Sunday, February 26, 2017

Hey Donald! Please Ban Us, Too!

Steve's take on the Trump administration's ban on The New York Times and CNN...

There is a new item at the top of my bucket list this morning. I was too young to get on Nixon’s enemies list, and I don’t know how many more mentally unstable narcissist Presidents I will get to write about in my lifetime.  This is my chance, and I’m not going to throw away my shot.  President Trump, please immediately ban from all future Sean Spicer press briefings!

This week witnessed Donald Trump ratchet up his administration’s war against the news media by pointedly banning (perhaps, more accurately, Bannoning) reporters from The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, CNN, and several liberally-leaning websites from attending Sean Spicer’s daily press briefings. This news appeared timed to delight the Donald Trump’s legions at CPAC, the annual convention of Ann Coulter-geist and Ted Cruz missiles.

Hey, Bannon! We wanna be banned, too!

There’s more than ego at stake here. It is totally unfair for Donald Trump to single out these huge media organizations for a public relations bonanza. What better way than making Trump’s “enemies list” is there to revitalize the fortunes of the sagging newspaper industry and an aging cable network that is surviving on ads for plaque psoriasis treatments and the AARP? We want some of that action!

Ah, if we could only get Trump to say how awful we are!  I will even write the tweet for him:

“BornToRunTheNumbers – fake news! Tom – so wrong! Wendy – paid protesters! Steve -- NOT FUNNY!  BornToRunTheNumbers now banned from future press conferences.  #So sad!”

Yes… exactly 140 characters!

No doubt people over at CNN are dancing in their cubicles, ecstatic that they have been officially grouped with The New York Times as the pre-eminent purveyors of what Trump lustily castigates as fake news. I suspect that for serious journalists, being ordered to not attend a Sean Spicer briefing is a bit like ordering a ten year old to not to attend waltz lessons. But for CNN, which of late only witnesses ratings spikes when Malaysian airliners stray from their flight path, this is a coup.

And coup does indeed seem to be the direction that Bannon and Trump are headed. Constitutional democracy? Free and independent press? Freedom from persecution based on religion? Boy, that stuff is so 1776!

Banning major news services from Spicer’s utterly banal press conference is neither illegal nor unconstitutional.  It is, however, a sinister display of loathing for the role that a free press plays in our democracy.  It is an emphatic statement that this White House intends to respect only those news organizations that believe Trump’s assertions are imbued with the infallibility usually accorded only to the Pope when he is speaking ex cathedra. Perhaps it would be appropriate to refer to Spicer’s future sessions with the news media as “Alternative Press Conferences.”

It is also clear signal that Steve Bannon is deadly serious in waging a holy war against dissent.

The nascent Trump presidency is creating so many simultaneous shit-storms that no single one is getting the urgent attention it deserves. The Russian hacking scandal is at the top of the list because there is a potentially impeachable offense lurking in that cesspool. The de facto Muslim ban is on the back burner while Trump licks his wounds and reloads. There are the sweeping changes in long standing U.S.  foreign policy that are conveyed through the pungent passing of early morning tweets, only to be contradicted in the next news cycle by Trump’s own emissaries. Two Chinas, but no two-state solution; we’re seizing Iraqi oil – not!

And yet the single item that feels most like the eerie echo of fascist dictators past is this administration’s open war on the free press.

If there is one thing that every citizen in the United States should be terrified by, it is that Donald Trump senses that our free and independent press is at one of its most vulnerable moments in our nation’s history.

A confluence of forces has brought this about. The rise of cable television splintered viewing audiences into slivers, radically eroding the type of impact that a Walter Cronkite held in a simpler media era of three television networks.  Cable also enabled the creation of 24 hour news channels, which saw crass economic opportunity in appealing to specific audience segments. Where ABC, NBC, and CBS operated under broadcast licenses issued by the Federal Communications Commission, no such restriction pertained to emerging cable channels. Fox News grew in leaps and bounds by offering a version of the news that was curated to please the beliefs of conservative viewers. Flavored news flourished in realizing that packaging news in order to please the viewer was more profitable than challenging the audience with objective reporting.

But it was the rise of the internet that inflicted the deepest wounds in the Fourth estate. The internet exponentially expanded the number of “flavored” news outlets, each operating on the nascent internet economics of offering free readership and hoping to “monetize eyeballs.” The traditional newspaper industry was brought to its knees by the radically lightened cost structure of internet rivals.

But the internet’s most lethal blow to the notion of a “free and independent press” was the rise of social media. With the proliferation of shared links and Twitter feeds, information flew freely to readers without having passed through any organization which held itself to a standard of verification. Some would argue that Richard Nixon was brought down because Ben Bradlee would not run a Woodward and Bernstein story until it had been verified by two sources. Today, the test of verification appears to be “I read it on the internet.” At least, that was the rationale frequently offered by then-candidate Donald Trump.

Today, Trump and Bannon see the opportunity to exploit the weakened state of Fourth Estate for their own purposes. With direct access to 35 million Twitter followers, Trump is waging character assassination on those independent news services that he perceives to be the biggest threat to his presidency.

We here at BTRTN are mere butterfly wings in the thin oxygen of the outer blogosphere, hoping that perhaps our earnest but barely measurable flapping may somehow be causal and additive; that we, in concert with thousands of other voices, can help create a hurricane of protest.

But when our government leaders need to be challenged – be it on a matter of constitutional authority, the use of military power, or the enforcement of law – it takes media organizations with mass, clout, and raw audience to effectively mount that challenge on a timely basis.

Walter Cronkite went to battle against Lyndon Johnson armed with ten million loyal viewers. Ben Bradlee commanded the full battalions of the Washington Post to fall behind two young reporters on a righteous mission. It was when Look Magazine and network television cameras shed daylight on the atrocities facing the civil rights activists in places like Alabama and Mississippi that Washington recognized that the enforcement of civil rights cannot be ceded to states…not in 1964 about African-Americans, any more than it can be ceded to states today on issues of the rights of transgender citizens.

And now, when a powerful Fourth Estate is need more urgently than ever, it is under direct assault from our own government.

If Walter Cronkite had made his famous damning critique of LBJ’s Vietnam policy in today’s media environment, the only people who would have seen it would be the people who were already against the war.  Fox News would have lambasted Cronkite for biased reporting and reassured their audience that victory in Vietnam was imminent. The President would have tweeted CRONKITE = FAKE NEWS to thirty five million unquestioning faithful. The majority of news reporting on Vietnam would have been controlled, in shocking measure, by the very people who were making government policy. And we would have been stuck in the mud of the Mekong Delta for a decade longer, with thousands more young Americans asked to die for a mistake.

When the President of the United States attempts to silence critics, you can call that propaganda, you can call that de facto censorship, and or, in this case, you can call it a collision between the Fourth Estate and the Fourth Reich. It is a clear and present danger to democracy.

The final irony here is that websites like Breitbart News exist because our Constitution guarantees freedom of the press. So Breitbart can rise to power by heaving bullshit into the willing ears of fellow travelers, and then, having gained astonishing power, can now attempt to use that power to shut down other competing voices.

What can we all do about this? Yes, there are the town halls, the petitions, the letter campaigns to Congressional representatives. They are all vital. But they are not truly addressing the carnage being wrought by this administration in this particular front… the lifeblood of a free press.

There is one simple thing we can all do: pay for our news.

Subscribe to The New York Times. Turn CNN on and leave it on all day. Get a digital subscription to The Washington Post.  Pay for your news, so your news organizations can pay top-notch, principled, relentless professionals to bring us the truth. As Deep Throat said, if you want to find the truth, you have to follow the money.

Give the real front-line soldiers in our battle the oxygen, the munitions, and the weaponry they need to fight against a tyrant who has signaled his intent to destroy them.

Fund The New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN. In the world of media, audience equals advertising, and advertising equals revenue, and revenue equals oxygen.

Invest in the truth. The payback will be priceless.

And, yeah, be sure to tell your Republican friends about a nasty and horrible little website called that is spreading terrible stories filled with fake news about Donald Trump.  Go ahead, Donald, Bannon us, too.  

Make our day.

The issue is the survival of a free press, and we’ll keep flapping these butterfly wings as fast as we can.

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