What I Think

Media scholar on Trump TV: “This is Orwellian, and it’s happening right now, right here”

“Overall, since the president took office, President Trump has created more than 1 million new jobs, the unemployment rate is at a 16-year low, and consumer confidence is at a 16-year high — all while the Dow Jones continues to break records.”

That’s how Kayleigh McEnany, the lead anchor of President Trump’s “real news” series, began her first segment this week on Trump’s Facebook page. In a brisk 90 seconds, she breathlessly pumped pro-Trump propaganda as though it were “nothing but the facts.” [McEnany, a former CNN commentator, has also just been hired as the Republican National Committee spokesperson.]

As you might imagine, that 90 seconds was stuffed with lies, distortions, and wildly exaggerated claims. The Washington Post has a nice point-by-point breakdown of the segment here.

The “real news” series is part of a broader “Trump TV” project, which is based in Trump Tower and run by Lara Trump, the wife of Trump’s son Eric Trump and a former Inside Edition producer. (Lara launched the series last week with the words, “I bet you haven’t heard about all the accomplishments the president had this week because there’s so much fake news out there!”)

During the campaign, Trump was widely rumored to be using his platform as the GOP nominee to launch an online TV network. Evidently, that dream didn’t die once he got to the White House.

Trump is selling this as “real news” even though it’s filmed, produced, and scripted at Trump Tower and paid for by Trump’s reelection fund. But to many observers, this is indistinguishable from state propaganda. “Feels eerily like so many state-owned channels I’ve watched in other countries,” tweeted Michael McFaul, the former ambassador to Russia.

I spoke with Tom Rosenstiel, an author, researcher, media critic, and the current executive director of the American Press Institute. The author of The Elements of Journalism: What News People Should Know and the Public Should Expect, Rosenstiel has focused on the relationship between journalism and democracy for most of his career. I asked him if we’ve crossed a journalistic line here, and if this kind of propaganda represents the future of political media in this country.

“What makes Trump different,” he told me, “is that he’s systematically trying to delegitimize the news as an institution because they won’t cover him the way he wants to be covered. That’s what’s different here.”

You can read our lightly edited conversation below.


Sean Illing

I know you just watched the first episode of Trump’s “real news.” What was your impression?

Tom Rosenstiel

Well, the notion that a candidate or a political figure would put out press releases or generate information on their own is nothing new. What’s different here is this is the president of the United States doing it.

In an earlier era, the practical measure of whether this was meaningful or not would be how many people would watch this little clip, but today that’s a useless metric because this content will be shared and retweeted and perpetually redistributed. So we’ve no idea how large the audience will ultimately be.

The other thing, as the Washington Post article made so clear, is that even though these are only 90 seconds long, it’s riddled with errors and inaccuracies. That means Trump can spread media content that fact-checking independent journalists would never publish.

Sean Illing

How is this different from the state-run propaganda you see in North Korea or Russia? Do you see any meaningful difference?

Tom Rosenstiel

Sure I do. For now, it’s small and it’s competing with much larger independent media. This is still a fledgling effort by an unknown, young, blonde newscaster who is not actually a newscaster. Is this going to catch on? I don’t know. My guess would be no. Is it a dangerous effort? Absolutely.

Sean Illing

And why is it so dangerous?

Tom Rosenstiel

Because it smacks of state-run news, and we’re not supposed to have state-run news in the United States of America.

Sean Illing

Are there any precursors for this in American politics?

Tom Rosenstiel

Well, when Newt Gingrich took over Congress in 1995, there was a cable channel called GOP TV that was an attempt to do something along the same line. But this was 1995 and pre-social media. Everything is different now. Gingrich was recruiting a young generation of conservatives with video and audiotapes. These things were distributed in a kind of underground, private way. It’s far easier to disseminate information now.

What’s different here is this infotainment TV dynamic that will appeal to audiences that are acclimatized to watching cable news and accepting that as the primary news source. Trump has fully adopted the optics of that.

Sean Illing

They’re selling this as “real news” even though it’s filmed, produced, and scripted at Trump Tower [and] paid for by Trump reelection campaign funds.

Tom Rosenstiel

Sure, and the adoption of phrases like “fake news” and “real news” is alarming, especially coming from the president. This is Orwellian, and it’s happening right now, right here.

Sean Illing

We also can’t look at what Trump is doing in a vacuum. This is happening against the backdrop of two years of sustained and systematic attacks on the free and independent press.

Tom Rosenstiel

No question. Politicians have always tried to go over the heads of the press to speak directly to the American public. Roosevelt did it by being good at radio. Kennedy did it by being good at television. Reagan did it by mastering the photo op and the staged event.

What makes Trump different is that he’s systematically trying to delegitimize the news as an institution because they won’t cover him the way he wants to be covered. That’s what’s different here. He’s actively provoking people to distrust the news, to distrust information that doesn’t come from him. This is what demagogues and despots do.

Sean Illing

Have we crossed a political and journalistic threshold here?

Tom Rosenstiel

We’re crossing it right now. Have we completely crossed it? No, not yet. It’s a broad, expansive territory that Trump is trying to cross. The great threat here is if we lose a public square of accepted facts, citizens will be divided into camps where we all have our version of the facts. If we reach that point, we will not be able to come to common purpose, or have any common ground, or solve any problems.

My worry is that President Trump’s techniques are encouraging that. He’s encouraging a kind of fragmentation that we cannot recover from.

Sean Illing

What’s on the other side of that broad expanse?

Tom Rosenstiel

Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t know if on the other side of this we find a dissolved free press. Right now, we still have a free press that is alert and active. But what President Trump is doing is a direct threat to that, and we have to be clear about that. We can’t take these things for granted, because they can be taken away.

Sean Illing

I suppose the real danger is not that the press ceases to be free but that it becomes so hopelessly fragmented that the line between fact and fiction, news and propaganda, completely evaporates.

Tom Rosenstiel

In the end, the evaluation here will be whether Trump proves to be successful with this effort. If he fails, a lot effort and money will have been wasted on an unsuccessful strategy. And perhaps other politicians won’t seek to duplicate this. As it stands, members of Congress make their own videos and try to get their message out without going through the press, but they aren’t trying to repudiate role of the Washington Post or the New York Times or their local media.

What Trump is doing is alarming, to be sure, but for now this remains highly unusual. A lot more will have to happen before we declare this the end of a free and independent press.

Sean Illing

Is this the future of political media in this country? Where candidates circumnavigate the press and peddle their own propaganda via social media?

Tom Rosenstiel

I hope not. The current pattern is more media. There are more and more channels, more and more sites, more and more voices; we’re more segmented than ever. The traditional press has not disappeared, but it’s competing with more and more alternatives. I think the risk here is that everyone is in their own narrow reality and we don’t have a common set of facts and a common ground on which to govern — to the degree that an independent press that is committed to facts and verification diminishes, that encourages this pseudo-reality in which everyone is operating with a set of facts that are self-serving and self-fulfilling but completely unreal.

So the risk of losing an independent press, even if that press is very heterogeneous, is that you lose an institution that is dedicated to getting the facts right. Whether they’re partisan or not, they’re at least dedicated to getting the facts right.

If we lose that, we’re in a very dangerous place.

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