A long time ago, around the time of Donald Trump's inauguration as the 45th president of the United States, Matt Kiser, a product manager at a Seattle startup, decided to start a blog with the resonant title of What the F**k Just Happened Today?
Within four weeks Kiser’s chronicle of “the daily shock and awe in Trump’s America” had more than 48,000 newsletter subscribers and is now getting more than 2.5 million pageviews a month.
Kiser’s one-man enterprise now takes up six hours of his day and represents just one tiny shard in the seemingly never-ending news explosion detonated by Trump’s arrival in the White House.
His blog’s name reflects the feelings of many people around the world who wake up every day to yet more stories of norms being broken and blatant lies being told, along with extraordinary allegations that the new American presidency has been compromised by a hostile foreign power.
Trump has sold himself as a man of action while doing little other than promote an image of himself as someone who gets things done. It is the illusion of a presidency, not the real thing
Over the past week the intensity has diminished slightly, the early-morning tweets have subsided and the appointment of more mainstream replacements to the positions of national security adviser and labour secretary has calmed some nerves.
But experience suggests that the dialling down is temporary. Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference, or Cpac, on Thursday, Trump's chief strategist, Steve Bannon, declared that "every day it will be a fight".
Even in this slightly quieter week Trump dominates the media landscape like no one before. Look at any news website around the world and see how often those five letters crop up. The context is rarely reassuring. “US allies in Europe have literally no idea what’s going on in the Trump administration” is a not untypical headline.
Estimates by the analysis firm Quant of “earned media” – all coverage that isn’t paid advertising – in the US in January showed that Trump was not just the centre of attention: he received more coverage than the next 1,000 most-covered people combined. That’s all the Kardashians, Biebers, sports stars and politicians you’ve ever heard of.
Stories continue to leak out of a sieve-like White House, painting a picture of a chaotic, unprepared and fractious administration at odds with itself as much as with the world outside
"It's not that coverage of the new administration is unimportant," Farhad Manjoo writes in the New York Times this week. "It clearly is. But social signals – likes, retweets and more – are amplifying it. Every new story prompts outrage, which puts the stories higher in your feed, which prompts more coverage, which encourages more talk, and on and on.
“We saw this effect before Mr Trump came on the scene – it’s why you know about Cecil the lion and Harambe the gorilla – but he has accelerated the trend. He is the Harambe of politics, the undisputed king of all media.”
The illusion of a presidency
In the 36 days since his inauguration the president has, among other things, sparked outrage and mass demonstrations with a ban on travellers from Muslim-majority countries, fired his acting attorney general for refusing to defend the ban and questioned the authority of the federal judges who blocked the policy as unconstitutional.
He provoked the cancellation of a summit with the Mexican president, hung up on Australia’s prime minister, authorised (over dinner) a fatally botched commando raid in Yemen, made absurd and clearly false claims about the number of people who attended his inauguration, lied about voter fraud in the 2016 election and was forced, in the course of an extraordinary press conference, to acknowledge his false claims about the historic margin of his electoral-college victory.
It may be gripping, and sometimes terrifying, but how much of it is meaningful or real? “There is a wide gap, a chasm even, between what the administration has said and what it has done,” Zachary Karabell writes on Politico. He points out that despite all the noise about Trump’s executive orders he lags behind Barack Obama’s pace on the number of orders issued.
“More crucially, with the notable exception of the travel ban, almost none of these orders have mandated much action or clear change of current regulations,” he says.
“So far, Trump has behaved exactly like he has throughout his previous career: He has generated intense attention and sold himself as a man of action while doing little other than promote an image of himself as someone who gets things done. It is the illusion of a presidency, not the real thing.”
Meanwhile stories continue to leak out of a sieve-like White House, painting a picture of a chaotic, unprepared and fractious administration at odds with itself as much as with the world outside. Kellyanne Conway, who used to be Trump's campaign manager and is now a senior adviser and sometime spokeswoman, and Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, have made flatly contradictory statements about presidential policy, while Thursday's chummy public conversation at Cpac between Bannon and Trump's chief of staff, Reince Priebus, was clearly intended to rebuff suggestions that they're conspiring against each other.
This is not Watergate
How can we make sense of all this? Is it, as some insiders have described it, just a trainwreck, an administration staffed by incompetents who have never served in government before?
Or is it, as others suggest, a deliberate strategy to continue the improvisational, disruptive, take-no-prisoners approach that turned conventional wisdom upside down and won Trump the presidency?
Could it be both?
There has been a ferocious response to critical journalism by a White House that from the start has been intent on characterising the establishment media as the real opposition
Whatever the answer, it’s keeping journalists busy. “The news cycle begins at sunrise, as groggy reporters hear the ping of a presidential tweet, and ends sometime in the overnight hours, as newspaper editors tear up planned front pages scrambled by the latest revelation from Washington.
"In consequence and velocity, the political developments of the past four weeks – has it been only four weeks? – are jogging memories of momentous journalistic times," two New York Times journalists wrote this week, conjuring up misty memories of Watergate.
But despite some parallels this is not 1973. There has been a ferocious response to critical journalism by a White House that from the start has been intent on characterising the establishment media – the New York Times, the Washington Post and CNN in particular – as the real opposition.
This is against the backdrop of an existential crisis in the business model of newspapers and an ideological challenge to the legitimacy of traditional news-media outlets, along with a conservative-media insurgency led by talk radio, cable-TV stars, so-called alt-right troll mobs on social media, and far-right websites such as Breitbart News.
Bannon, the former chairman of Breitbart now ensconced at Trump’s side, has made his views plain. “The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while,” he said in an interview in January.
"The media here is the opposition party. They don't understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States."
On Thursday, Bannon told Cpac that the “corporatist, globalist media” is “adamantly opposed to an economic nationalist agenda like Donald Trump has”.
The long-term project of discrediting existing news media has been in train for a long time, as the New York University academic Jay Rosen pointed out before the inauguration. "Since 1970 it has grown from questioning the motives of people covering a Republican president in the speeches of Spiro Agnew, to countering liberal spin with the personalities at Fox News, to mistrusting all of the mainstream (or drive-by) media with Rush Limbaugh, and now to a place beyond that," he wrote.
The Fox News host and talk-radio presenter Sean Hannity " – who is probably closer to Trump than any other media figure – recently said on air: 'Until members of the media come clean about colluding with the Clinton campaign and admit that they knowingly broke every ethical standard they are supposed to uphold, they should not have the privilege, they should not have the responsibility of covering the president on behalf of you, the American people.'
"In other words, the mainstream press should not be allowed to cover Trump. A few years ago that was a bridge too far. Now it's a plausible test of poisoned waters."
A polarised climate
The best form of resistance to such a strategy is to produce well-sourced, verifiable journalism about matters of serious public interest. The Washington Post and New York Times did exactly that with their stories about the dismissal of Mike Flynn, Trump's national-security adviser.
The Post's revelation that Trump had been informed of the facts weeks previously precipitated the final firing. The Times offered detailed revelations of US intelligence files on links between Trump's election campaign and the Russian government. Both stories were based on information leaked from within government agencies, opening up a new front in the information wars.
Conservative commentators point to the obvious resistance coming from within US intelligence as evidence of the “deep state”, a phrase originating in Turkey and used to describe hidden conspiracies within bureaucracies against the elected government of the day.
Other observers have speculated that the scale of the current leaks is due to a desire to get as much information as possible out before the administration asserts control over the agencies.
The president himself has discovered a distaste for leaks that was not apparent during the election campaign. “Leaking, and even illegal classified leaking, has been a big problem in Washington for years. Failing @nytimes (and others) must apologize!” he tweeted, adding in a second post that “the spotlight has finally been put on the low-life leakers! They will be caught!”
In such a polarised climate one recurring criticism of the media in the United States (and elsewhere) is that it is populated by self-selecting groups who are ideologically conformist and don't represent the views of the country as a whole. The media commentator Michael Wolff derided the New York Times for its one-sided approach to the president.
"From the New York Times's increasing view, you are either for Trump, a moral no-man's land, or you are against him," Wolff, a biographer of Rupert Murdoch, wrote. "There is no journalism in between."
Wolff criticised the newspaper for its analysis of tensions that have emerged in the Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal, where reporters have complained of stories being toned down, citing judgment-neutral headlines such as "Trump seeks election fraud probe".
“Presumably this should have been something more like, ‘Fraudster Trump seeks no-fraud-whatsoever election probe’, Wolff snarked.
His criticism does highlight a potential problem for newspapers such as the Times when it takes unprecedented editorial decisions such as using the word "lie" to describe a presidential statement.
The newspaper has seen a surge in digital subscriptions since Trump’s election. And its current marketing campaign explicitly positions it as a bulwark against the implied threat of the new administration.
The danger is that these commercial trends might drive the news media into the trap set for it by Bannon and his ilk, and become defined purely by its perceived ideology rather than by the quality and reliability of its reporting.