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An Imperial Trump on the Press

Terry H. Schwadron

Nov. 9, 2018

That news people have a funky relationship with President Trump is hardly news: The president hardly lets a day pass without dumping on the press as the “enemy of the people,” basically for reporting context that shows the president in a less-than-laudatory light.

But two incidents this week — small beer in the great maw of political history, even Trump political history — show that the president’s view of news media has him careening into an imperial presidency that any dictator would applaud. The president acted — and reacted to others this week — on the basis of whether the question being asked offended him or pleased him, and ethics and lines of appropriateness disappeared with a Merlin-like wave of the back hand.

The first was an over-the-line decision to bring Fox News commentator Sean Hannity to his campaign rally stage last Monday as if a part of the campaign, a kowtowing act by Hannity that should result in his dismissal.

The second was a rare decision to revoke White House credentials from CNN reporter Jim Acosta for asking a question at a press conference that Trump found out of line. The official reason was because White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Acosta had put his hands on a White House internwho tried to take away his microphone. Acosta, who was in the front row of the press conference just feet from the president, refused several times to sit down or to return a microphone to the intern who sought to retrieve it. When he finally did give up the microphone, Trump said that Acosta was “a rude, terrible person” who “shouldn’t be working for CNN.”

Now it seems that the press secretary had tweeted a video of the incident that “appeared to have been alteredto make his actions at a news conference look more aggressive toward a White House intern,” said The Washington Post, which posted both videos. Analyzing them, the movement of Acosta arm was changed to look more like a chop and his “statement, ‘Pardon me, ma’am,’ is not included in the video Sanders shared.”

So, we have “fake news” from a White House that calls that phrase down daily — on legitimate news. To me, who grew up and thrived career-long in journalism, these incidents are highly offensive, but worse, they illustrate a White House that considers itself as a monarch would.

The Post asked experts to examine the two versions, who said there had been alterations, and said that edited video was first shared by Paul Joseph Watson, known for his conspiracy-theory videos on the far-right website Infowars. Watson said he did not change the speed of the video and that claims he had altered it were a “brazen lie.”

Sanders’s tweet of the edited video, in which she said the White House would “not tolerate the inappropriate behavior clearly documented in this video,” has at least 20,000 retweets and more than 2 million views. Yesterday, she added, “The question is: did the reporter make contact or not? The video is clear, he did. We stand by our statement.”

During Wednesday’s White House news conference, Acosta and Trump sparred over a question of whether Trump had “demonized immigrants” by calling a caravan of Central American migrants “an invasion.”

After the Monday incident,there was a collective, confused, if disappointed yawn this week when Sean Hannity shared the stage with Trump at his campaign rally. But within Fox News, across the journalistic industry, and at my house, there was a real bristle that Hannity had crossed the line. Fox News felt that it had to issue a statement, lightly slapping Hannity on the wrists for stepping outside his journalistic role. “Fox News does not condone any talent participating in campaign events.

Clearly, Hannity uses his commentaries to lavish plaudits on the president personally and professionally. There is almost nothing that the president says or does that draws a non-biased note of criticism. Nevertheless, what it underscores is the degree to which the president and Republican leadership believe that Fox News is a safe ally, a yoked link between a political force and the country’s most successful media company in delivering a unified message.

Ironically, CNN notedthat “some of Fox News’ biggest names, including Hannity, the hosts of “Fox & Friends,” and Jeanine Pirro — who also appeared with Trump on stage Monday night — have turned into full-time Trump supporters on television over the past two years. Some, like Hannity, Pirro and Fox Business Network host Lou Dobbs, reportedly even act as unofficial advisers to Trump at times. But Monday night’s rally crossed a new line, making explicit what had long been implicit.”

People always seem to be surprised that journalists have codes of ethics– written and unwritten, depending on the organization for which they work, but by any stretch, this scene was way over the line.

What concerns me here is not what happens to Acosta — for my money, CNN might have considered another beat for him because he was becoming too much a part of the Trump coverage he was offering — or even to Hannity, but with a president who thinks it is perfectly fine to flick a finger and dismiss or crown those who lavish praise or challenge his way. Trump also brutally debased Yamiche Alcindor of PBS for asking about whether Trump’s use of the self-descriptive word “nationalist” was drawing unintended (or not) response that it overlapped with “white nationalism” efforts.

Constitutional issues aside, the whole idea behind Tuesday’s election results was that the president needs to think twice, and that we should advance enough critics to question his actions. These actions towards news people are excellent examples.

As The New York Times editorializedyesterday, “Trump has amply demonstrated his inability to deal with criticism or tough questions in any way other than to immediately, angrily and crudely counterattack. . . Anger is one thing, but in suspending Acosta’s press credential, Trump signaled that in his view, asking hard questions — the most basic function of a reporter — disqualifies journalists from attending White House briefings. That Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, would then use the demonstrably false claim that Acosta had laid “his hands on a young woman” as a pretext to throw him out compounds the cynicism.

“What is most alarming in the Acosta incident is its illustration of the extent of Trump’s ignorance of the role of a free press in American tradition and democracy, and of the president’s role in defending it.”

The same could be said about Hannity, if with an opposite result.

As someone who made his living plowing these fields, I find the White House words and deeds dangerous.


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