnist for The Washington Post. This article was published in The Business Times yesterday.

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