BERLIN – U.S. President Donald Trump is often criticized for talking too much about the media, burning out on cable news and sparking crises via Twitter. All of the above may be correct, but so might something else: that there is an enormous project under way, one that has the potential to reshape the United States more than any wall or trade deal.
As the head of the U.S. government, Trump’s done less than most of his predecessors in his first weeks in power. But he’s done far more to introduce an alternative narrative into the mainstream news agenda. From the inauguration weekend brawl over crowd sizes, he’s functioned as a malicious editor-in-chief laying traps for The New York Times and CNN with one hand while boosting conservative outlets big and small that reaffirm his worldview.
Trump’s initial executive order banning entry to the U.S. to the nationals of seven Muslim countries was shot down by the courts, but it was exhaustively covered, drawing a bright line with the Obama administration and Democrats for supporting more timid actions against travelers from these countries. The coverage legitimized the discussion of terrorism in the context of origin: Some mainstream news outlets’ response was to check whether the seven nations produced more terrorists than others, an exercise that inevitably leads to alternative lists.
Trump’s mention of “what happened last night in Sweden”initially looked like scaremongering, but then riots broke out in a predominantly immigrant Stockholm suburb, forcing the mainstream press to recall Trump’s comment and discuss Sweden’s serious integration problems.
The alliance between Trump and conservative media upstarts was codified most emphatically with the installation of Steve Bannon as chief adviser to the president. Bannon spent most of 2016, after all, guiding Breitbart News to the center of an alternative media universe as its executive chairman, not working on the campaign.
A group of Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology academics have just published the results of their research showing how Breitbart created a closed ecosystem quite apart from the mainstream media for the majority of its readers — but also managed to impose its agenda on the mainstream political discussion. This blossoming of a parallel media reality is potentially the biggest paradigm shift in the U.S. media business since the advent of the internet: For the first time in decades, centrist and left-of-center media organizations and individual journalists face strong competition from the right.
The mainstream media have taken the war to Trump by hammering him and his appointees with stories about their supposed Russian connections, based almost entirely on anonymous leaks from government officials. Trump countered with accusations that Obama had ordered intelligence services to eavesdrop on his campaign, prompting The Washington Post to run this unintentionally self-mocking headline: “Trump’s ‘evidence’ for Obama wiretap claims relies on sketchy, anonymously sourced reports.”Meanwhile, Fox News and Breitbart (which has coined the term “Deepstategate”) have been happy to give the Trump allegations as much play as their mainstream rivals gave to the “Trump-Russia story.”
House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi has called Trump the “deflector-in-chief”because of his ability to manipulate coverage. “It’s a tool of an authoritarian to just have you always be talking about what you want them to be talking about,”she said. But what if the manipulation is an end in itself?
When covering the U.S. election campaign last year, I often heard that Trump didn’t really want to win and that his goal was to use the accumulated data on the underserved U.S. right-wing audience to start a major TV network. It was even reported that his son-in-law and owner of the New York Observer, Jared Kushner, approached media investors shortly before the election with such startup plans.
Since Trump won, the business opportunity has only grown bigger for those who dare take it. For a media owner struggling to muscle in on the overcrowded U.S. market, having the biggest news generator in that market — the U.S. president — as an ally is a once-in-a-lifetime chance, a gift not to be squandered on mere governance or policy. Long before Trump’s rise, Bannon, with the financial backing of reclusive hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, aimed to disrupt the mainstream media. Why wouldn’t they continue that fight after Trump’s presidency ends?
Long-term, recreating the U.S. media landscape may be a more monumental task than anything Trump could do on immigration, health care or taxes. Imagine a U.S. where Breitbart and similar outlets are dominant voices. As a Russian journalist, I have watched the lively, liberal, pluralistic media scene in my country transition to one whose agenda is determined by the Kremlin siege mentality. Putin didn’t do it by jailing journalists or closing down media outlets. He achieved his goals by attrition, by hoisting his agenda on the media, by disorienting journalists and tempting them to accept the Kremlin view.
It took him more than a decade. Trump doesn’t have as much time, so he probably won’t enjoy the fruit of his labors as an authoritarian leader. He and his family, however, are likely to benefit from the business opportunity in right-wing media. And someone like Mercer will be able to use the media shift to bring to power other politicians, who will be better than Trump at governing and who will have less opposition in pursuing right-wing policies.
This, of course, requires the cooperation of the media that determine the dominant narrative today. They need to keep taking Trump’s bait, to remain incapable of overcoming their irritation with him, to keep running poorly substantiated stories and hyperventilating about his every outrageous tweet. They need to keep “fact-checking”what he says — and thus pushing what he says into the minds of their readers better than any political campaign targeted by Cambridge Analytica, Mercer’s overhyped big data firm.
We made the same mistakes with Putin. Instead, we should have kept our heads and done better investigative work when it still mattered. We should have watched Putin’s hands much closer than his mouth. We should have been more mature. Perhaps our U.S. colleagues, with a far longer journalistic tradition on which to build, can do better.
Russian writer Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist.