How You Saw Trump’s Press Conference Depends on How You Watched
You may have heard President Trump gave a press conference today. Its ostensible purpose was to announce Alex Acosta, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division under President George W. Bush, as his new labor secretary. Sounds like it should have been pretty mundane, right?
It was not.
If you were following what someone might perhaps carelessly refer to as the mainstream media—CNN, NBC, The Washington Post, The New York Times—you probably saw a president who seemed unhinged, if not outright dangerous.
But if you were following the media that has coalesced around the president more supportively—Infowars, Breitbart, Fox—you saw a president at the peak of his justifiable pride and understandable disdain for the media. Well, the media in that last paragraph.
In a pre-internet, four-TV-channel world, the media moved more slowly, and with a recognizably centralized (if not centrist) voice. But that was a long time ago. The 2016 election and the Trump presidency were both products of ever-more balkanized sources of information playing to smaller and smaller self-selected audiences, all accelerated to hyperspeed by always-on social media and the reporters who use it as a platform. Did you watch the press conference on a network? Or on Twitter?
And all that means that President Trump didn’t have just one press conference. He had at least two—maybe dozens—all taking place at the same time, in the same place, refracted through a multifaceted crystal of media.
Everyone would probably agree on the facts: Trump introduced (and quickly moved on from) Acosta, spending as much time talking about GOP mega-donor Paul Singer, who recently switched from the “Never Trump” camp to working with the administration. The president went ballistic on the media. He denied involvement with Russia and suggested firing upon a Russian surveillance ship. He claimed to have scored the biggest Electoral College victory since Ronald Reagan. (He didn’t.) He insulted his opponent in the election, misunderstood a question about anti-semitism, was disrespectful to a female African-American reporter, and evaded clarity on whether former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn deserved to get ousted from his job. Right?
But here’s how that played. The stuff about Singer was Trumpian gloating, which both the Washington Post and New York Times live blogs criticized. CNN highlighted the way Trump bragged about his rising poll numbers and his cable ratings, noting that “his manner is also likely to offend or alarm [anti-Trump] voters.” And Trump’s false claim about the Electoral College was debunked in real time.
Trump is an effective, under-praised leader of a prosperous public. Alex Jones’ InfoWars praised the president for ushering in “the stock market’s longest winning streak in decades.” Breitbart said Trump “rattled off the achievements … that the media is not reporting,” and “trashed the media” for lapses, bias, and falsehoods. On its live blog, Fox News reiterated the President’s comments about how unbigoted he is, and picked up his criticisms of Hillary Clinton. (POTUS referred to Clinton’s attempt to “reset” US-Russian relations while she was Secretary of State, which was by all accounts a failure.)
No filter bubble is completely impermeable. Fox News seemed to back Trump’s (and InfoWars‘ and Breitbart‘s) contention that people leaking information about the Trump White House are worse than the hackers who cracked the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta’s emails. But Fox also pushed back against Trump’s claims that the mainstream press was writing fake news and that all was well in his administration.
This isn’t false equivalence. The Timeses and CNNs of the world don’t have anywhere near as explicit a political agenda as the Breitbarts and Drudges. They’re not two sides. That’s what was on display in the aftermath of the press conference. They didn’t even cover the same things. They told different stories.
So which is it? Trump’s press conference was undignified, unpresidential, and weirdly directed at the media instead of the country he leads. But his supporters saw a display of power by a president sloughing off the manacles of coastal elitism. Thanks to the accelerated hyper-partisanship of a social media-powered news cycle, the country is now seeing double.
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