Trump vs. the Media

Donald Trump’s personal vendetta against the news media in general and against CNN and the Morning Joe talk show on MSNBC in particular, gives an interesting window on modern media strategy and is yet another demonstration that he is unfit to serve as the President of the United States.

Strategy in the Media Business

Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski
Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski

The real challenge for media companies these days is to find a balance between reporting to the highest journalistic standards and playing to specific segments of the audience. For MSNBC, for example, the fact that President Trump has gone after the Morning Joe co-hosts is potentially a good thing, as their liberal base will only like them more for it!

For CNN, the situation is more complicated as they have been the go-to place for breaking news and may lose a bunch of their viewers by being targeted by the White House.

What is particularly tough for CNN is that while it has been trying to position itself in terms of journalistic quality, it has then made some mistakes, such as falsely linking one of Trump’s supporters to Moscow.

The key in the media business these days is to somehow balance the old idea of “broad casting”, which is sending out media to the broadest swath of potential audience, with what could be called “narrow casting”, or selecting very specific groups of people who think in a certain way or care about certain things.

One thing this past presidential election did is to polarize public opinion more than ever. Part of CNN’s challenge is that it had not been on either side of the political fence until Donald Trump lumped it together with the rest of the liberal media that he and Steve Bannon so despise. The problem for CNN is that on that side of the fence, NBC and CBS are more authentic.

Jeff Zucker, CEO of CNN
Jeff Zucker, CEO of CNN

My only advice would be for CNN to double down on quality journalism and great video. But that means no more mistakes or scandals and probably lower ratings until 2018 or even 2020 if Trump survives the mid-term elections and subsequent impeachment hearings.

Unfit for Office

The other thing that concerns me even more is what Trump’s spat with the media can do to the fabric of the American Republic. In my view, Trump’s attacks on the network and the show are deeply disturbing for three reasons:

1. They question the very role that the press plays in civil society. In the U.S., it is assumed that the press may have some political orientation but still plays by a set of rules in  terms of checking facts, presenting two sides of a story, etc. The Brietbart playbook is based on different rules which, as Peggy Noonan herself wrote in an article in the Wall Street Journal, is  “dangerous”. For an offbeat right-wing website to do this is worrying; for the President of the United States to do this demonstrates that the man is not fit for the office he holds.

2. These attacks also call into question how the President will respond to real threats against the country’s national security. Will he hit back ten times harder at some slight by China or North Korea? Will he take us into war based on his own ego and need to play tit for tat? This is seriously concerning.

Captain America
Captain America

3. Finally, Trump’s behavior questions the very idea of American exceptionalism upon which our self image and foreign policy have been based for over 200 years. The idea that we hold some truths, such as a free and independent press, sacred and outside the political process is important for Americans but even more important for people resisting tyranny and oppression all over the world.