New Research Shows Why Trump's War With The Media Is Unusual And Dangerous

Apr 20, 2017

The president has called the media everything from scum to dishonest to fake news. According to recent research from legal scholars at the University of Utah and Brigham Young University, even Nixon didn’t use such harmful rhetoric against the press. But disbelieving the press means losing a lot more than just news.
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In February, President Donald Trump declared in the tweet that the media was fake news, failing and “the enemy of the American people.” Although other modern presidents had tensions with the press, University of Utah professor RonNell Anderson Jones said no president—including Nixon, Obama, Johnson and Carter—publicly declared an all-out war on the press like Trump.

“They just weren’t free to do so because of the realities at the time,” she said. “They needed the sort of symbiotic relationship with the press where the press needed them and they needed the press and there was an interrelationship that demanded some level or respect for this democratic institution.”

Jones and coauthor Brigham Young University professor Lisa Grow Sun wrote a paper titled “Enemy Construction and the Press,” which researches why Trump’s fighting words jeopardizes the other roles of the press. The paper was accepted for publication in the winter issue of Arizona State Law Journal and will be the plenary program at the Yale Freedom of Expressions Scholars Conference in April.

Trump’s dealings with the press coincide fit well with enemy construction principles outlined by German political theorist Carl Schmitt, the paper reports.

“One idea is that your world leaders divide the world for you into friend and enemy,” Jones said. “The government defines that for you and describes the ways in which those who are enemies will received different kind of treatment, often limited liberties or scaling back on constitutional norms that we might otherwise enjoy. We started to see some patterns in the Trump administration’s behaviors towards the press that maps pretty neatly onto this Schmittian worldview.”

In a September 2016 Gallup Poll, researchers found only a third of the American public has a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in mass media, and that was before Trump called the press the enemy. Jones said it’s difficult to determine whether Trump’s rhetoric led to the media’s decline in reputation or if he just took advantage of it in order to engage in this enemy construction.

“Donald Trump has sort of arrived on the scene at a particular technological moment at which enemy construction of the press is more viable because the press is more vulnerable to that,” Jones said. “He can speak to his millions and millions of Twitter followers and other social media followers without the press as a go-between.

“What we’re losing is not just an institution, but we’re also losing a set of functions. We’re losing the watchdog function, the checking function, the capacity of the press to look into his assertions and counter them.”

Jones said she isn’t taking the position that the press is never wrong or should never be critiqued. Instead, her research shows that something different is happening.

“We find ourselves in a really interesting position in our democracy where there isn’t a great deal of support amongst the American population for an institution that the Supreme Court has repeatedly told us is critically important to our ongoing vitality as a democracy,” Jones said.