Trump is not fighting the press but the very concept of reality
Analysis: Forget the White House circus – it is time reporters were redeployed to the real world
Only days into his presidency, Donald Trump and his advisors are already at war not only with the opposition and the mainstream media, but with the very concept of reality itself.
Mr Trump’s claim on Saturday that the media lied about the size of his inauguration crowd were amplified later that day at a surreal White House press briefing.
Almost shouting at times, Trump press spokesman Sean Spicer accused the assembled reporters - and millions more watching on television - of deliberately framing photographs and video to conceal “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period”.
He then left the room without taking questions or providing any evidence to support his allegations, which are flatly contradicted by all the available evidence.
This ripping-up of the reality-based rule-book will do nothing for the morale of the White House press corps, already spooked by rumours that Trump wants to evict them from their traditional home in the West Wing.
Trump’s people have not confirmed this, but say that future briefings could moved to a bigger venue than their current room in the West Wing; Trump wants more space for his supporters in the far-right online commentariat.
Wary of any erosion of existing privileges and access, the White House Correspondents’ Association has proactively denounced “any move that would shield the president and his advisers from the scrutiny of an on-site White House press corps”.
But here’s the thing: why should anyone assume that the White House press corps will be capable of holding Trump to scrutiny, whether it is based on-site or not?
It is now clear that Mr Trump has very little knowledge of the truth, and even less interest in it. Many of his statements are starkly contradictory, or – like his claim that his inauguration crowd was bigger than President Obama’s in 2009, or the women’s protest march on Washington last Saturday – demonstrable lies.
His pre-inauguration “press conference” in Trump Tower consisted mainly of trash talk and boasting, backed by a hollering mob of supporters. It was like the shouty bits between bouts in pro wrestling, except less scripted, and a good deal less witty.
If the presidency turns into a circus, why should the fact-based media stay in the tent? And what is the point of these press briefings anyway, in a world of instant information and pervasive social media?
I have never been to a White House press briefing, but I’ve attended many other press conferences involving heads of state and the like. The pattern is always broadly the same.
At the front of the room, senior reporters from the TV networks and major print media compete for the privilege of asking The Questions. The winners get their voices, and possibly faces, onto the rolling bulletins. This is a very big deal to them.
Yet to the people at home it makes no difference who asks the questions. The reporters standing at the back of the conference get just as much information as those at the front. They would, if they could, ask exactly the same questions, and receive the same replies.
Trump could be doing the media an unwitting favour if he shuts down this dog and pony show. Highly-paid veteran reporters could then be redeployed to the real world, to dig out unpleasant facts and talk to actual people - the kind of old fashioned first-principles footwork which is never, ever done by the new breed of Net Nazis and online opinion-slingers, who know the world only through the filter of their screens.
Meanwhile the distasteful business of sifting for nuggets in the torrent of White House bullshit could be re-assigned to a relatively small pool of junior reporters. It would harden them up for the real work ahead.
At a time of collapsing budgets and a crisis of relevancy, the established media can no longer afford to dedicate so much of its dwindling resources to empty pieties and processes.
In Ireland, too, we see how much priority, in terms of personnel and column inches, is wasted on the posturings of our professional politicians, even though the real decisions are made in private jets zipping our business “leaders” between tax havens, and in the boardrooms of vulture funds and Goldman Sachs.
Such hollowed-out news breeds disillusionment, not only with the message but with the messenger as well. The mainstream media bleeds credibility, which is gleefully soaked up by the online mob of trolls, bots and haters. They at least are seldom dull.
Whatever you may think, most professional journalists care deeply about the truth, and try to interpret known facts as scrupulously as possible. They often make mistakes. Wealthy proprietors, where they exist, will find ways to induce self-serving distortions. Yet very few old-school reporters will, like many of their new online rivals, simply make things up.
But is it still good enough merely not to be fake? When the mainstream media runs pious stories about Enda Kenny’s longterm policies, as if he had any, or about ESRI statements trumpeting an economic recovery, or pieces advising precarious young people how to save up for a house and a pension, are they not guilty of misleading reporting?
These kinds of stories are all strictly true. People in big offices really did say those things; the financial advice would be good if the youngsters had real jobs and money. But they don’t feel true, not to the struggling majority. They are “fakey” - not made up, but in practice irrelevant.
It is just over 10 years since the Irish-American satirist Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” to describe the opposite of “fakeyness” – the emotionally satisfying but factually bankrupt far-right propaganda pumped out by the likes of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News.
A few months later, Colbert was invited to speak at the annual cosy dinner of the White House Correspondents’ Association, at which the presidency traditionally exchanges in-jokes with the press corps. Colbert’s brutal filleting of Bush that night has gone into legend. But his deepest cut was reserved for the journalists.
“The President makes decisions . . . The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down . . . Just put ‘em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration? You know, fiction!”
Ed O’Loughlin is an author and journalist.