The Journalism Empire Strikes Back

Blockbuster reports from the Washington Post and New York Times are rocking the Trump White House. But will this administration ever come to acknowledge the power of the press?

Photo Illustration by Kelly Caminero/The Daily Beast

After weeks of mocking the mainstream media as “fake news” and “the opposition party”—an attempt to delegitimize an essential participant in American democracy in order to control the version of reality being sold to the citizenry—Donald Trump and the people around him are being forced to confront a basic fact:

Journalists matter.

And with the firing of White House National Security Adviser Michael Flynn—a step President Trump took very reluctantly Monday night in response to the damaging revelations published by The Washington Post and The New York Times about the retired general’s lies concerning his conversations with the Russian ambassador—journalism as an institution has reasserted itself.

Big time.

“Donald Trump can’t change the way gravity works—and the news media in our civil society, and accountability journalism, muscled up and demonstrated that he can’t change gravity,” said Steve Clemons, Washington editor at large for The Atlantic magazine. “High-quality journalism matters enormously, and it mattered to him, even though he tried to ignore it.”

Clemons added: “I wouldn’t say that journalism is now ‘boss’ in this new world. But I would say that in this multi-match Sumo contest between journalists and the White House, in which the White House thought it was going to redefine the power dynamic, journalism has knocked Trump out of the ring. But it’s only the beginning of the contest, and it’s not the definitive case that journalism is prevailing.”

Yet there has been a decided sea change in recent days. White House press secretary Sean Spicer—who trotted out the “fake news” attack at an infamous Jan. 11 news conference and officially launched his tenure, the day after the inauguration, with a mouth-foaming tirade about crowd sizes—pointedly acknowledged the primacy the old, pre-Trump protocols during Tuesday’s afternoon face-off in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room.

In contrast to his previous briefings, Spicer called on the major wire services, newspapers, and broadcast and cable-television organizations in the front rows and fielded tough, probing questions before recognizing often-sympathetic back-benchers such as Newsmax or right-wing radio host Laura Ingraham’s Lifezette website.

“Happy Valentine’s Day! I can sense the love in the room,” the press secretary joked at the start of the briefing.

Lucy Dalglish, dean of the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism, said the Fourth Estate, the beneficiary of leaks in recent days from inside the federal bureaucracy and even apparently the White House itself, is stepping up to its informal role as a fourth branch of government.

“What we’re witnessing is a version of checks and balances in a crazy way,” Dalglish told The Daily Beast. “There are people within the White House or whatever agency this is coming from who are terrified by what has been happening and they’re seeking out reporters… The fact that this is going on in real time”—i.e., instead of the usual situation in which the leaks generally refer back to incidents from the past—“is probably the biggest news here,” Daglish added. “And when somebody leaks, the media gets to amplify the story. It makes you wonder, what’s next?”

Indeed, on Wednesday, the story of Flynn’s pre-inauguration discussion of U.S. sanctions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak moved on to revelations about contacts last year between Trump presidential campaign aides and Russian intelligence officials bent on meddling in the American election.

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“The media is getting a second wind,” Dalglish said. “They’re getting a pathway for how to deal with the administration going forward.”

Even presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway —who has offered herself up as the media’s favorite piñata and Trump’s ubiquitous human shield—acknowledges the power of the journalism establishment in a way that her boss does not.

“My big line about all this is that the White House and the news media are going to have joint custody of the country for eight years,” Conway told The Daily Beast—optimistically predicting two Trump terms. “We have to find a way to do this. We’re going to share the stewardship of the country.”

Conway, who has made a series of televised assertions that turned out not to be true—notably her claim Monday afternoon that Flynn had the president’s “full confidence” mere hours before the president fired him—has been a target of derision, particularly on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, on which host Joe Scarborough has suggested she’s either “lying” or “out of the loop”, and co-host Mika Brzezinski on Wednesday declared that Conway is no longer welcome on the program because “she’s not credible anymore.”

Brzezinski revealed that Conway, the object of a complaint by the U.S. Office of Government Ethics for improperly doing a “free commercial” on Fox & Friends last week for Ivanka Trump’s clothing line, has frequently tried to book herself by texting the show directly.

But a White House source said Conway has done so at the personal direction of the president, who phoned her shortly after 6 a.m. Tuesday to ask her to make what became an ill-fated appearance on NBC’s Today show.

On Today, Conway spun a bizarre narrative about Flynn’s defenestration. Although the president knew for weeks that Flynn had dissembled about his chat with the Russian ambassador, she argued, and the unwitting vice president, Mike Pence, was sent out to repeat the general’s misstatements on television, it was only Monday night that Trump decided he couldn’t trust his national security adviser anymore. Matt Lauer protested, “Kellyanne, that makes no sense.”

Rick Tyler, a longtime Republican communications operative, said of Conway, “There is a good case to be made that she is now incoherent and incomprehensible, and I’m not even sure that it’s her fault.”

As for the president of the United States personally orchestrating Conway’s television bookings, Tyler said: “Wow. That is crazy. That tells you that there are too many power centers in this White House.”

Tyler also expressed sympathy for Spicer, who in previous incarnations enjoyed a positive relationship with reporters as a Capitol Hill press secretary and communications director and chief strategist at the Republican National Committee.

“Sean’s problem is that his version of a good press secretary and the president’s version of a good press secretary are incompatible,” Tyler said. “The president thinks [fanatical policy adviser] Stephen Miller, who says things that Darth Vader would blush at, is a good press secretary.”

Tyler added that the president’s and the White House’s relentless “fake news” attacks are likely to end in tears.

“When the White House doesn’t respect the news media, and the news isn’t going your way, you make it twice as hard on yourself when you don’t have a good relationship with the news media,” Tyler said. “If you have that relationship, you often get the benefit of the doubt. A reporter won’t take your side, but at least they will try to be fair to you.”

As for Trump’s continual deployment of the insult “fake news,” Conway predicted to The Daily Beast that the president isn’t done. “If you’re wondering if he’s purged it from his vocabulary,” she said, “he’s not happy about any of that”—meaning news coverage that Trump considers hostile and unfair.

Indeed, the president has not given up on his quixotic quest to reverse the laws of gravity. At 6:41 a.m. Wednesday, Trump tweeted: “The fake news media is going crazy with their conspiracy theories and blind hatred. @MSNBC & @CNN are unwatchable. @FoxandFriends is great!”

That was just the start of a Twitter rant in which the Leader of the Free World seemed to be shouting into the wind: “This Russian connection non-sense is merely an attempt to cover-up the many mistakes made in Hillary Clinton's losing campaign… Information is being illegally given to the failing & by the intelligence community (NSA and FBI?). Just like Russia.”

Grasping at straws, the president singled out a sympathetic remark from an otherwise critical commentator: “Thank you to Eli Lake of The Bloomberg View – ‘The NSA & FBI...should not interfere in our politics...and is ‘Very serious situation for USA.’ ”

And then complained: “Crimea was TAKEN by Russia during the Obama Administration. Was Obama too soft on Russia?” He added: “The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by ‘intelligence’ like candy. Very un-American!”

Quite the contrary, of course—it’s as American as apple pie.