By Rachel Blevins
When Donald Trump held his first conference after the election on Jan. 21, he made headlines—not for his remarks about the economy or foreign policy, but for his reaction when he was asked a question by a reporter from CNN.
“No, I’m not going to give you a question. You are fake news,” Trump told CNN White House Correspondent Jim Acosta, before turning to take a question from a Breitbart reporter.
Robert Peaslee, Chair of the Department of Journalism & Electronic Media at Texas Tech, said that the act of isolating a major media outlet early on in his presidency sets a troubling precedent for Trump’s time in office.
“To have that in the first press conference, to have that be the tone, is certainly troubling for CNN, but it’s also troubling in terms of precedent,” Peaslee said. “Because how then does another news organization that is similar to CNN—say the BBC or the AP—what signals does that send to them, and how do they respond to those signals?”
Peaslee noted that CNN’s incessant coverage of Trump’s presidential campaign raised the question of whether they expected to cover him, not just as a business mogul in the running, but as the commander-in-chief.
“One of the things that is also part of the discussion here that colors that moment is the degree to which CNN made Trump,” Peaslee said. “Because he was a Republican candidate, you would have a certain expectation that he’d be given a lot of airtime on Fox News, and other outlets that skew right of center, but CNN just couldn’t take their eyes off of him. Everything he did was news in their eyes, and I think there’s a fair amount of indication that CNN leadership has said that they were pretty intentional about that. He was a ratings magnet.”
Magdalena Saldaña, a journalism instructor at Texas Tech, said Trump’s treatment of CNN raises serious ethical questions about whether he will only give access to journalists and media outlets who are on his “good side.”
“He argued that CNN is ‘fake news,’ and he can turn any story that is inconvenient to him as a fake story, denying access to any reporter or news outlet to information that should be public,” Saldaña said. “This is concerning for us, as journalists, because nobody wants to be on a blacklist so that you cannot report on the White House.”
As a native of Chile, Saldaña said she lived through censorship firsthand when Augusto Pinochet overthrew the country’s democratically-elected president in 1973 and ruled as a dictator until 1990.
“Several outlets did not report on the crimes and illegal detentions and even accepted the evidently fake information that authorities provided to the media, because reporters were scared. That was a very bad time for the Chilean press,” Saldaña said. “I’m not saying this is the same case, as Trump was elected through a democratic process. But I do see some similarities regarding how he relates to the media and the reporters, which is usually a very authoritarian way.”
Justin Keene, an assistant electronic media professor at Texas Tech, said that Trump’s treatment of the media—both then during his campaign and now during his presidency—raise serious questions about his respect for the existence of journalism.
“Trump has spent most of his campaign with an adversarial relationship with the parts of the press, but this is a step towards him actually limiting the freedom of the press,” Keene said. “If the press really is the fourth branch of government, then this is a serious problem.”
It is not just Trump—his cabinet is also adhering to a unique standard in terms of their accountability to the press.
While the Chinese government censored all media coverage of the inauguration, raising concerns about the future relationship between China and the U.S., Press Secretary Sean Spicer devoted his first press conference on Jan. 21 to criticizing the media’s coverage of the size of the inauguration crowd.
When NBC’s Chuck Todd questioned White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway on Jan. 23 regarding Spicer’s comments, Conway justified them by claiming that he was citing “alternative facts.”
Keene noted that Spicer’s ability to force several major media outlets to devote an entire news cycle to essentially saying, “we were right, we swear,” served as an excellent diversion technique for the Trump administration.
“I have decided that there are two options here: either Spicer and Conway are hacks who are peddling propaganda to the public, or they are simply following the orders given to them out of some weird loyalty—or fear,” Keene said. “No sane person can say ‘he was using alternative facts’ with a straight face and not fall into one of those two categories.”
Saldaña noted that while the media engages in a superficial tit-for-tat battle with the Trump administration, there are more important issues and events that are being neglected.
“One thing is to keep him and his administration accountable, but a different one is to engage with these so-what issues that take our attention away from the things that really matter,” Saldaña said. “It’s like seeing a meta-coverage: a coverage of the coverage. And even though covering these conflicts might seem necessary, or even entertaining, we can’t keep doing it, because we might miss the truly important issues on this administration.”
While Trump severely limited the frequency of his press conferences after he won the election, he has kept the tradition of expressing his opinions and upcoming plans on Twitter.
Peaslee noted that by communicating through Twitter, Trump is able to set the agenda for the media, and—unlike a traditional press conference—he does not have to directly face their questions in response.
“Generally speaking, those Tweets are not benign and boring,” Peaslee said. “There’s a certain amount of news value to them. I think with journalists moving forward, one of the lessons that’s probably going to come out of this campaign is, ‘how do we treat some sort of social media event—a Tweet, a Facebook status, something that we don’t know about yet—from a public figure? Is it, in and of itself newsworthy? Or is it a distraction?”
Keene said he believes that because of the overflow of information and the tendency of social media users to share links that align with their personal biases—even if they are not factually accurate—an honest and diligent press matters now more than ever.
“Sociologists who have covered the rise and fall of great empires and nations always note that the reluctance to speak out and a lack of truthful information caused the rise of the empire, and vice versa for the fall. I’m not saying American itself is in danger, but, we aren’t that far away from something terrible if the press is silenced. Once the press goes away, a regime can freely do as they please without fear of mass reprisal. And that should scare us all into caring about journalism.”