He exploited voters’ status anxieties in the election. Now he’s doing it to journalists.
The “liberal media” have long been one of President-elect Donald Trump’s favorite punching bags. So it was no surprise on Wednesday to hear Trump use his first press conference since the election to lambaste CNN and BuzzFeed for reporting on a dossier full of unverified claims about his relationship with the Russian government.
The roast began before Trump even took the stage, with incoming press secretary Sean Spicer calling BuzzFeed’s publication of the dossier’s contents “frankly outrageous and highly irresponsible.” He went on to characterize BuzzFeed and CNN’s reporting as “a sad and pathetic attempt to get clicks” and a “political witch hunt” that was “frankly shameful and disgraceful.” Next up was Vice President–elect Mike Pence, who lamented BuzzFeed’s “irresponsible decision,” which he said “can only be attributed to media bias.” Finally, Trump himself came on and laid into his old foes in the media for being “so professional—so incredibly professional, that I’ve just gone up a notch as to what I think of you. OK?”
Yes, Trump began his press conference by flattering the reporters gathered around him—that is, those reporters whose employers didn’t publish the contents of the dossier. “I have great respect for the news and great respect for freedom of the press and all of that,” he added. He even singled out the New York Times for praise, thanking the paper for saying that the report “shouldn’t have been printed because it’s not worth the the paper it’s written on.”
Never mind that the Times didn’t actually say that. Trump’s words were tactical, not literal. And his purpose became clear during the Q-and-A: to isolate and punish the two specific news organizations whose coverage he found objectionable.
It worked. BuzzFeed was so anathematized that by presser’s end, fellow journalists were picking up their lunch trays and moving to the other side of the cafeteria. “I can understand why President-elect Trump would be upset” with BuzzFeed, said CNN’s Jake Tapper, a co-author of the very story that had just been impugned in the press conference. “I would be upset about it, too.”
Trump had exploited weaknesses—not just the tendency of the press to eat itself, but also its own status anxieties. In particular, he exploited traditional media outlets’ intense desire to be perceived as sober and objective, and thus to be respected by conservatives and liberals alike—a business imperative that has been transmuted into an ethical injunction.
After trashing the documents as “fake news,” Trump went on to call BuzzFeed a “failing pile of garbage” that’s “going to suffer the consequences.” Next he began to dissect CNN’s reporting and was in the process of calling it a “disgrace” for which the news network “ought to apologize” when CNN’s Jim Acosta broke in with a question. Here’s the exchange.
Sometimes, when a public figure refuses to answer a question from a legitimate news organization, others in the press pool will insist that he do so before moving on. But that didn’t happen here. Whether they’d been flattered into docility or were simply flabbergasted, the rest of the media went on with their own questions in what seemed to be a tacit endorsement of CNN’s exclusion. Acosta never even got his question out. He said afterward that Spicer actually threatened to have him thrown out of the conference if he persisted in trying to ask it.
Acosta added later that ABC’s Cecilia Vega had indeed posed his question to Trump later in the presser. But Trump had already delivered his intended message in the most public venue possible: Offend the president with your reporting, and you forfeit the right to question him.
CNN obviously wasn’t pleased. As soon as the conference concluded, Tapper pushed back against Trump’s characterization of CNN as “fake news.” Yet, remarkably, it wasn’t Trump who took the brunt of his criticism. It was BuzzFeed.
Tapper rightly pointed out that Trump had lumped the two news organizations’ reports together, when in fact CNN had taken care not to publish or even describe in detail any of the unverified allegations. Tapper proceeded to blast BuzzFeed for what he called “irresponsible journalism,” echoing Trump’s own righteous indignation at the dossier’s disclosure, and even explicitly empathizing with the president-elect’s treatment at BuzzFeed’s hands. “It’s irresponsible to put uncorroborated information on the internet,” Tapper said. CNN, he added proudly, is “in the business of sussing out what is true and what is false.”
It wasn’t just Tapper. CNN followed up with an official statement, which began:
CNN’s decision to publish carefully sourced reporting about the operations of our government is vastly different than BuzzFeed’s decision to publish unsubstantiated memos. The Trump team knows this. They are using BuzzFeed’s decision to deflect from CNN’s reporting, which has been matched by the other major news organizations. …
There’s nothing wrong with CNN sticking up for its own reporting and editorial decisions. It obviously could have published or summarized the dossier if it had felt that was appropriate; instead it held off, and continued to hold off even after BuzzFeed put it online for all to see. Of course it felt wrongly blamed by Trump. (Lost in the hubbub was NBC’s reporting earlier in the day, which suggested that a central claim of CNN’s story—that Trump had been presented with a two-page précis of the unverified dossier—might’ve been wrong. If NBC’s story is correct, CNN’s journalistic sin is far more clear-cut than BuzzFeed’s.)
Regardless, it was jarring to see a major news organization respond to bullying by a public official, not by condemning the bullying, but by deflecting it toward another news organization. Couldn’t the network see that the stories were mutually reinforcing? BuzzFeed’s report wouldn’t have existed without CNN’s having established the newsworthiness of the dossier itself, regardless of the veracity of the claims within. And the confounding vagueness of CNN’s piece, with all its tap-dancing and innuendo, melts away in the specificity of the memos obtained by BuzzFeed.
There are status anxieties and resentments within the media just as surely as there are in the electorate, and on Wednesday, Trump deftly seized on them. Americans’ trust in media is at a low point, thanks in part to a highly effective conservative campaign to discredit mainstream outlets as biased. Fake news, a phrase coined to describe fabricated stories devised by hoaxsters, has become the default conservative epithet for historically respected institutions such as CNN and the Times. For journalists at those sorts of outlets, who worked for decades to reach the summit of their profession, nothing could be more deflating. It gives them a pressing incentive to distinguish and distance themselves from less-esteemed outlets, including upstarts such as BuzzFeed, whose “irresponsible journalism,” as CNN’s Tapper put it, “hurts us all.”
Trump, Spicer, and company know that they’re viewed with contempt by the media’s old guard. But they also know that such outlets are on the defensive, not only against charges of liberal bias, but also against a fast-changing media environment that threatens their norms and business models. The likes of CNN and the Times may feel impotent to stop the likes of BuzzFeed from siphoning younger audiences and wooing online advertisers, just as many Americans feel helpless in the face of a shifting economy. But that only makes them more susceptible to appeals to their identity, and to the superiority of their traditional values.
Trump made just that kind of appeal on Wednesday. He knew the media were divided over BuzzFeed’s decision before the press conference began. The Atlantic’s David A. Graham and the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan criticized it; ProPublica’s Richard Tofel and Fortune’s Mathew Ingram defended it; I did a little of both. But on Wednesday, the outlets that pooh-poohed the dossier story found themselves rising a notch in Trump’s esteem, while those that broke it open were frozen out.
Throughout his campaign, Trump would cage the mainstream media in a press pen, putting them on display for mockery by him and by his supporters. Now he’s offering to let at least some of them out—provided they turn around and join him in sneering at those left inside.