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Trump’s Attacks on the Press: Telling Escalation From Empty Threats

Trump’s Attacks on the Press: Telling Escalation From Empty Threats

By MICHAEL M. GRYNBAUM

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President Trump speaking to the news media at the White House last month.

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Tom Brenner/The New York Times

President Trump usually ignores the criticism that comes his way from MSNBC, the reliably liberal cable channel that, his advisers argue, will attack his administration no matter what.

But two reports by the channel’s parent network, NBC News — including a scoop that the president sought to expand the nation’s nuclear arsenal — set off some of Mr. Trump’s most hostile rhetoric yet about the freedom of the press.

“Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked,” he wrote on Twitter. “Not fair to public!”

Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked. Not fair to public!


Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump)
Oct. 12, 2017

A few caveats to keep in mind. Rage against the media is political Wagyu for the president’s base. And Mr. Trump’s notion of suspending licenses — along with his proposal, tweeted last week, that late-night comedians be subject to the “equal time” rule — is essentially unworkable, given how government regulation of the airwaves actually works.

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So was it a genuine threat — or just another comment from a president who seemingly thrives on narrative tension simply trying to top himself?

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“One has to suppose that he’s looking for ways to shock people,” Russell Baker, the gimlet-eyed longtime observer of Washington, said in a rare interview on Thursday.

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“One has to suppose that he’s looking for ways to shock people,” said Russell Baker, a former New York Times columnist and author.

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Richard Howard/The LIFE Images Collection, via Getty Images

He seemed not so worked up about this most recent fusillade against the press. “It may go through, or he might probably forget about it,” said Mr. Baker, 92, a former columnist for The Times. “Is anybody shocked anymore? He’s used it up. It can only last so long.”

Mr. Trump seems to think like a television producer, a trait recently criticized by Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee. And as the makers of political thrillers like “House of Cards” and “Scandal” know all too well, television must ratchet up the stakes lest viewers lose interest.

The president has already called the news media “the enemy of the American people,” and his tweets about “fake news,” once a reliable prompter of fury, increasingly feel like a part of Washington’s white noise.

“What else could he say that he hasn’t already said?” Bob Schieffer, the broadcasting eminence who formerly anchored “CBS Evening News” and hosted “Face the Nation,” said in an interview on Thursday.

Seen-it-all veterans may take Mr. Trump’s recent statements with a few grains of salt. But two former White House officials turned pundits, David Axelrod and Robert Reich, warned of creeping autocracy. And advocacy groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists were moved to point out that such words, issued from the presidential pulpit, can embolden dictators who are more empowered than Mr. Trump to shape or censor coverage.

In an instance of irony that Mr. Baker might appreciate, Mr. Trump’s State Department issued a pro-media statement — around the time that the president was jabbing NBC — that condemned Turkish authorities who had sentenced a Wall Street Journal reporter to prison.

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Bob Schieffer at the CBS offices in Washington in 2015.

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T.J. kirkpatrick for The New York Times

“Freedom of expression, including for speech and the media — even speech which some find controversial or uncomfortable — strengthens democracy and needs to be protected,” a State Department spokesman said. “More voices, not fewer, are necessary in challenging times.”

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Mr. Schieffer, 80, whose book, “Overload: Finding Truth in the Deluge of News,” was released this month, said the news media was playing a crucial civic role.

“This is our assignment from the founders,” he said. “Check out what the politicians are saying. Give people information on whether it’s true or false.”

It stands to reason that Mr. Trump’s latest rhetorical thrusts — amplified by the megaphone of Twitter and 24-hour cable coverage — have had at least an ambient affect on Americans’ trust in the press. The divide between Republicans’ and Democrats’ perception of the news media is growing.

Still, a poll by Reuters this month found that trust in the news media has ticked upward. Nearly half of Americans surveyed said they had “some” or a “great deal” of confidence in the press, up from 39 percent last November. In that same period, trust in Mr. Trump slipped.

The president often uses shocking statements to steer the focus of coverage. On Wednesday, amid a stalled legislative agenda and reports of West Wing turmoil, he told reporters in the Oval Office: “It’s frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write, and people should look into it.”

Those words chilled Mr. Schieffer. “We have to take that very seriously,” he said.

Mr. Trump may be threatening a crackdown, but his team’s courtship of the news media goes on. On Thursday, the White House press office emailed reporters an invitation for a traditional Halloween party. “Trick-or-treating will take place on Friday, October 27,” the note read. “All White House press corps are invited to bring their children to the event.”

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