The Press’s Enemies Within

Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, and Rush Limbaugh stand with the new president, and against real journalism.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

It’s possible that President Trump doesn’t look at it this way, but it seems to the writers of this column that, as taxpayers, the various members of the media he’s blacklisted or threatened to blacklist are the ones paying for the White House pressroom and have as much right to be there as he does.

If this strikes the President as infringement on the powers of his office, maybe it’s because he is new to all this—like paying taxes—and doesn’t know the rules. There are a lot of new rules to learn. Apparently starting with housebreaking.

On the other hand, we may be flying a little close to the sun here, and in the name of civility, let us return to last week’s dust-up between the (then) President-elect and CNN’s Jim Acosta. As you may know, CNN published a story about the existence of an unverified security report, written back when the idea of a Trump run at the presidency was still funny. The report alleged that he had engaged in some potentially compromising behavior on a business trip to Russia.

This was apparently a story that had been kicking around Washington, D.C. for a while but nobody had been able to verify it, and nobody took it public. Up stepped CNN, who earlier this month put out the news that an unverified report of the incident exists, and that the intelligence community had briefed Trump about it as a potential security risk. CNN offered nothing further regarding the report’s particulars.

Next, Buzzfeed posted the report itself—35 pages put together by a former British intelligence officer named Christopher Steele. What’s in it has never been verified but still paints a picture of the President-elect that lingers, however unfairly, in the mind.

In any case, at Donald Trump’s final press conference as president elect—his first in six months—he was asked about the report and in two seconds he wrapped Buzzfeed and CNN in the same burlap bag and threw them both into the river. Buzzfeed is a “failing pile of garbage” that “suffer the consequences” and , “as far as CNN goes, they’re going out of their way to build it up.”

Hearing that, CNN’s Jim Acosta stood up to ask a question. He felt entitled because Trump was attacking his network.

Trump did not give him a question but instead pronounced “your organization is terrible” and” you are fake news.”

To his credit Acosta did not back away, and also to his credit he was annoying enough that at the end of the press conference, Sean Spicer—Trump’s choice as White House press secretary goes to Acosta and threatens to have him removed if that happens again. Our bet, incidentally, is that Sean Spicer will be the first person Trump fires.

Meantime, Spicer and Trump are taking on more than they can handle. President Trump—why is it so hard to write those two words together?—can brag that he labeled the New York Times as "failing", and deny credentials to reporters from the Washington Post, Politico, Univision, the Des Moines Register, CNN, the Huffington Post, and who knows who else. (Note: who else includes The Daily Beast.)

But Trump seems to have forgotten—or has never known—that written news is the lifeblood of journalism in this country. Yes, more people watch television, but who does the real reporting? Forget the Pentagon Papers or Vietnam or Watergate, what so-so story has cable news ever broken? Direct us to the Fox News hall of fame.

Still, undeniably, newspapers have been fading. The trueness of that fact is a national tragedy. It has cheapened the landscape, cheapened what we read, how we think, what we are worth. And the proof sits in the White House this weekend explaining himself in 140-character blurbs, and his admirers can’t get enough.

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Speaking on behalf of Fox News—which, on the subject of media declines, lost maybe 80 percent of its appeal this month with the departure of Megyn Kelly for NBC—talking-points-only anchor Sean Hannity called the altercation between Jim Acosta and President-elect Trump “the single greatest beat down of the abusively biased media in the history of the country,” and advised the new President to “ignore these people in the press.”

An hour later Bill O’Reilly, who I promise you is still thinking he should have run for president himself, said: “Media organizations have ordered their employees to destroy Trump.” What? Who? O’Reilly says, “I can’t say who they are right now because I don’t have it nailed down. But I am 100 percent convinced.”

This is O’Reilly, who—back when he was younger and more fun—used to read something in a newspaper he didn’t like and foam at the mouth, calling whatever paper it was “the worst newspaper in the country.”

O’Reilly—who will not speak to the print media—has apparently not considered the possibility yet that the worst paper in the country wouldn’t print that “media organizations have ordered their employees to destroy Trump,” but can’t name names because he doesn’t "have it nailed down.” It has not come to O’Reilly yet, nor his audience, that grown-up reporters nail it down before they make the claim.

Finally, Limbaugh. We don’t know what to say about Rush. The elder author of this column knew him a little bit back before he was famous—this big, sort of clumsy, insecure guy who made you laugh out loud once in a while, one of those few guys who could get famous and rich and you'd never hold it against him. And then of course he got caught taking pain killers he wasn’t supposed to have, and it came to me, watching the national celebration of kind-hearted liberals enjoying his ruination, that, politics aside, Limbaugh may have faults like anybody else, but he’s not small and mean.

In any case, it didn’t happen. I think it might have ruined somebody with less sand—he had enough money by then to retire, probably to buy his own island to retire on—but he wanted what he had back, and went back and got it.

So, admittedly, one of us still likes him, which does not mean anyone should always believe him. And when he says, for instance, “The fake news is the everyday news, they just make it up,” we hope that he is only being playful. He is smarter than O’Reilly and Hannity put together, but he knows—maybe he knows—that together, he and Trump and Hannity and O’Reilly, the four powerful enemies of journalism as we know it, could not on their best day cover a picnic unless somebody was there to cover it first and tell them what it was about.

Much less take down a president, although we think that Trump will take care of that himself.