Date
24 May 2017
US President Donald Trump's open hostility toward the traditional media has surprisingly boosted the readership of some of the leading mainstream newspapers he intensely dislikes.  Photo: Reuters
US President Donald Trump's open hostility toward the traditional media has surprisingly boosted the readership of some of the leading mainstream newspapers he intensely dislikes. Photo: Reuters

Why Trump is likely to lose war against the ‘fourth branch’

In democratic countries governed by the system of “checks and balances” like the US, the mainstream media is often referred to as the “fourth branch of power”, while the White House is often known as the “second branch”. Intriguingly though, the two branches seem to be at war with each other, and their gloves are off.

As we all know, President Donald Trump was already hostile to the mainstream media during his campaign.

Yet, it appears he has shown no signs of relenting after his election as president, and his hatred toward the mainstream media has continued to intensify since he took office.

On Feb. 24, seven mainstream news organizations — CNN, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Politco, Buzzfeed, the BBC and the Guardian — were barred from an informal press briefing at the White House, an extremely rare and totally surprising move that came amid Trump’s escalating war against the media.

Trump’s act immediately sparked a fierce backlash, even from among news agencies that were not banned. The Associated Press and Time magazine rallied behind the seven news organizations and protested against their exclusion from the press briefing.

And the saga is continuing to unfold. While there have been calls among mainstream journalists for a boycott of this year’s White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) dinner scheduled for April 29, President Trump launched a pre-emptive strike over the weekend by announcing on Twitter that he won’t be attending the dinner, telling those who are planning to go “to have a great evening”.

Rarely skipped by sitting presidents, the WHCA dinner is a glitzy annual event in Washington that draws political heavyweights, celebrities and journalists.

The last time an incumbent US president was unable to attend the WHCA dinner was in 1981, when former president Ronald Reagan was recovering in Camp David from an assassination attempt.

President Trump’s refusal to attend the WHCA dinner indicates that he is determined to wage a full-scale war against the US mainstream media, which he calls “fake media” and “enemy of the people”.

Ironically, however, Trump’s open hostility has boosted the readership of some of the leading mainstream newspapers he intensely dislikes.

For example, the number of new subscribers to the New York Times hit a record-breaking 267,000 in the fourth quarter last year. In the meantime, the number of new subscribers to its online edition in the fourth quarter alone was more than the entire 2013 and 2014 combined.

On the other hand, the Washington Post also saw a 75 percent increase in its readership last year, while new subscriptions to its online edition almost doubled compared with 2015.

Most of the new subscribers were recorded after Donald Trump’s election as president in November 2016.

So what is Trump’s chance of winning this war against the mainstream media?

We believe the odds are pretty much stacked against him. The US mainstream media, to a significant extent, still dictates the social and political agenda in American society. Its power in influencing mainstream public opinion remains unrivalled even amid the rise of the social media.

Besides, the Democratic Party under the new leadership of former labor secretary Tom Perez will almost certainly take advantage of Trump’s hostile relationship with the mainstream media and milk it for all it is worth.

As such, it is very likely Trump would be fighting a losing battle in his war against the mainstream media over the next four years.

Every politician knows that news reporters might still show no mercy to you even if you are on good terms with them, not to mention when they hate you so much.

Likewise in Hong Kong, it is said that among the four chief executive frontrunners, some have often complained a lot about the media taking sides, and are showing favor to some news organizations while giving others the cold shoulder.

We believe it is not sensible for any political leader to adopt such an approach to handling relations with the media. It will simply work against effective governance.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb. 27

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal

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