Many Democrats and journalists are worried that Donald Trump is an authoritarian-in-waiting who will make his bid to consolidate power by cracking down on Democratic institutions, beginning with the press. And maybe they’re right.
But Trump has a much easier path to gelding his newsroom critics: Driving them into fits of hysteria so that they torch their own credibility and the public starts shrugging off future efforts to hold him accountable. As the New York Times‘ Jim Rutenberg highlights, this process is already taking place:
The news media remains an unwitting accomplice in its own diminishment as it fails to get a handle on how to cover this new and wholly unprecedented president. […]
Given Mr. Trump’s past behavior, there was hardly any doubt that he was going to kneecap his inquisitors on Wednesday. It’s a passion, after all, if not a strategic imperative.
But BuzzFeed handed him the steel rod hours before, with its decision to publish an unvarnished dossier filled with unsubstantiated, compromising reports about Mr. Trump allegedly collected by Russian agents, presumably for blackmail purposes. […]
Every journalistic misstep gives more fodder to people who want to stop the efforts against “fake news” by turning the tables and labeling those efforts — or any other solid journalism they don’t like — as “fake news” as well, corrupting the term for their own purposes.
The media’s approval rating has been declining for a generation, but it entered freefall over the last year. Among Republicans, confidence in the mainstream media is close to destroyed, with just 14 percent saying they have even a “fair amount” of trust in the press, according to Gallup. Democrats are significantly more trusting, at 51 percent, although that is down from 70 percent in 2005. Among independents, the figure is 30 percent, closer to Republican levels.
High levels of polarization and partisanship mean that most Republicans will take the president’s side and Democrats will take the media’s side in their ongoing wars of attrition. If the press is to continue to hold sway, it will need to win the confidence of independents, who don’t hold Donald Trump in particularly high regard (by historical standards) but who do not exactly have warm feelings for the media, either. As Rutenberg says, high-level failures of judgment by major news organizations will continue to wear down the press’s approval ratings among this critical group. So will the ongoing perception of liberal bias, even if unintentional.
Maybe the critics are right that Trump will prosecute reporters and sue media organizations to protect himself from public accountability. But for now, it seems far more likely that if the Fourth Estate is diminished in the Trump era, it will have mostly itself to blame.