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Donald Trump and the US Media Are in a Fight to the Finish
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Self-absorbed and irrational Donald Trump may well be, but on Thursday he held what was probably the most interesting and entertaining White House press conference ever. These are usually grimly ritualistic events in which select members of the media establishment, who have often come to see themselves as part of the permanent government of the US, ask predictable questions and get equally predictable replies.

The conventions of democracy are preserved but nobody is much the wiser, and the general tone is one of fawning credulity towards whatever line the administration is adopting. That this has long been the case was shown in the fascinating book about the press coverage of the 1972 presidential campaign, The Boys on the Bus by Timothy Crouse, which notes that negative popular perceptions of the media truckling to power is largely true of the White House correspondents, though not of other reporters.

For now, Trump reminds one more of a theatrical populist like Silvio Berlusconi than anything resembling a proto-fascist or authoritarian demagogue like Benito Mussolini. This perception may change as he secures his grip on the levers of power as he promises to do, blaming leaks from the US intelligence services on holdovers from the Obama administration.

But the lesson to be drawn from the history of all populist authoritarian regimes is that there is always a wide gap between what they promise and what they accomplish. As this gap becomes wider, the regime responds by concealing or lying about it through control or closure of the media. This was the trajectory in Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is holding a referendum in April which will establish an all-powerful presidency. In the run-up to the vote the Turkish media simply reports military failures in Syria as brilliant successes and even mildly critical tweets can lead to the tweeter being sacked or imprisoned. Press freedoms may never be extinguished to the same degree in the US, but then many Turkish journalists did not foresee what was going to happen to them.

At present, this is a golden era in American journalism, because established media outlets such as CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post find themselves under unprecedented and open attacks from the powers that be. Richard Nixon may have felt persecuted by press and television, but he never counter-attacked with the same vigour and venom as Trump. Discussions on CNN, which used to be notoriously soporific, have suddenly become lively and intelligent, and the same is true of the rest of the mainline media.

This radicalisation of the establishment media may not last and is accompanied by a significant rearrangement of history. Lying by the Trump administration is presented as wholly unprecedented, but what has really changed is the position of the media itself, forgetful of its past complicity in claiming that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction or that war in Libya would bring peace and democracy to that country.

“Fake news” and “false facts” are the battle cries in this ferocious struggle for power in Washington in which each side takes a high moral tone, while trying to land any low blow they think they can get away with. Trump, accused of everything aside from grave-robbing, is said to have been aided by the dark hand of Vladimir Putin in winning the election, in a manner that is far beyond Russian capabilities. The Kremlin is credited with demonic foresight whereby it sponsored Trump as a candidate in the presidential election long before any American politician or commentator thought he had a chance.

A bizarre feature of the present confrontation is that the Democrats and liberals have relaunched McCarthyism, something they would have decried as a toxic episode in American political history until a few months ago. Just as Senator Joe McCarthy claimed in 1950 to have a list of communist infiltrators in the State Department, so any contact between a Trump supporter or official and a Russian is now being reported as suspicious and potentially treacherous. It is difficult to see where Trump is wrong when he tweeted that “the Democrats had to come up with a story as to why they lost the election, and so badly, so they made up a story – RUSSIA. Fake news!”

Trump has a point, but he is also entirely hypocritical because he himself probably won the election because of the spurious significance given to Hillary Clinton’s private emails and her supposed responsibility for the killing of the US ambassador in Benghazi by jihadis. Paradoxically, she was blamed for one of the few bad things that happened in Libya that was not her fault. In recent decades it has been the Republicans who have made a speciality in promoting trivial offences or no offence at all into major issues in order to discredit political opponents. In the 1990s they succeeded in smearing the Clintons by elevating a minor unsuccessful real estate deal into the Whitewater scandal. Probably the biggest Democratic Party “false fact” success came in the Presidential election in 1960 when Kennedy claimed that the Republicans had allowed “a missile gap” to develop between the US and the Soviet Union, though he knew this was untrue since he had been officially briefed that the US had far more missiles than the Russians.

The phrases “fake news” and “false facts” give a misleading impression of what really happens in the course of political combat now or in the past. A direct disprovable lie, like Kennedy on the missile gap, is unusual. More frequent is systematic exaggeration of the gravity of real events such as Clinton’s emails or Trump’s Russian connections.

ORDER IT NOW

Sound advice on this was given 300 years ago in Dr John Arbuthnot’s wonderful treatise on “the Art of Political Lying”, published in 1712, which warns that once a false fact or lie is lodged in the public mind, it may be impossible to persuade people that it is untrue except by another lie. He says, as an example, that if there is a rumour that the pretender to the British throne in exile in France has come to London, do not contradict it by saying he was never in England. Rather “you must prove by eyewitnesses that he came no farther than Greenwich, but then went back again.” He warns against spreading lies about a political leader which are directly contrary to their known character and previous behaviour. Better to give credibility to a lie by keeping within realms of credibility, by blackening the name of a prince known to be merciful “that he has pardoned a criminal who did not deserve it.”

Arbuthnot assumes that political parties lie as a matter of course, and that the only way for the public to limit the power of governments is to lie as much as they do. He says that, just as ministers use political lying to support their power, “it is but reasonable that the people should employ the same weapon to defend themselves, and pull them down.”

Could this be the fate of Trump? He became president because false facts fatally damaged Hillary Clinton – and now the same thing is happening to him.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: American Media, Donald Trump, Fake News, Russia 
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  1. Anon • Disclaimer says:

    I don’t think the Benghazi incident did all that much harm to Sra. Clinton’s campaign. Sure, it demonstrated her ineptitude,but that was well known by then and shown in any number of ways.

    Benghazi, though it was mostly played out by the election,was a symbol of how stupid our foreign wars were, and the accompanying bizarre and failed coverup, blaming the Coptic filmmaker, a symbol of just how far detached from reality our rulers were.

    • Replies: @venice12
  2. A fight to the finish where one side is term-limited. I’m betting on the non-term-limited side,

  3. But the lesson to be drawn from the history of all populist authoritarian regimes is that there is always a wide gap between what they promise and what they accomplish. As this gap becomes wider, the regime responds by concealing or lying about it through control or closure of the media.

    This is not “the history of all populist authoritarian regimes”; this is the history of all regimes, period. The current oligarchico-elitist-technocratic regimes in the US and Europe possess exactly the same characteristics. These are characteristics of hierarchical power, not of any particular form it might take. Whoever holds power – be it a dictator, a clique, a socioeconomic class – will try to preserve and expand their hold.

    Here’s Italy today, without any ‘Berlusconi theatrics’:
    https://www.rt.com/news/377765-italy-fake-news-bill/

    • Agree: dfordoom
  4. The Al Bab campaign has been quite disastrous for Turkey, with its well-equipped NATO forces performing badly against IS, but it is dangerous for media workers to actually say so. There are plenty of people in jail for “off message” journalism.
    Although the state has long been repressive, until recently the Turkish media were rather diverse. Not any more.
    Incidentally, one survey suggests illiterates – often the rural pious – are particularly likely to vote “Yes” in Turkey’s referendum. Support for “No” tends to be highest among people with university degrees, but the AKP despises and is despised by the educated – after the failed coup attempt, at the funeral of one of the dead, the imam in Erdogan’s presence called on Allah to preserve them from the “malice of the educated”.

  5. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    But the lesson to be drawn from the history of all populist authoritarian regimes is that there is always a wide gap between what they promise and what they accomplish. As this gap becomes wider, the regime responds by concealing or lying about it through control or closure of the media.

    Yes, that’s their main difference from communistic regime: the latter always achieve what they promise. Or don’t they promise to kill people in the (sometimes tens) of millions before they take power?

    And that, their accomplishments, is what allows them to have free, pluralistic media in their countries. They have free, pluralistic information in their countries, right?

    I wish you’d help the readers here take yourself more seriously.

    • Replies: @El Dato
  6. venice12 says:
    @Anon

    ” how stupid our foreign wars were”

    The wars are not only stupid, but criminal, killing hundreds of thousands of people.

  7. nsa says:

    In a modern social democracy, it is impossible for even a partially honest citizen to be elected to public office. The voting masses simply will not stand for it. Any sign of veracity is punished mightily, whereas massive falsehood is embraced and rewarded. Typical example: to this day 70% of the American public agree with the statement that “Saddam was personally involved in the 911 attacks”. Agreement is even greater among the “educated”….except now many might blame the demonic Putin instead. This is not some kind of shocking recent development. Reread Plato’s Republic and his comments on “democracy” which he considered to be little more than glorified mob rule….2300 years ago.

    • Replies: @ThreeCranes
  8. El Dato says:
    @Anonymous

    Anon, please.

    You need to illustrate the difference between “populist authoritarian regime” and “communistic regime” that you seem to imply.

  9. @nsa

    Plato held that the human soul was composed of three parts, the thinking-rational part which was capable of dispassionately seeing the whole picture and acting impartially, the courageous part stirred to action by the noble impulse of defense and the appetitive part which was motivated by the lusts of the body. The three corresponded to three types of social classes, the Rulers, Guardians and those engaged in Commerce, the Gold, Silver and Bronze people respectively.

    Democracy is when those engaged in commerce rule. They are ruled by their appetites so for example quality of democratic life today is measured by crude GDP. The more stuff, the better. Democratic man indulges whatever appetite bestirs his fancy. One day he is on a fruit juice diet, the next the Paleo diet. He gives free rein to his impulses with impartiality. They are all equal in his estimation just as in a democracy each citizen’s vote is of equal weight with another’s. To exercise discrimination or to restrain any impulse is held to be an arbitrary and intolerable imposition.

    Democratic man is susceptible to manipulation by any politician who promises to allow citizens to indulge their appetites to the max. Unlimited consumption of barrel-sized jugs of corn-syrup laden slushes for everyone. Nothing is forbidden. Indulgence is good. Greed is good. And even more significantly, Good is Greed. Sex with children? Check. Sex changes? Check. Pillaging citizen’s savings? Check. Selling off a Nation’s assets and industrial secrets? Check. Drive the nation into bankruptcy by spending its people’s National treasure? Check. Snort the nation’s inheritance up your nose like a mile long line of coke, take a hit of Viagra and f*ck for eternity? Check, check, check.

    And mate.

  10. Trump should just go on toying with the media. They are digging their own graves with their hysteria and hyperbole.

  11. MB says: • Website

    “Trump has a point, but he is also entirely hypocritical because he himself probably won the election because of the spurious significance given to Hillary Clinton’s private emails and her supposed responsibility for the killing of the US ambassador in Benghazi by jihadis. ”

    One, probes into Benghazi will go nowhere because again it is a bipartisan approved op by the CIA to run guns from there to ISIS/Al Qeada in Syria. All parties were hoping it would go away, but no the mob killed our ambassador and contractors.
    Two, Obama’s bipartisan approved unconstitutional war with Libya along with the ongoing in Syria has further destabilized the ME and contributed to the tsunami of “refugees” raping their way through Europe. Jus sayin.
    Three, lots of little people have had their lives ruined for doing far less than Hillary. No, we are not talking about white female privilege, we are talking about govt. privilege. (Obama’s comment that we are a nation of laws afterward was hilarious. What, is he shooting for a permanent spot on SNL after the election?) She is incompetent, if not criminal and should have been nowhere near the presidential campaign, never mind a candidate. Yeah, Comey’s release on the eve of the election probably was what scuttled her run, but by all rights she should have been taken out long before. (Just so we are clear about bias, no, I haven’t voted for the Repug pres. candidate since the ’80’s.)

    IOW credibility much? The fakestream moron media is all about half truths. The back story not so much. Truth? You got to be kidding (thank you, Nancy Pelosi your contribution to the “discussion” has been duly noted.) The left and right media is essentially all about more big govt./socialism and whenever D strays from the party line the deep state cues the jackals, if they are taking a nap.
    We have a ruling class which tells the ruled all the ruling class thinks we need to know.

  12. Bill B. says:

    Why is it so difficult for smart liberals, such as I assume Mr Cockburn to be, to acknowledge that the crucial issue that got Trump elected was immigration.

    It was when he started to talk about immigration and The Wall that his campaign exploded into life. His convincing voters that he might just be serious about this won him the election.

    Trump’s loose canon persona that drives the MSM so crazy is precisely why his supporters will stick with him as a man willing to break with globalist shibboleths.

  13. Sean says:

    Not just the US media, in the conference he singled out the BBC’s Sopel, who has indeed repeatedly went pretty far out on a limb in a very opiniony way for a reporter. His own country’s media and every other country’s media hate Trump.

  14. Svigor says:

    Trump has a point, but he is also entirely hypocritical because he himself probably won the election because of the spurious significance given to Hillary Clinton’s private emails and her supposed responsibility for the killing of the US ambassador in Benghazi by jihadis.

    You can cook up any bullshit you want and put “probably” before it, and it’s not a lie, right Cockburn?

    Actually, probably not. There were myriad reasons that Trump whupped Clinton, biggest of which is that the electorate is tired of politics as usual.

    Hell, I’d just as soon credit his taco bowl tweet as Clinton leaks.

    “Suprious significance,” lol. If the “spurious significance” hurled at Clinton and Trump by the media were animals, the former would be a mouse, and the latter would be an elephant. If the media’s spurious significance were decisive, Trump would’ve lost in a landslide. You’ve got to be way past your sell date, if you think anyone’s going to buy that crap.

    ***

    Seriously, how old is Cockburn? I smell senility.

  15. Svigor says:

    Edit window craps the bed again:

    Trump has a point, but he is also entirely hypocritical because he himself probably won the election because of the spurious significance given to Hillary Clinton’s private emails and her supposed responsibility for the killing of the US ambassador in Benghazi by jihadis.

    You can cook up any BS you want and put “probably” before it, and it’s not a lie, right Cockburn?

    Actually, probably not. There were myriad reasons that Trump whupped Clinton, biggest of which is that the electorate is tired of politics as usual (immigration foremost).

    Hell, I’d just as soon credit his taco bowl tweet as the Clinton email coverup.

    “Spurious significance,” lol. If the “spurious significance” hurled at Clinton and Trump by the media were animals, the former would be a mouse, and the latter would be an elephant. If the media’s spurious significance were decisive, Trump would’ve lost in a landslide. You’ve got to be way past your sell date, if you think anyone’s going to buy that crap.

    ***

    Seriously, how old is Cockburn? I smell senility.

    • Replies: @Tim Howells
  16. Svigor says:

    Why is it so difficult for smart liberals, such as I assume Mr Cockburn to be, to acknowledge that the crucial issue that got Trump elected was immigration.

    In Cockburn’s case, it’s the usual anti-war/anti-American monomania that prevents these types from looking past the blinkers (perhaps aided by senility). The rest are just liars, cowards, traitors, etc. Nobody worth a damn is on the left any more.

    It was when he started to talk about immigration and The Wall that his campaign exploded into life. His convincing voters that he might just be serious about this won him the election.

    He was talking about immigration the day he announced his campaign, IIRC.

  17. Svigor says:

    Pat Cockburn is 66. A bit early for senility, but clearly over the hill. Brain crystallization set in long ago.

  18. Svigor says:

    Trump should just go on toying with the media. They are digging their own graves with their hysteria and hyperbole.

    Swear to God Trump should sell tickets. Proceeds from sales of tickets + merchandise can go to a good cause (build the wall, start a patriotic news network, etc.)

  19. @Svigor

    Seriously, how old is Cockburn? I smell senility.

    I’ve been following Cockburn for many years and regarded him as a valuable independent voice on Middle Eastern affairs. I’m really disappointed by the irrational knee-jerk leftist rants he’s been posting on Trump. He’s about to turn 67, so senility is possibly but not likely a factor. Just another casualty of Trump derangement syndrome, I’m afraid. Either that or he’s hoping to earn a spot as a talking head on CNN.

    • Replies: @another fred
  20. Fake news is yet another prediction that Trump will lose to the media.

  21. voicum says:

    Mr. Cockburn , did you really mean it when you uttered : CNN’s intelligent discussions ‘ ? If so you have lost the last crumbs of credibility you may have had.

  22. anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Trump talks to the American people and Trump does not talk down to the American people. The media talk at and down. Why is there confusion about hate for media and curiosity about Trump? Media and government do not connect to people because they want to run their own world and tell peasants what to do.

    Peasants have communications now quickly and widely and they did not have those when Communists were revolting. Media are scared to death of irrelevance and of loss of respect. Some journalists seem honest and want to get at truth but will they be allowed to follow the evidence or will they be told to follow the tether? That battle in media will see defectors and double agents to spill the beans on nomenklatura propagandists.

  23. @Tim Howells

    I’m really disappointed by the irrational knee-jerk leftist rants he’s been posting on Trump.

    It’s desperation. The closer the final plunge comes the more desperate and irrational some people become.

    Praise be to Nero’s Neptune, the Titanic sails at dawn
    Everybody’s shouting, “Which side are you on?!”

    Tends to make one really appreciate the courage of the musicians that played “Nearer My God to Thee.” At least they were true to their calling.

  24. As far as Trump’s “attacks” on the media, this “quote” comes to mind.

    My people are on the march and I must hasten to the front, for I am their leader.

    Attributed (probably falsely) to various leaders in various forms. Mr. Trump is playing catch-up.

    The only people who put any trust in the mainstream media are their fellow dedicated left-liberals, the rest of us have abandoned them long ago. The world is leaving you behind, Mr. Cockburn, not as it rolls on to glory, but as it goes to meet its destiny.

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