This essay is part of a series The New Yorker will be running through the election titled “Trump and the Truth.”
The irony of Donald Trump’s relationship with the press is that, while he has spent his entire campaign complaining bitterly about it, he has also sopped up more media attention than arguably any Presidential candidate in history. According to Andrew Tyndall, of the Tyndall Report, which tracks broadcast news, Trump received, in the period from January 1st to Labor Day, a combined eight hundred and twenty-two minutes of screen time on the nightly news broadcasts of ABC, CBS, and NBC. Hillary Clinton received three hundred and eighty-six minutes—and nearly ninety of her minutes were devoted to the controversy over the private e-mail server she used while Secretary of State. (Tyndall compiled these comparisons at the request of the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi, who reported on them last week.)
The coverage disparity can be attributed, at least in part, to journalism’s built-in bias toward the new. Mitt Romney got more airtime than Barack Obama in 2012, and Obama got more than John McCain in 2008. The Trump phenomenon is, of course, a new thing in so many ways. But Trump’s own thirsty courting of the media has also played a role. (As has Hillary Clinton’s reluctance to hold press conferences.) During the primary season, Trump regularly phoned in to the Sunday-morning interview shows, like a kid making prank calls while the rest of the family is at church. And until those news organizations decided that they didn’t want to be conducting interviews with the leading candidate for the Republican nomination that way, most took his calls: he racked up thirty such conversations, while none of the other candidates had one. Early on in his campaign, Trump’s press strategy looked like an attempt to re-create the cozy relationship he cultivated, in the nineteen-seventies, eighties, and nineties, with the New York tabloids, who had loved him for his excess and his accessibility. He kept them up to date on all his doings, and they kept him in boldface.
But that was back when he was a brassy, vulgar, and mendacious real-estate mogul. For a brassy, vulgar, and mendacious Presidential candidate, the rules are different, and he’s made it clear he doesn’t like them. Trump nakedly wants what maybe all politicians want, but few have the temerity to ask for: plenty of attention, all of it admiring. He appears to believe in a captive press, of the kind found, for example, in Benito Mussolini’s Italy or Fidel Castro’s Cuba. And he believes in a cult of personality—his own—that should obviate the need for questions. Just acknowledge his tremendousness and shut up. “Don’t believe the biased and phony media quoting people who work for my campaign,” he tweeted in May. “The only quote that matters is a quote from me!”
In the lead-up to Monday night’s debate, while the Clinton campaign was out encouraging live fact checking of the candidates, Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, offered a unique interpretation of what journalists do. “I really don’t appreciate campaigns thinking it is the job of the media to go and be these virtual fact checkers,” she said on Sunday, on ABC’s “This Week.” Since when is it not journalists’ job to check facts?
Before and after Monday’s debate, Trump did his tetchy, thin-skinned best to imply that the whole format was a setup, shot through with wily journalistic corruption. Last week, on Fox News, he accused Lester Holt, the debate moderator, of being a Democrat. (Holt is a registered Republican.) And, after the debate was over, Trump complained that “they” had given him a “defective mic.” He added, “I wonder, was that on purpose?” (That’s a species of excuse he’s used before: in February, after he failed, in one of this phone interviews with CNN, to disavow David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard, he blamed the affair on a “bad earpiece.”)
At various points during the campaign, Trump has put forward the idea that if you don’t know him personally, you have no business challenging or criticizing his proposals as a candidate for President. In March, when he met with the Washington Post’s editorial board, for example, he offered the following querulous remarks: “I’m not looking for bad for our country. I’m a very rational person. I’m a very sane person. I’m not looking for bad. But I read articles by you, and others. And you know we’ve never—We don’t know each other, and the level of hatred is so incredible, I actually said, ‘Why am I–why am I doing this? Why am I even here?’ “
One of the few fairly specific policy pledges that Trump has repeatedly made is that as President he would “loosen” or “open up” libel laws, so that, as he said at a campaign rally in Texas in February, “when the New York Times writes a hit piece which is a total disgrace or when the Washington Post . . . writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they’re totally protected.” It’s not clear how he would do this as President or whether he even could, and when he’s been challenged on those points he hasn’t made it any clearer, probably because he has no idea. (Surely, he hasn’t kept quiet for fear of offending the press, whom he’s referred to as “slime,” and “lying, disgusting people.”)
In the landmark 1964 case New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court laid out the modern understanding of libel law, establishing firm protections for the press. Sullivan made it much harder for a public figure to sue a newspaper for libel or defamation, compelling a plaintiff to show that a publication had “actual malice”—the knowledge that what it was publishing was false—or that it had substantial doubts about the truth of what it what publishing. The Court set the bar as high as it did because it saw a threat to democracy in libel laws. “Freedom to discuss public affairs and public officials is unquestionably . . . the kind of speech the First Amendment was primarily designed to keep within the area of free discussion,” Justice Hugo Black wrote in his concurring opinion. “To punish the exercise of this right to discuss public affairs or to penalize it through libel judgments is to abridge or shut off discussion of the very kind most needed.” The Sullivan ruling has been widely accepted, across the political spectrum, ever since. Even if a President Trump did have the opportunity to appoint several Supreme Court Justices, he would be hard-pressed to find a set who’d overturn it.
Trump’s comments on libel have evinced a juvenile understanding of both the Constitution and of jurisprudence. When Fred Ryan, the publisher of the Post, asked Trump if, by opening up libel law, he meant weakening standards like malice, Trump said nothing to indicate that he was familiar with either the legal sense of that term or with the Sullivan decision. “Yeah,” he said. “I think I would get a little bit away from malice without having to get too totally away. Look, I think many of the stories about me are written badly.” More frightening, though, is the way that Trump has spoken about the law as an instrument of personal vengeance—his way of getting back at his critics and making them pay. “We’re going to have people sue you like you’ve never got sued before,” he said, talking about reporters, at a February rally in Texas.
Donald Trump lies, a lot—that’s a fact and easy to prove, simply by reference to what he’s on the record saying. Lately, belatedly perhaps, the press has taken to labelling this habit of his explicitly. Last week, the Times made the unprecedented decision to refer to some of Trump’s statements as lies—starting with his long-held assertion that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. Dean Baquet, executive editor of the Times, explained the decision to NPR: “ I think to say that that was a ‘falsehood’ wouldn’t have captured the duration of his claim, to be frank, the outrageousness of his claim.” This weekend, the Times, the Post, Politico, and the Los Angeles Times all published articles about Trump’s lying. Politico fact-checked both Trump’s and Clinton’s statements over the course of an entire week and concluded that “Trump’s mishandling of facts and propensity for exaggeration so greatly exceed Clinton’s as to make the comparison almost ludicrous.” Clinton’s falsehoods belonged more recognizably in the realm of what politicians do so often: she obfuscated, or exaggerated, or was less than transparent in defending her handling of particular matters during her career in public life. She did not tend to lie, as Trump does, about what Politico called matters of “policy substance”—what one could also call demonstrable facts about the world.
“Dishonest” and “lying” are Trump’s go-to insults when talking about the press. Of course, journalism is often rife with errors and is sometimes even profoundly misleading—that’s the nature of an enterprise that requires deadline responses, that relies on sources with their own perspectives and biases, and that is always chasing after unfolding events, shifting truths and flickering attention spans. That’s not the same as describing the press writ large—let alone the even more meaninglessly capacious term “the media”—as “dishonest.” Republicans in the past have been more likely to accuse “the media” of liberal bias, and there they are on firmer ground. So it’s telling that Trump prefers “dishonest.” Trump is a candidate who deals in projection, who has a dim sense of his own faults that he then assigns to anyone but himself.
“A man who is unconscious of himself acts in a blind, instinctive way and is in addition fooled by all the illusions that arise when he sees everything that he is not conscious of in himself coming to meet him from outside as projections upon his neighbors,” Carl Jung wrote in his 1945 essay “The Philosophical Tree.” Blind, instinctive projections—welcome to the finals weeks of the Trump campaign.
Previously in the series: John Cassidy on Trump’s charitable giving, Jelani Cobb on black outreach as campaign ploy, Jia Tolentino on Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel, Adam Davidson on the interest-rate flip-flop, Adam Gopnik on conspiracy theories, Adam Davidson on the unemployment-rate hoax, and Eyal Press on immigration and crime.
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