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Are Trump And The Media Enemies Or Frenemies?

In this week’s politics chat, we look at the war between President Trump and the media. Is the war real? And, if so, who’s winning? The transcript below has been lightly edited.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Hello, chatters. Micah went to the Jersey Shore this weekend and, unlike Gov. Chris Christie, hasn’t been seen or heard from since. So I’ll be filling in as moderator. Did everyone see some good fireworks last night?

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): I watched some excellent East River fireworks drinking from an open container. New York is a great city.

natesilver: I was in Peekskill, New York, which has pretty damned good fireworks, I must say. Although my pictures of them didn’t turn out very well.

But today we’re here to talk about another sort of fireworks, and one which is always a pleasure to discuss. That is, the ongoing clash between President Trump and “the media.”

clare.malone: 👏 segue

natesilver: There have been two major storylines on this front recently. President Trump has been feuding with the hosts of “Morning Joe,” including making some (IMO) sexist comments about co-host Mika Brzezinski. And then on Sunday, Trump tweeted out a meme (this is a very 2017 sentence) that showed … I’m not quite sure how to describe it. It was a clip of Trump from his wrestling days, and it showed Trump body-slamming a man who had a CNN logo superimposed over his head.

clare.malone: I love this synopsis of our age by Nate Silver.

natesilver: But as absurd as this all seems, if you’ve been watching cable over the past few days, or reading political Twitter, you’ve probably seen more about these stories than about the GOP’s health care bill, or about the emerging diplomatic crisis in North Korea. These stories are getting a lot of attention.

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): There’s nothing more that the media likes to talk about than the media.

clare.malone: But, yes, I think you’re right, Nate — the idea that Trump is starting a media fight at a time when his party is pushing a particularly unpopular bill is striking. It’s a classic Trump move of distraction.

natesilver: So here’s my first question: Are Trump and the media actually at war? Or is this, to borrow a wrestling term, kayfabe? (Staged conflict?)

clare.malone: There is most definitely a real conflict going on here.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): I think so. I think we have an administration that at times does not respect the authority of any potential checks on it: the FBI, the special counsel’s office, the Congressional Budget Office, federal judges and, yes, the media. This is not the first administration to take this tack, but I think it’s gone the furthest since Nixon. I think it’s important to distinguish between “Morning Joe” and the investigative team at The Washington Post. But Trump casts all of the media as “fake news.”

harry: I think you can have a real conflict that is beneficial to both sides. Joe Scarborough saw record ratings after his tussle with Trump. But that doesn’t mean he likes Trump.

clare.malone: I think we have to separate a couple of things out: Trump sees hating on the media as a useful tool to gin up support from his base, to try to control a narrative. The media isn’t so much out to get Trump as to save itself from immolation during the Trump era when trust in the institution of the press is taking a nosedive.

I think some media organizations would love to see Trump out of office, but by and large, it’s the principle that he’s sowing seeds of distrust in the news that makes reporters’ blood boil.

harry: Look, most Americans don’t trust the news, so Trump is playing off of that. Trump, of course, isn’t popular either. The attacks keep the focus from being on him. It’s the same thing that worked to his benefit in the final days of the campaign, when we were talking about Clinton’s emails.

natesilver: It’s probably worth mentioning here that the two media entities that were in the news this week, CNN and “Morning Joe,” were very heavily invested in Trump throughout the Republican primary — CNN by featuring him on TV very, very, very, very often and Scarborough by being a big backer/admirer of Trump’s when Trump was having trouble winning much support in establishment circles.

So I can’t bait anyone into taking a more cynical view here? That “Morning Joe” and CNN are playing up the conflict for ratings?

clare.malone: Sure, I’ll take that.

Who runs CNN? The same guy who hired Trump to do a reality show. They realize that this stuff is good for making people watch their news shows, which used to be a lot more crusty and about stuff like European economic policy.

perry: I might give a simpler answer: This conflict is more interesting/colorful/easy to watch on TV than health care, which is super complicated. I would argue that TV was not covering health care that well/much before these CNN and “Morning Joe” stories broke either.

clare.malone: But I would argue that a lot of times, politicians and people in certain industries that are regulated by the government (health care, finance) relish in the confusing nature of their industry. It keeps people from understanding some basic truths that they might not like. See: mortgage-backed securities.

natesilver: We see that Google searches for “health care” — although not a perfect proxy for media coverage — have spiked for about a week at a time, only to fall back down again. Which could reflect the media’s short attention span for the story, or the public’s. At the same time, do we really think the public gives a damn about Joe & Mika’s conflict with the president? We know that senators who went to Fourth of July parades were hearing all about health care instead.

perry: But I thought Trump’s comments about Mika Brzezinski were played big for a different reason: It brought back the story of how he talks about and treats women, which was a huge theme of the campaign but not as much during his presidency.

clare.malone: I’ll agree that the Brzezinski episode brought back the visceral responses that people had to Trump’s “character.” Particularly GOP allies. Whenever a woman’s honor is involved, people feel more free to comment on what they see as bad behavior. I find it fascinating.

perry: Well, the Brzezinski comment drew lots of GOP senators/House members slamming Trump. Members of his own party attacking the president will always get attention.

harry: It allows Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse to go out and slam Trump … and then vote with him anyway. Media loves a bipartisan story, so that may be part of it.

natesilver: So that seems like kayfabe, right? It allows Republicans to show how “concerned” they are about Trump?

clare.malone: Virtue signaling, right? Isn’t that what we’re calling it these days?

It sort of is a steam valve for them to let off anger/frustration they have about him in other areas.

perry: I don’t think it’s a “kayfabe.” Ana Navarro, a CNN commentator, tweeted a particularly egregious example of the kind of hate mail some journalists are getting. I don’t know Ana well, but I don’t want to dismiss her concern that Trump’s comments on the media, particularly CNN, inspire more unhinged people to write nasty stuff to CNN reporters. I know this came up with Katy Tur, who covered Trump for NBC during the campaign. Trump supporters made threatening comments to her.

clare.malone: What’s fascinating about the adversarial attitude toward the media that Trump is fostering in his supporters is their view toward seeing any and everything that is produced by certain media organizations as being toxic — when NPR tweeted out the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth and people thought it was an anti-Trump screed, for instance.

natesilver: How widespread are those attitudes really, though? Are we getting a false impression because people are nutpicking on Twitter? Harry, how do you make sense of the polling data on this?

harry: The polling indicates that more Americans trust the media than trust Trump, but it’s also the case that Republicans trust Trump over the media. So it’s kind of beneficial in that way for both.

clare.malone: Are we seeing crazy voices amplified by Twitter? Probably yes. But the adversarial nature is certainly there. And I think the empowerment of the crazies on Twitter is alarming.

I’ll also point out the obvious that Ana Navarro and Katy Tur are both women, leading to a particularly noxious twinning of harassment: being picked on because you’re in media and because you’re a woman.

perry: So to jump back: Do I care that Donald Trump is in a feud with Scarborough? Not really. Do I think it matters that the Trump administration is blocking people from seeing the White House visitors logs or not taking questions when he meets with foreign leaders. Yes.

clare.malone: Right, the talk-show feuds are the most visible element of this media hate that Trump has, but they won’t have the most meaningful effect long-term.

perry: Yeah, I might say there is a semi-fake feud (the wrestling stuff) and a real feud (calling some of the Post’s reporting “fake news”).

natesilver: So should The Washington Post be annoyed with CNN for playing up the wrestling stuff?

clare.malone: Yeah, I think so. The wrestling stuff is sort of puerile.

harry: Without any context (and context is always needed), I thought the CNN wrestling GIF was just so ridiculous. Pro wrestling is, of course, fake. That said, there was the Greg Gianforte incident, when a politician body-slammed a member of the media.

clare.malone: And I think people frankly get a little annoyed when CNN or New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet says that Trump tweeting this out is making the media environment poisonous — it already was before he did it. It does make it look a little bit like CNN is taking pleasure in finding itself an object of the president’s hate.

natesilver: We talked about the notion of “virtue signaling” earlier, insofar as it applied to Republican members of Congress. But what about for the press itself? Do you agree or disagree with this observation from Jamelle Bouie, for example?

perry: I agree with that idea, and I think it’s super-important.

The Trump voter commission story, I thought, was huge — in some ways as important as health care. But I think it got nowhere near the coverage of Trump’s talking about Mika Brzezinski. Republicans could easily criticize Trump on that tweet, while the voter commission story was more complicated and has more of a partisan tinge.

harry: I think that’s part of the same point as before. Trump being a misogynist is something fellow Republicans are willing to critique. If fellow Republicans are, the media feels free to do so as well.

clare.malone: Right, as I said above, the only time this happens is around women. It’s this chivalry DNA popping up. Does that actually surprise you guys?

natesilver: I think we can all imagine a certain type of reporter/pundit who would vigorously denounce Trump for his behavior to the media but would be reluctant to imply that the GOP health care bill is bad public policy — or good public policy, for that matter.

perry: I’m going to defend the traditional reporters here. I think there is a difference between believing that no one should be on Medicaid (a radical one, but still a policy view) and believing it is appropriate to mock someone’s plastic surgery publicly. I think the former is more important, but there is virtually no defense for the latter.

clare.malone: I think, to Nate’s point, that’s something that’s incredibly damaging about the increasing partisanship in America: There is no longer a place where we all see a voice being the “voice of trust.” The discombobulation that we all have with facts is most damaging because we no longer can agree on any sort of north star of morality or even a place of valid critique. There is only black and white now.

natesilver: Do we all agree that this is is something new? Or at least, something worse than we had before?

harry: I’m not sure how many viewers notice the difference between something like policy and something like misogyny. If you look at the latest Suffolk University poll, for instance, the “nonpartisan” CNN is pretty much exclusively trusted most by Democrats. That trend has been developing over the last 20 years by the way.

clare.malone: The vehemence with which people are disbelieving news sources increased during the 2016 cycle, but it was there before. I think more mainstream Republicans are now subscribing to the Breitbartian view of things and more people on the far left distrust mainstream media since Bernie Sanders has often cast doubt on its motives.

perry: Yeah, I think this level of press-bashing and bashing of any independent entity that questions the president/administration is new. I just don’t think there is any analogy to this from George W. Bush or Barack Obama. So I think media-president tensions are high.

natesilver: To the extent you feel comfortable talking about it, have the three of you personally noticed an increase in abusive behavior?

perry: I have not personally experienced much of this. I think there is something about being a woman in this era; that is where I have seen the most venom from Trump supporters and to some extent Trump. I guess Trump made fun of Chuck Todd’s eyes, but the Megyn Kelly and Mika Brzezinski stuff was more personal.

clare.malone: I guess I don’t really have much of a comparison because I wasn’t really on Twitter that much pre-election. But on certain topics, I will get emails or tweets calling me dumb or commenting on looks when there are videos of us posted. But I think the dumb stuff probably happens to most writers, right? At one time or another?

harry: I do really think women receive more abuse than men. I’m not sure there’s much doubt about that?

natesilver: We’ve got to start wrapping up soon, so I want to close with two quick-ish questions. First, if Trump and the media really are at war, who’s winning? Would Trump be better off politically if he took a more conciliatory approach to the press?

perry: I don’t think either side is winning. Trump is going down, taking media credibility down with him.

clare.malone: I don’t know if there’s anyone who’s winning. What I will say is that the press, while doing some really great work during the Trump administration, isn’t necessarily losing but it’s not necessarily winning. We’ve still got major credibility issues, whether they’re our fault or not, and they make it difficult to pierce through at least some layers of American society.

natesilver: So do we think Trump deliberately picks fights with the press so as to distract from his other problems? Lightning-round answers, please.

harry: I just think Trump likes fighting.

clare.malone: Yes. He does. It’s effective because TV always takes the bait and everyone else follows.

perry: No — I think he hates being criticized and the media is criticizing him.

natesilver: So here’s the last question: Once Trump finishes being president — whether that’s in 2025 or sometime next year because he resigns from office — will the media be better or worse off than it would have been under President Hillary Clinton?

clare.malone: Worse off.

harry: Worse.

perry: Not sure. Trump will have eroded a ton of media norms. On the other hand, let’s not pretend here: a Clinton administration with a GOP Congress? Boring. Trump is driving up ratings/clicks.

clare.malone: Clicks don’t necessarily mean stories that are “good” for journalism. I think that’s what I mean — there’s a hit that the institution of the press is taking.

natesilver: My thinking is more along the lines of yours, Perry. I think the media was going to go through a really rough stretch either way, in terms of public trust. There were all sort of problems that it had covering Clinton, too. And I think Trump creates a lot more attention to politics, which is good for media jobs, even if they’re swimming against the current.

harry: I think television ratings are definitely up. I just don’t think for the long-term health of the media it’s a good thing to see even more erosion of trust.

perry: I’m pretty worried about this Trump-media conflict. I’ve always thought of journalism as a noble enterprise and in theory one that can reach everyone. I think he’s turning the media into the enemy for a lot of conservatives. That was already happening, but having that kind of effort led from the Oval Office I think is a big shift.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.