BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. What defines a shiny object? In the Trump era, it’s the latest outrage or lie, ethical violation or Twitter tantrum dominating the headlines and igniting the pundits on cable news. This week, the White House moved to lower emissions standards for cars, weaken oversight of its most high-risk nuclear facility, is being sued by four cities for violating the law by undermining the Affordable Care Act. And Trump sided with the House and against the Senate for stiffer work requirements for food stamps. It didn't make a dent. Seduced by shiny object, it's what marks we who tweet or post or report the news as perpetual suckers, distracted, yet again, from the crucial and complex. But how could it be otherwise? The bombardment is so relentless, it’s impossible to appraise each individual burst. That is, until you realize that, really, there's only one shiny object, and that’s the president, himself, fulgent as a forest fire, incinerating whatever stands in his way.
LESLIE STAHL: At one point he started to attack the press. And it’s just me and my boss and him, and he has a huge office. And he’s attacking the press, and there were no cameras, there was nothing going on. And I said, you know, that is getting tired. Why are you doing this? You’re doing it over and over…
BROOKE GLADSTONE:60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl snagged President Trump’s first post-election TV interview in November 2016.
LESLIE STAHL: …why do you keep hammering at this? And he said, you know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all, so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In May of 2017, Politico published a major piece titled “Trump’s Fake War on Fake News,” arguing that he didn’t mean it, it was just a game. Quote, “In societies around the world, anthropologists have observed a phenomenon called ritualized warfare, a sort of pantomime of battle, most famously observed among the Dani people of Papua New Guinea, who would regularly line up in formation to shout insults and shoot arrows at warriors from rival villages. The practice results in a lot of noise and relatively little bloodshed, allowing both sides to advertise their courage and vent emotion, while avoiding catastrophic loss of human life.
GREG SARGENT: Even if that were true, does it matter? His supporters believe him. You can’t watch those videos from the Tampa rally without coming away pretty persuaded that his supporters have concluded that the press is their enemy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Greg Sargent is a writer for the Washington Post and its Plum Line blog. Obviously, he noted, all presidents wrestle with their press.
GREG SARGENT: Most presidents, no matter how contentious their relations with the media got, still viewed the media begrudgingly as a legitimate institution with an important role to play in, in our democracy, and, and I think we have to take that seriously. He has adopted an approach which rests on as much deliberate provocation as possible, designed to make as many people in as many quarters as possible as angry [LAUGHS] as possible.
We also really need to be blunt about the fact that the provocations are racist, right? When he refused to unambiguously condemn the white supremacists in Charlottesville, he was deliberately sidestepping his institutional responsibility to speak to the country in a unifying and conciliatory way and choosing, instead, to stoke racial tensions at a moment of searing national introspection.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’ve probably seen at least one of the tapes posted as an enraged crowd of Trump supporters, men, women and their children at a Trump rally in Tampa jeering at CNN’s Jim Acosta, giving him the finger and screaming, “CNN sucks.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You may not have heard Fox's Sean Hannity, herald of the common man, offering CNN's Acosta some tough love.
SEAN HANNITY: Jim, they’re not wrong. It’s not false. I’m gonna actually give your network some advice, if you have an open mind and an open heart, maybe a little humility. The people of this country, they’re screaming at you for a reason. They don't like your unfair abusively biased treatment of the president of the United States.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Acosta said he stopped and talked to some of his detractors in Tampa. Evan Axelbank, a reporter with Fox 13 Tampa Bay, also covering the rally, tweeted that, quote, “Trump supporters can boo and say forever that they hate CNN and Acosta but after the cameras are off all I can see is them asking his opinion on everything under the sun and if they can take pictures with him. It’s quite a phenomenon and he handles it like a pro.
RON PAUL SUPPORTERS: Fox News Sucks, Fox News Sucks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In a similar but arguably less alarming situation in 2008, Hannity, the people’s herald, took a different path. Rather than listening to the salt-of-the-earth truth-loving Ron Paul supporters screaming “Fox sucks,” he fled into a hotel lobby.
MAN: You suck, Sean.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The first time Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee-Sanders confronted press questions about the rage in Tampa, she said the media do bad things too, citing a long debunked story about how the media jeopardized crucial intelligence on Osama bin Laden.
PRESS SECRETARY SARAH HUCKAGBEE SANDERS: Unfortunately, it’s now standard to abandon commonsense ethical practices. This is a two-way street. We certainly support a free press, we certainly condemn violence against anybody, but we also ask that people act responsibly and report accurately and fairly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It was another case of what about-ism. Trump increasingly profits from the businesses he never stepped away from when he took the presidency but what about the Clinton Foundation? His pal Putin murders people but America does bad things too. There was fault on all sides in Charlottesville. Don’t look at the angry mob in Tampa, unless, of course, you approve. Look, instead, at the lying press.
GREG SARGENT: It essentially invites supporters to indulge themselves in faceless and phony resentments as a way to not take seriously whatever issue is at hand, right? And then when people criticize that, you hear, well, what about the media’s lies? Well, again, you know, the media doesn’t lie the way Trump does and it corrects itself as much as it can.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Some of the media.
GREG SARGENT: Yeah, but the point is that the what about-ism in this particular case invites his supporters to just shrug off extremely serious abuses.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And his son approvingly tweets out the harassment with the caption hashtag #truth.
GREG SARGENT: The hashtag #truth I believe was meant to apply to the “CNN sucks” chant but, even so, I mean, Eric Trump is saying, we like this, Daddy Trump likes this. And then, of course, Trump himself tweeted it. And so, it’s a direct encouragement to do more of it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: According to a Quinnipiac poll conducted in April, 53 percent of respondents said they trusted the news media over President Trump; 81 percent of Republicans said they trusted Trump over the media. When asked if the news media are the enemy of the people or an important part of democracy, 66 percent of respondents said they were an important part of democracy; 51 percent of Republicans chose “enemy of the people.” Jim Acosta at Thursday's press briefing.
JIM ACOSTA: For, for the sake of this room, the people who are in this room, this democracy, this country, all the people around the world are watching what you’re saying, Sarah, and the White House for the United States of America, the president of the United States should not refer to us as “the enemy of the people.” His own daughter acknowledges that, and all I’m asking you to do, sir, is to acknowledge that right now and right here.
PRESS SECRETARY SANDERS: I, I appreciate your passion. I share it. I’ve addressed this question, I’ve addressed my personal feelings. I’m here to speak on behalf of the president. He’s made his comments clear.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: If this program were fixated on the president’s anti-press obsession, which we could feasibly be, you wouldn’t listen to it. Neither would we. But viewed as the tip of the spear in his war on accountability, on evidence, on reality, itself, that’s something else. Wielding hatred as a distraction from the real problems hiding in plain sight, creating scapegoats to absorb the bitterness of the disenfranchised, while the rich and powerful persist in enriching and empowering themselves, that’s malignant stuff, brutal stuff. But in some major media precincts, there are those who say Trump is making America great again.
GREG GUTFELD: As optimism in the country grows and as more people reject the mainstream media, journalists get furious, like mean girls uninvited to the prom.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Greg Gutfeld, one of the Fox Five.
GREG GUTFELD: It began when Trump was elected, when Paul Krugman and his ilk then predicted, of course, economic collapse. Wrong again, you jackasses.
The economy is on fire, which is the only reason you can afford therapy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The economy hasn't changed much for me. For the rich though, it is on fire. For the poor, it’s scorched earth. According to a recent UN report, 18-1/2 million Americans suffer extreme impoverishment. The White House says it's a quarter-million. One in five American children is impoverished.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: But it’s all working out. And just remember, what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening. And I’ll tell you, I have so many people that are so in favor --‘cause we have to make our country truly great again. Remember? Make America Great Again. And then in two and a half years it’s called Keep America Great. So the way we keep America great…
BROOKE GLADSTONE: At least I can afford therapy, so I guess America is great, for me. And in the world according to Trump, who else is there, really?
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BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, is plastic artillery free speech?