Donald Trump and the Press: Somewhere Old Bolsheviks are Smiling

By In the National Interest Archives
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"The press should be not only a collective propagandist and a collective agitator," Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov wrote in 1901, "but also a collective organizer of the masses."  Ulyanov, also known as Vladimir Lenin, couldn't have penned a better description of Donald Trump's media strategy today.  Lenin wrote the line when he was editor of Iskra, a newspaper published by revolutionary exiles who smuggled it into Russia hoping to fire up opposition to the Czar's regime.  Whether he credits the source or not, that Trump is channeling the former Soviet Union's founding father is as plain as the crossed hammer and sickle on the failed communist empire's national flag. 

Let's stipulate that many of Trump's tactics shouldn't be overthought.  They are what they are.  In labeling journalists "enemies of the people," lying about factual reporting and lambasting their stories as "fake news," Trump is frontally assaulting professional reporters and their work.  Like the Red Army's use of massed artillery barrages in World War Two, the goal is obvious: to pound the enemy -- in this case, the Fourth Estate -- into the ground.

But Trump's riff on Lenin isn't only about intimidating reporters, undermining journalism's credibility or sowing confusion about the facts.  It also involves cultivating news outlets that -- to quote the old Bolshevik -- will follow the "the general line of the party" no matter what.  In fact, in using willing collaborators to help "organize the masses," Trump and his team are already affecting the news and how it works.

Secretary of State Pompeo's proselytizing among the faithful is the recent case in point.  This month, a briefing on the administration's policy regarding religious freedom by Pompeo, a loyalist who lip syncs his boss, excluded all reporters except those from "faith-based" media.  The State Department denied requests from non-religious news organizations to participate.  Although Pompeo reportedly ranged widely over foreign policy issues, officials refused to release a transcript of his remarks.  

The handpicked congregation and its privileged access speak for themselves.  The unusual act of selecting an audience represents more than an effort to spin a story, or to invite sympathetic reporters to leaven the State Department's assigned media crowd.  Time will tell how far Trump will push curating the press corps.  But there's reason to speculate the invitation-only event just might be a trial run to see the results of even more aggressively marshalling friendly reporters as political tools.

Take the character of Pompeo's chosen few.   With Trump's campaign for 2020 gearing up, experimenting with faith-based news organizations is an excellent testbed to gauge reactions as well as their value in peddling the White House line.  Moreover, Trump already has quite a roster on staff.  Among religious broadcasters, for example, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell carry water for the White House on-air daily to viewers who, polls say, regard Trump as their best hope. 

The political partnering, of course, didn't start with Trump.  Professor Jason Bivans, who studies religion and politics, made the point in an insightful essay last year:  "In the 1990s, the growth of multinational corporations and trade deals was decried as part of a demonic 'new world order.'  And today, when Islamophobia is on the rise, Christian television channels depict and celebrate President Trump as the fighter-in-chief, who defends Christians despite his personal faults."

At this point, it would be a safe bet that Trump will push the envelope in mobilizing sympathetic media.  After all, after tossing out other past press practices, why stop now?  White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has ditched daily press briefings.  The number of presidential press conferences rank near the bottom of the list.  And Trump's treatment of obstreperous reporters continues to show no bounds.  This month, he called for firing members of the media who reported accusations raised during special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe.

Trump, of course, doesn't have to look for niche news purveyors to find compliant media.  Fox News, an all but an official White House outlet, remains his on-air home as well as de facto ministry of truth.  Despite criticism from a few marquee names when he strays from the far right fringe, talk radio's hosts and their station management remain mouthpieces eager to repeat the lines Trump inserts.  In the wake of the Mueller investigation's conclusion, there's little doubt their sycophancy will only strengthen as Trump claims victory and seeks revenge.

In the final analysis, a cynic might say stop clutching your pearls.  All presidents have had their special relationships with the press.  Franklin Roosevelt charmed reporters and then used radio to bypass them with his brilliant fireside chats; Nixon cultivated -- even if he privately scorned -- the columnists whose opinionating favored his White House; John Kennedy stayed close to his buddy, Ben Bradlee, subsequently the Washington Post's storied editor who later rebuked himself for not looking harder as a news magazine reporter at the administration his friend led.

All true, but Lenin is providing a different lesson: how fragile, even ephemeral the rules are -- including for the media and its role -- that make a democracy work.  Today's Washington underscores the point.  From a cabinet rife with conflicts of interest to a White House that has backhanded tax disclosures, nepotistic appointments and a pesky constitutional emoluments clause, the reason why is hidden in plain sight. 

Leaving Independence Hall in Philadelphia in 1787 after the final day of the Constitutional Convention, a lady stopped Benjamin Franklin and asked, "What do we have, a republic or a monarchy?"  Franklin replied, "A republic, if you can keep it."  As the publisher of the Pennsylvania Gazette and an ardent advocate of free speech, it wouldn't be a surprise if Franklin answered with the importance of a free press in mind.

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