Subscriber OnlyOpinion

Kathy Sheridan: Media wakes up to the danger of Trump tactics

US president-elect has had thousands of hours of airtime for his flights of ignorance

There was a time when journalists who had left the industry for professional politics and then returned, were obliged to undergo quarantine – work at arm’s length from their old speciality – for a while. The purpose was to lend distance and shake off any residual partisanship. People may sneer at the point of such lofty ideals in this era of glorious disruption, but what is the alternative?

The alternative is a sitting member of parliament, a wannabe prime minister banished to the back benches, bursting with umbrage and desperate for exposure, endorsement and vindication, flying off to conduct a supposedly neutral interview with a profoundly controversial world leader.

The MP, of course, is Michael Gove, the antithesis of the neutral interviewer, clearly courting favours from the interviewee. The gurning photograph of Gove and his prize, their little thumbs aloft as if they have swept all before them in the pub darts tournament, tells us all we need to know.

The silliness of it might be entertaining if the implications were not so grave. It is clear that the ultra-sensitive Donald Trump intends to grant audiences only to those who share his views and will spread the word of his gilded greatness. Asked why he hadn't asked any difficult questions, Gove replied: "That's easy. One of the things about Donald Trump is that he doesn't like people asking him any questions. A question is just a prompt to the next flow of rhetoric and information."


Contradicting himself

The net result was that even while Trump was contradicting himself within the same sentence, Gove let him ramble on without a single challenge.

There is a case for allowing interviewees to talk unimpeded; sometimes it reveals their true mindset. But Trump has already been gifted thousands of hours of priceless airtime for his unchallenged flights of incoherence and ignorance.

The new political world order is like "playing chess with a pigeon", in the words of Turkish commentator Ece Temelkuran. What Gove probably meant to say is that the pigeons are winning.

“You always wanna go by what’s come out of [Trump’s] mouth rather than look at what’s in his heart,” said his strategist, Kellyanne Conway, with a straight face, recently. Why, yes, that would indeed be the prerequisite for honest, transparent, accountable leadership. Not in Pigeon World, though.

We saw Trump run rampant at his press conference last week, when he called CNN “fake news” then refused to take a question from a CNN journalist, accusing him prissily of being “rude”.

The ignoramus who spent years chipping away at Barack Obama’s legitimacy, who linked Ted Cruz’s father to John F Kennedy’s assassination, who blamed hacking victims for getting hacked, prisoners of war for getting captured and women for “letting” him grab their crotches, has the neck to accuse others of being “rude” or disseminating fake news or trying to delegitimise him.

Fox News's Shep Smith said on his show that neither CNN nor any other journalists "should be subjected to belittling and delegitimising by the president-elect of the United States". When Fox New is alarmed, we have reached peak madness.

Beyond inauguration day on Friday, it can only get worse. Sorry, that should read Monday – "I mean my day one is gonna be Monday because I don't want to be signing [an order] and get it mixed up with lots of celebration," Trump explained, like a dozy 13-year-old checking out Instagram while crossing a busy street.

So who will stand up to him? "Dear fellow pundits," writes celebrated economist Paul Krugman. "Writing about what Trump 'must' do (to show his good intensions, etc) is pathetic at this point. He is what he is." That much is evident.

The media is waking up to the danger, realising that their only power lies in solidarity, finally aware that in Pigeon World, the old ideal of the neutral voice is a lame tool. How can they be neutral in a world where King Pigeon lies routinely and is adept at planting diversions when a serious potential scandal threatens to reach critical mass? Think of the idiotic yet timely 3 am tweets.

Tame questions

The Washington Post is fighting back, not with a Gove, but with a Twitter account called @realDonaldCntxt, designed to challenge missing context in his tweets. That's laudable, but how many Trump voters read The Washington Post? His strategists already have plans to pack his press conferences with "journalists" who can be relied upon to ask tame questions.

Meanwhile, as Northern Ireland teeters and the 1986 State papers remind us of the consequences of rampant egos, the Brexiteers – of whom Gove was a prime mover – agitate over getting their blue passports back and gloat with Trump, Putin and the far right over the potential unravelling of Europe.

No doubt the same cast will be at the forefront of the various first World War commemorations planned for this year and will see no contradiction.