The battle between the media and the Trump administration continues to heat up.
President Trump has asked the Justice Department to order the FBI to carry out an investigation into the illegal leaks from the US intelligence community that brought down his former National Security Adviser General Flynn. The President has also accused The New York Times of making up its story that nine anonymous investigators told it that the FBI is investigating multiple contacts between Donald Trump’s campaign and Russian intelligence agents. Reince Priebus, the President’s Chief of Staff, says he was “greenlighted” by the FBI to refute this story.
The media has counter-attacked with two stories, both of which are essentially fake.
The first is that Reince Priebus somehow broke the rules by talking to the FBI. I have explained why I think this is nonsense here.
The fakeness of the second story is even more clearcut. The media is complaining that CNN, The NYT, The Hill, Politico, BuzzFeed, the Daily Mail, BBC, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Daily News were “banned” from White House spokesman Sean Spicer’s Q&A session on Friday.
In reality – as Joe Lauria has pointed out – this was an off-camera background briefing of the sort to which only selected reporters are ever invited. The story was spun to give the false impression that parts of the media were being barred from the on-camera daily briefing, which would indeed be unprecedented, but which however is not the case. Since Sean Spicer is doing what is no more than standard practice, there is no story here. The media is inventing one.
President Trump has now retaliated by refusing to attend the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
The fact that it is traditional for the President to attend the White House Correspondents’ Dinner is in itself evidence of the extent to which the political and media classes in the US have merged. I realise this is a tradition that goes back to 1924 when Calvin Coolidge was the first US President to attend the dinner. The proper relationship between the media and government should however be critical and adversarial, which means that they ought to keep a distance from each other. In the US until the coming of Donald Trump the relationship had instead become fawning and uncritical, during Obama’s Presidency disastrously so. The White House Correspondents’ Dinner was the symbol of this.
If Donald Trump’s refusal to attend the dinner were a sign that a proper distance between the media and government is at last taking shape in the US it would be a good thing.
There is however a huge difference between having a properly critical and adversarial relationship and straightforwardly making up stories. Over the last few weeks that is the line some sections of the media have crossed.
The President has accused the media’s flagship newspaper – The New York Times – of making up a story about sources telling it of contacts between his campaign staff and Russian intelligence agents. The media is also being accused of complicity in the illegal leaking of classified information.
Instead of responding by apologising and admitting error or alternatively by strongly defending the truth of its stories, the media has responded with farfetched and almost certainly untrue claims that Reince Priebus broke the rules by talking to the FBI, and with a grossly distorted and essentially fake story intended to give the false impression that they had been barred from the White House Briefing Room.
These are not examples of a properly critical and adversarial relationship. They are propaganda in what has become an information war.
The President was therefore right not to attend the dinner. Not only would he have exposed himself to more displays of rudeness and petulance if he had gone, but he would have risked having anything he said distorted and thrown back at him.
He who sups with the Devil, as they say, needs a very long spoon. Donald Trump rightly decided his spoon is nowhere near long enough.