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Notebook: Donald Trump and the Theater of Access

In such an environment, not only does a case for privileged access based on Washington tradition play into one of Trump’s core campaign narratives, but it also fails to anticipate the inevitable response from the White House: What use are you to us? With audience fragmentation and the rise of social platforms, the traditional media’s collective leverage over those in power has been diminished, and the Trump administration has given every indication that it sees, in this chaotic period of tradition, an enormous opportunity.

On Jan. 21, the press was granted a sneak peek at what access will look like under a Trump presidency. Sean Spicer, the press secretary, used his first appearance in the White House briefing room to make a series of astonishing and patently false claims about the inauguration — or, more specific, about coverage of the number of people who attended the inauguration. He said stories suggesting that the inauguration crowd had been significantly smaller than the one in 2009 — including clear documentary photos and unambiguous assessments by experts — were merely “attempts to lessen the enthusiasm of the inauguration.” The tone of the prepared statement became increasingly aggressive:

There’s been a lot of talk in the media about the responsibility to hold Donald Trump accountable. And I’m here to tell you that it goes two ways. We’re going to hold the press accountable, as well. The American people deserve better. And as long as he serves as the messenger for this incredible movement, he will take his message directly to the American people where his focus will always be.

He took no questions. The reporters had been stage-managed, again, for their subject’s benefit; summoned for a punishment, and a spectacle, this time to the White House briefing room. They were back in the pen. As a spectacle, Spicer’s scolding may have felt abrupt and extreme, but it was years in the making. Trump’s presidency didn’t bring about the utter remaking — and repositioning — of the media. He just made it impossible to ignore.

Donald Trump’s relationship with the media may be obsessive, but it’s also deeply transactional — the media has always been a tool in his pursuit of fame and power. In previous decades, dealing with New York tabloids and national television, his tactic was to gain advantage within dominant media ecosystems; in dealing with the political press during the campaign,his approach had been to gain advantages not merely within media ecosystems but over them. To that end, he found great transactional value in Twitter. In a meandering pre-inauguration interview with The Times of London, Trump addressed the matter of his (still extremely active) account, which had evolved, under the same set of thumbs, from an object of widespread Twitter ridicule to an engine of a successful presidential campaign and, finally, to the actual voice of the American state:

I thought I’d do less of it, but I’m covered so dishonestly by the press — so dishonestly — that I can put out Twitter — and it’s not 140, it’s now 280 — I can go bing bing bing . . . and they put it on and as soon as I tweet it out — this morning on television, Fox — “Donald Trump, we have breaking news.”

That Trump can will headlines and television segments into existence is obviously true and has the effect of expanding the influence of his account well beyond his 22 million followers (and, now, the 14 million he inherited with @potus). This doubles as a show of dominance: With tweets, he is able to reap the benefits of access — stories getting his message out, published by outlets that can find no justification for ignoring these particular words from the president, just because they appear on Twitter — and to create at least an appearance of transparency, but without actually granting any access at all. For Trump in his new role as president, reliance on Twitter pits two reasonable criticisms against each other: that he is both sharing too much and not sharing, in response to press questions, nearly enough.

To members of the media, this is disorienting, bizarre and crazy-making; through Twitter, the arrival of new statements from the president becomes an event unto itself. They fit most news organizations’ criteria of breaking news: They are important; they are unanticipated and at first glance inexplicable; they demand elaboration, explanation and detail. A few posts in the morning can consume the day ahead.

The media’s bewilderment at how to treat Trump’s tweets derives from the speed at which Twitter (and other social-media platforms) has undercut their prerogatives, but also from the media’s reluctance to fully embrace a scenario in which it is so thoroughly decentered. The pre-internet, pre-social media was inherently cartel-like, deriving much of its power from the exclusive access it could provide to large numbers of people. This was obviously interesting to advertisers, who wanted to reach customers. This audience would be similarly appealing to a politician, who would be keenly interested in how he was represented to it. That form of media power was rooted less in vague notions of trust or quality than in control over distribution, and it is voided on a service like Twitter. A social-media platform offers media companies the opportunity to reconstitute its operations within the service — with the ability to publish all sorts of media, and to maintain a brand, and to gain followers — but controls the means of distribution. Power is achievable on Twitter, but it is always borrowed, and shared.

Media organizations’ presence on social platforms invites new audiences, but also new sorts of attention, much of it unflattering. Media organizations acting individually, or collectively, in a pre-social mode can look — or easily be made to look — absurd in a social context, arranged as they are around premises that no longer hold. This goes for their content, too: A headline and story or a news clip must survive outside its original and most forgiving context. Mistakes — a poorly worded headline, an ill-conceived story or a cringeworthy claim — are made doubly appalling by their delivery in a voice of presumed trust and authority that seems, in the social context, completely affected. This shouldn’t feel unfamiliar, because gawking at the closed media circuits of others is a partisan pastime; consider Fox News as represented through “The Daily Show” or The New York Times as represented through Rush Limbaugh. What social media has done is flatten the media’s power structures such that every other closed media circuit — including yours — is constantly available for appropriation, mockery or eavesdropping.

This, for a figure like Trump, is liberating and changes the press calculus in exciting ways. Not only does he get to communicate frequently and directly with citizens, but he doesn’t have to answer to would-be mediators; in fact, his feed provides him with clear and pleasing evidence of their constant degradation. Benefits once reserved for those who granted access to media — coverage, reach and the coinciding appearance of legitimacy — are available to him without cost or compromise. Reporters covering Trump have been confused and confounded by the question of where they stand in relation to him; their subject, in contrast, never is.

Trump’s characterization of Twitter — “bing bing bing … and they put it on” — stands in telling contrast to his frustrated, passive-aggressive opening statement at the Jan. 11 news conference:

Thank you very much. It’s very familiar territory, news conferences, because we used to give them on an almost daily basis. I think we probably maybe won the nomination because of news conferences and it’s good to be with you. We stopped giving them because we were getting quite a bit of inaccurate news.

In recent days, the administration has sought to replicate Trump’s Twitter experience in the briefing roome. Spicer’s initial one-way news conference was followed first by a more subdued performance — his first official daily briefing — which nevertheless devolved into an extensive critique of the media’s “demoralizing” coverage of Trump. He cast critical coverage as part of an oppositional “narrative” and reminded the assembled press, again, that accountability is a “two-way street.” The next day, he took his case to Fox News, in an interview with Sean Hannity. More changes to the briefing room, and to the routine, were coming. He wasn’t specific, but again a drip of information from other, questionable sources provided the outlines: The week before, at the DeploraBall, a gathering of “Trumpism’s Twitter Wing,” the founder of The Gateway Pundit, a popular, enthusiastically pro-Trump site with a taste for conspiracy theories, told the crowd that the site would have a seat in the briefing room; briefly, a rumor circulated that Alex Jones would, too.

The new administration, in other words, was reconsidering its predecessors’ calculations about access and power. This sentiment seems to be contagious in Washington. Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, speaking on the House floor, suggested giving up on the press entirely. “Better to get your news directly from the president,” he said. “In fact, it might be the only way to get the unvarnished truth.”

But perhaps he overshot a little bit. The administration may not need to engage with a critical press, but it still has plenty of uses for it. On Jan. 25, David Muir of ABC News visited Trump for an extensive sit-down interview. The president skipped from subject to subject, ignoring questions he didn’t want to answer and responding to pushback with defiance. When Muir told Trump that his claim about rampant voter fraud had been “debunked,” Trump simply said, “No, it hasn’t” and instructed Muir to “take a look at the Pew report.” Muir responded, “I called the author of the Pew report last night. And he told me that they found no evidence of voter fraud.” To this, Trump asked, “Why did he write the report?” He accused its author of “groveling” and stood his ground.

It would be a mistake to take exchanges like this at face value or to gesture at them as more proof of Trump’s deficiencies — to act as though this is the moment that might finally wake people up. That the interview looked futile — that questions can be answered with contempt, mockery and brazen falsehoods — was the entire point. It was a spectacle of domination and a show of force. A reporter, armed with the tools of his trade, can’t do anything to combat Trump, face to face, one on one, fact against word. And for the media, it’s a reminder and a preview: The president might be five feet away, but you might still be in the pen.

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