Those of us who prefer to find a rational interpretation for even the most seemingly irrational actions are happy to read George Friedman’s analysis of the war between President Trump and the press.
According to Friedman, both sides in this war are serving their constituents. Trump is solidifying his base, most of whom despise the intellectual elites. And the press is garnering more and more subscribers, a vital necessity for a business that is barely viable. By his analysis Donald Trump, the Antichrist himself, is the Savior the press has been praying for.
For the record Friedman distinguishes the press from the media. While newspapers are barely profitable, television news—e.g. Fox News—is thriving.
In Friedman’s words:
The president needs the press to attack him to maintain his political center. The press needs the president to attack it to convince its politically skewed readership that it is defending their interests. The president’s attacks solidify the press’ customer base. The founders’ vision of the tension between the privately owned press and the elected president has turned into a magnificently complex rage that actually serves the political and business interests of both.
The press wants to survive as a viable media source. Its increasingly opinionated readers are avid for any scraps of information that can make them feel that they are right and that they are winning the struggle they are waging against evil. Of course, if the press is increasingly driven by opinion, it cannot at the same time be driven by facts. It might select the facts that sustain the opinions its readers hold, but it cannot inform its readers at the same time.
Today the press has organized itself to fight against the evil of bigotry. American elites thought that the battle had been won with the Obama presidency. They are horrified to discover that it has not. On the other side, the American people, in large part, got tired of the culture wars and the social justice crusaders. It wanted the nation to get back to business. Not the majority of voters in the presidential election but the majority of voters in all other elections.
Friedman describes the press attitude:
Journalists are taking every opportunity to find ways to criticize Trump. The Washington Post recently reported that a passenger asked a Pakistani couple on a United Airlines flight if they had a bomb in their bag and continued to harass them. Normally, a man acting like a jackass on a United flight would not be news. The Washington Post made it news, with the obvious intent to demonstrate how the president’s positions had triggered such rage. The president views the press as his enemy. The press views itself as the unbiased defender of the republic.
The press sees itself as what Friedman calls a guardian class. In Plato’s Republic the guardians were the philosopher kings who knew what was best for the populace. The best and the brightest, the most serious intellectuals would run the republic for everyone’s benefit. Being in love with Ideas they had no self-interest to muck up their reasoning. Such is the mindset of the press—and also the bureaucracy and many members of the judiciary.
By Friedman’s analysis, they are more self-interested than they believe. Trump has thrown them a lifeline and they are hold on for dear life.
Since this was a republic in which ordinary citizens were supposed to control the state, the role of the press was to be the guardian of the republic.
The real question is: who do the guardians answer to? What are the checks and balances that control them? Is it their supreme virtue? Or is it Jon Stewart telling them to go back to doing journalism?
In Friedman’s words:
The problem is the one posed by the Roman poet Juvenal: Who will guard the guardians?
The founders knew that government officials needed to be monitored by the press. They assumed that the press would be monitored by internal accountability. It has not always worked, particularly for what used to be called the prestige press.
The prestige press includes the Washington Post and the New York Times. They have now discovered that attacking Trump is good business. Funnily enough, every time Trump denounces the Times as a failing enterprise the Times management comes out to explain that Trump has done wonders for its online subscription business:
The press does this because they see Trump as a threat to the republic and because it is good business. The readers, listeners and viewers of the prestige press tend to be a minority of the market. Many draw news from other sources seen by the prestige press as beneath them. The press must hold on to readership, because if that readership falls even moderately, news organizations’ ability to stay in business would be in doubt. The readership consists overwhelmingly of people who despise the president. Every time the president attacks the press, their readers become more loyal to these publications. When Trump attacks these publications by name, their readers, like Trump’s followers, enter that interesting place where rage at your enemy turns into pure pleasure.
Friedman believes that the press is happy to write negative articles because it sustains reader hatred of Trump. Still, one finds it difficult to believe that the Times and the Washington Post are fomenting hatred. Don’t they know that hatred does not limit itself to a single object?
In Friedman’s words:
… reporters are happy to write constant negative articles on Trump that dominate their publications. In doing this, they mobilize their own base, not so much to vote – they will vote against Trump anyway – but to remain faithful to a publication now focused on reinforcing readers’ hatred of Trump.
Friedman explains that this war also serves Trump’s interests:
When you look up articles about Trump in The New York Times and The Washington Post, they appear as an unending barrage of attacks, some reasonable and some preposterous. But they all serve Trump’s interests. The prestige press’ unmodulated hostility helps Trump make the claim that he is under attack by elites hostile to his supporters. It allows him to make the reasonable claim that the press wants to destroy his presidency. Having as your opponent an institution distrusted by the public is very good politics.
According to Friedman press hatred allows Trump to consolidate his political base:
Trump must hold on to his base at all costs if he hopes to govern. The strategy he used to win the presidency was built on the assertion that Trump was engaged in a struggle against those who are indifferent to his supporters’ needs. At the center of this group was the press. Demonizing the press was not difficult. The low regard in which the press is held is extraordinary. According to a Pew Research Center poll, only 18 percent of respondents said they trust news organizations “a lot.” According to a Gallup poll, 32 percent of the public find the press reliable. One number is catastrophic and the other is merely disastrous. The press admires itself far more than the public it serves does.
It is, Friedman concludes, not a time for nuance:
From a political and business point of view, this is not a time for nuance. Each side must demonize the other, and each side feels aggrieved at having been demonized. Trump must hold his support, and the press is working hard every day to make sure that this happens. The press must hold on to its readership, and Trump is doing his part to help make sure the press survives, and even flourishes. The humor of the situation is that both are trying to hold on to their base and keep it from evaporating. Each is doing that by demonizing the other.