In the space of an hour, nine days away from his inauguration and in his first press conference in six months, Donald Trump managed to do the rounds in a style of his very own. He likened America’s intelligence agencies to Nazi Germany, he crowed over his rivals and to cap it all, laid into American newsgroup, CNN as a site of “fake news”.
If you haven’t had the chance to watch the press conference yet, then please spare the time over the weekend. Not only is it positively ridiculous, it offers a keen insight into what we can expect from the American presidency over the next four years and in particular, how Mr. Trump deals with unfavourable information.
The main story that dominated headlines was a classified report, presented to President Obama and the President-elect that included an appendage summarising a dossier of allegations that Russian operatives had compromising personal and financial information on Mr. Trump.
The 35-page dossier described contact between Mr. Trump’s aides and Russian operatives, as well as a video filmed by the Russian intelligence agency, the FSB, recording an incident where Mr. Trump allegedly paid prostitutes to urinate over a bed in the Presidential suite of the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Moscow in 2013. The Obamas had previously used the room during a state visit to Russia in 2008 and the documents allege that Mr. Trump defiled the bedroom because of his hatred for President Obama.
Although CNN broke the story, Buzzfeed were the first to publish the 35-page document. As the details of the document had not been independently corroborated by themselves or by the intelligence agencies, CNN had decided not to report on the details of the document and had only reported that a classified document concerning Russian influences over Mr. Trump had been presented to the President and the President-elect.
However, these finer details seem to have been lost on Mr. Trump as he laid into CNN’s Jim Acosta during the press conference, saying they had gone “out of the way to build [the dossier story] up”. When Acosta tried to ask a question in response, the President-elect refused, calling CNN “terrible” and a peddler of “fake news”.
In a near-perfect Machiavellian ploy Trump portrayed himself as a victim of the West’s latest scare, the post-truth era. Instead of a rant, Mr. Trump’s response was laconic; he used a few key words to successfully undermine the credibility of a major media group. His success was immediate, amidst the protestations of Acosta the room was filled with jeers and applause for Trump. It was a win-win-win: he looked strong, his critics weak and he managed to evade a question he would have been hard-pressed to answer.
Whether or not the contents of this dossier are true, what is more important is Trump used the post-truth phenomenon to dodge a difficult question. Unlike print, internet-based news is not as accountable. Instead of a few companies, who prided their reliability as an effective advertisement to sell more papers, anyone with a Facebook account and access to the Internet can essentially write any story they wish. Sensational stories that are often untrue or filled with half-truths are more likely to go viral online.
Using this to his advantage, Trump managed to divert the electorate’s attention away from the possibility that he was in collusion with Russian operatives. Instead of interviewing Trump and his team on his links to Russia, the media was on the back foot and defended their right to publish stories from an onslaught, orchestrated by the President-elect. In a 30-minute CNN interview, Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s senior advisor and campaign manager attacked interviewer, Anderson Cooper for their inaccuracy and biased reporting and avoided awkward questions on Trump’s links to Russia even being asked.
To avoid scrutiny for his words and deeds, America’s next President will stop at nothing. By exploiting the post truth phenomenon, he has undermined the credibility of the fourth estate and threatens the very existence of a free press and with it, a government accountable to the people. Unlike any other time in America’s history, the mainstream media now have to justify their position as an information provider and check on political power. Buzzfeed made a mistake, the document wasn’t verified and parts of it, unverifiable. But Trump will exploit any opportunity. By conflating Buzzfeed with CNN, he discredited CNN’s responsible journalism and distracted the electorate. Not only was this purposefully misleading, it was downright dictatorial.
America was a country born from a revolution against King George III. When the ‘Leader of the Free World’ not only sidesteps awkward questions but also verbally attacks the questioner, it becomes clear that the ‘tyranny’ the Founding Fathers so hated has come back with a vengeance. Two and a half centuries since the Boston Tea Party, Americans will soon have to protect themselves again, not from a European monarch, but the President they elected.
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