At the Wisconsin Newspaper Association’s annual awards lunch Friday, I was asked about the perils to small news outlets of the ongoing tussle between President Trump and elite Washington media.
Could a paper in rural Wisconsin see its image harmed by becoming collateral damage in faraway feuding?
The timeliness of the inquiry was made all the more vivid when the head of a nonprofit investigative consortium in the state informed me of the dramatic escalation of that feuding, thanks to a news bulletin he’d seen on his phone.
Indeed, the combination of Donald Trump’s anti-press comments before an adoring conservative audience and Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s obvious and premeditated exclusion of the likes of CNN, Politico, The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times from an informal briefing in his office ups the ante in Trump’s attempt to portray the press as an opposition party.
What does it all mean?
At minimum, the president has escalated a self-declared war with an inflammatory speech to hard-line conservatives and the banning of the very mainstream news organizations that have been critical of him, including an unceasing string of misstatements and rhetorical deceits.
CNN’s Jake Tapper rightly called it “a wild deviation from White House protocol,” and later “un-American.” He noted how the Obama White House, which he covered, never barred Fox News from any such gathering (an off-camera, so-called “gaggle”) even “in the darkest days” of their ideologically driven dueling.
Tapper, who has been aggressive in his analyses, said on-air that, “A White House that has had some difficulty telling the truth…and a president who seems averse to any criticism…and has called the press the enemy of the American people” is taking an action “that is not acceptable, that is petulant.”
As with much about Trump’s campaign and early presidency, there’s just enough of a catch-as-catch-can, seat-of-the-pants air about it all to leave one wondering: Is this yet another gratuitous venting or a very measured political calculation that a large group of Americans will back him in any showdown with the press?
It came on a day in which he rather stunningly criticized the FBI after reports of his trying to strong-arm the agency by getting it to knock down press stories describing certain Trump campaign communications and Russians known to U.S. intelligence.
To that extent, it might have been yet another attempt to deflect serious criticism resulting from seeming overreaching and issue of law enforcement and intelligence agencies
At minimum, the White House Correspondents’ Association had a lot to mull very quickly. It protested the action by Spicer, in which the press secretary obviously skewed his audience to more friendly conservative outlets such as Breitbart News.
But what could it do? One of the problems of any sort of collective action is the growing fragmentation of the group. Will Breitbart ever agree to anything with The Washington Post?
Moreover, there is the normal competitive fervor among organizations. It’s made it even impossible to spurn the growing use by succeeding White House administrations of bogus “background” briefings and hiding behind anonymity.
It made Trump’s speech before the conservatives all the more hypocritical, as he derided the press for using unidentified sources. Let the press put all criticism of him on the record with named sources, he said.
Well, it was only a week ago that I read the pool report of aides to Vice President Pence discussing in such a background briefing the utterly banal plans for his quickie trip to Europe last weekend.
The Pence aides hid behind anonymity, insisting they be identified only as “senior administration officials.”
And the press went along.
Will greater spine now be on display amid an arguably unprecedented screw-you?
As they say in local TV in Wisconsin and elsewhere, only time will tell.