Opinion

Trump, Irreligious False Messiah of the Mass Media

News outlets report booming subscribers and viewership but what people are looking for is comfort, not hard news.

U.S. President Donald Trump, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017.
Chris Kleponis, Bloomberg

As president, Donald Trump is supposed to be leader of the free world. But three weeks into his term of office, it’s obvious he still sees himself as a street fighter, only one with lot more cred, who not only boasts tens of millions of Twitter followers but an arsenal of nuclear missiles.

Not only has Trump attacked federal judges for daring to hear lawsuits brought against his immigration order: he has taken aim at a department store for dropping his daughter’s line of clothing, and at Arnold Schwarzenegger for his poor ratings hosting Trump’s old reality show, “The Apprentice.”

But the president’s favorite whipping boy has been the news media, and nothing has changed since he moved into the White House -- except the danger that with all the powers he enjoys as commander in chief he might be able to do more than shoot off acerbic tweets. He now has real powers of intimןdation.

That said, until now, Trump has been one of the best things for the media since Gutenberg invented movable type. Last week, The New York Times reported that in the last quarter of 2016 it added 276,000 digital news subscriptions, the most in five years, and even its printed newspaper got a boost of 25,000.

The Times’ CEO, Mark Thompson, even used the figures to fire back at the president, who had alleged that the newspaper ‘s audience was “dwindling.” “Well, not so much, Mr. President,” Thompson answered back.

In any case, it’s not just the Times that is enjoying a Trump bump. CNN said its viewership rose 94% during the week of the inauguration, and NPR’s “All Things Considered” news show saw a 20% rise in listeners in November. The Atlantic said post-election subscriptions to its magazine rose 160% and newsstand sales rose 14%.Nonprofit media outlets, like ProPublica, saw a spike in donations.

News from the other side

What’s happening here? Certainly Trump himself has been source of juicy news what with an upset election victory, a steady stream of invective from his Twitter account, diplomatic bungling, controversies over the size of his inauguration audience and a blitz of controversial executive orders. Trump is creating the kind of news that even people not particularly interested in politics and policy can joyfully consume.

At least one expert, Gordon Borrell, a media analyst, says the rise in subscriptions shows that Americans are finally waking up to the value of independent news media. They’re turned off by the lies emanating from the White House and the flood of fake news, and want to get the real story.

But my guess is that the sudden surge of interest in news and the increased willingness to pay for it reflect exactly the opposite: People in the political center and left, shocked and horrified by the rise of Trump, are looking to their favorite media for comfort and assurance.

This phenomenon has long been evident among American conservatives, who turned to outlets like Breitbart, Newsmax, The Daily Caller and The Blaze because they didn’t trust the mainstream media. In fact, anyone perusing these outlets will find that far from balancing out the supposed liberal prejudices of mainstream media, what passes for conservative “news” is little more than attacks on their enemies and stories that reinforce the preconceived notions of their readers.

The mainstream media certainly had its liberal bias, but the way it presented the world was far fairer and more fact-based than what passes for “news” in conservative outlets.

Lies and calumny

This is starting to change. Trump has thrown down the gauntlet by being so out there and unapologetic with lies and distortions and, worse still, creating policies based on them.

Being the guardian of truth now means lining yourself up against the president and acting as his ideological opponent, which is not a place the mainstream media should aspire to. You’re no longer an observer of the fighting, you’re a soldier.

The race is now on not just to report on the president and his policies but to create an alternative worldview that defies them. At its most extreme, it risks resorting to fake news, and, lo and behold, that is what is happening. Once something the right happily produced and consumed, fake news is starting to make its appearance on the left. It’s liberals who now need to take shelter.

For those of us in the news business, which has been hit so hard by the internet, it’s gratifying to finally to see renewed interest from the public. But we should be wary about what kind of interest it is.