Monday, 20 November 2017

Anti-Trump media risks hurting US global standing

By Jonathan Eyal, Europe Correspondent, The Straits Times, 20 Nov 2017

LONDON • "Thank you for your support" was the title of an e-mail I recently received from The New York Times. At first glance, this seemed a cute expression of thanks for being an electronic subscriber. Yet when I went on to read the e-mail, complete with the paper's pledges to remain tireless in the "pursuit of truth", I was reminded of just how much the US newspaper industry but also the broader mainstream media has changed during the past year.

The quality is still there, and so is the instinctive chutzpah of assuming that America is central to most things.

But most of the media coverage on domestic US matters is no longer about reporting events, unless they fill one messianic mission: to unearth any transgression, real, alleged or imagined, of Mr Donald John Trump, the 45th President of the United States.

Much of the current mainstream reporting on Mr Trump boils down to a self-feeding loop in which new stories are published or picked up not because they are significant but because they may strengthen the openly held opinion among most US mainstream journalists that Mr Trump ended up as President by mistake, and must be removed.

The New York Times used to run on its masthead the famous slogan "All the News That's Fit to Print"; its real slogan today should be "Any Anti-Trump News Ends Up in Print".

If this was just an internal US episode, it would have been regrettable, but not very significant for non-Americans. But the hate and vilification campaign against Mr Trump in his country's media has a very practical and potentially very harmful effect around the world.

Of course, the President has brought much of this upon himself. He has dismissed some of America's most honourable and worldwide respected media networks as purveyors of "fake news".

And his network of friends, family and business associates, as well as their potential links to foreign powers, are now subjected to federal investigations and, occasionally, criminal proceedings.

Mr Trump once excoriated journalists as "among the most dishonest human beings on Earth"; he should not complain that they respond in kind.

Still, the obsession with pulling down Mr Trump is entirely counterproductive. During the election campaign, The Huffington Post, an influential news and opinion website that, since 2005, has huffed and puffed on behalf of America's liberal conscience, referred to him as a "serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, birther and bully". It obviously made not the slightest bit of difference to the outcome of the vote, but it no doubt made the Huffington writers feel better.

Meanwhile, broadsheet newspapers allocate teams of people to fact-check every word Mr Trump utters. Fact-checking allows newspapers to run an original anti-Trump story at least once a week. And it creates news stories on their own, when a newspaper lacks a strong alternative anti-Trump source: "President Trump has made 1,628 false or misleading claims over 298 days," proclaimed a banner headline in The Washington Post recently, without explaining what was particularly significant about this adding-up exercise at the 298-day mark of the Trump presidency.

And then, there are the non-stories puffed up to generate even more stories kicking the President. Soon after Mr Trump's election, The Washington Post reported that the "entire senior level of management officials" at the US State Department "resigned" as "part of an ongoing mass exodus of senior Foreign Service officers".

What actually happened, however, is what happens when every new administration comes in: all previous political appointees leave. But the Post's story gave the impression that this was somehow related to Mr Trump.

Last week, we had another classic example of an anti-Trump story. CNN reported that "a decades-old presidential authority to use nuclear weapons is suddenly coming into question as US allies and some lawmakers" apparently want reassurance that Mr Trump "cannot rashly launch a nuclear strike".

And the reality? America's nuclear release procedures always entailed a number of key decision-makers working in unison; there is no "nuclear button" in the Oval Office that a mad president can press single-handedly to send all of us into a plume of dust, unless one still watches 1950s Hollywood B-movies.

The "US allies" who, according to CNN, allegedly "sought reassurance" turn out to have been just one single and yet unnamed government.

US senators raise questions on the topic not because they did not know what the reality was, but quite often because they sought, as they have done for decades, to change the US constitutional balance of power by giving Congress a bigger say in military matters. But they were quickly told by the US service chiefs that no modifications to current arrangements are required.

In short, the entire story of America's nuclear release procedures "coming into question" is true in only one respect: We are discussing it, because a few journalists and some politicians think they can score points.

Undeterred, however, the anti-Trump media still claims to have obtained something: Over the weekend, it trumpeted remarks by General John Hyten, who heads the US Strategic Command, who apparently said he would resist executing any "illegal" nuke order from President Trump. What else was he supposed to say? That he will execute illegal orders?

Does all this persistent obsession about Mr Trump really matter? Yes, and here's why, as US journalists like to say.

First, it dumbs down all media offerings, reinforcing precisely the stereotypical images offered by Mr Trump and his supporters of the US broadsheets as being run by self-satisfied and self-appointed lefty elites who, under the guise of respect for free speech, loathe and stifle alternative views.

Second, by obsessively highlighting every alleged misstep of Mr Trump, the US mainstream media blocks out serious discussion on other key security matters.

Since it appeared to be so worried about the possibility of Mr Trump unleashing a nuclear war, wouldn't you think that CNN and others would have been interested in finding out what are the comparable, say, Russian or Chinese nuclear release procedures? Apparently, no; doing so would likely have interfered with the "Trump Could Be a Nuclear Frankenstein" narrative.

The President's latest Asia tour also did not escape unscathed from the tendency to laugh at every Trump move.

In the eye-rolling coverage of the exchange of personal insults between the US President and Mr Kim Jong Un, his North Korean counterpart, for instance, what's left out is the background that for at least a decade, Pyongyang has been issuing blood-curdling insults to almost every Western leader, and some are so obscene that they are virtually unprintable. That doesn't necessarily justify Mr Trump's latest tweets describing Mr Kim as "short and fat", but it does put them in some context. Yet context is precisely what the US media does not seem to need when it comes to Mr Trump.

The real risk is that this one-side media coverage gives a very different image of America's global standing.

Top US newspapers now relish reporting that their country's reputation has never sunk lower, that Mr Trump has allegedly "handed over" the "leadership of the world" to Chinese President Xi Jinping, and that Europeans are eager to detach themselves as quickly as possible from the US.

Much of it is pure nonsense. But world leaders do follow US media coverage, or have it followed for them. And some may be tempted to draw the wrong conclusions about where the US stands, and what it is not prepared to accept.

Already, the "old", "short and fat" insults that have so preoccupied the US media's coverage of Mr Trump's North Korea policy has obscured the White House's serious determination to use every means possible to prevent Pyongyang from becoming a nuclear power.

So, the fact that the US media does not either grasp or convey this urgency is not merely unfortunate. It could lead other countries into making disastrous decisions. In this way, the US media's obsession with just hitting at Mr Trump does have a baleful impact on all of us.

"We are not stopping, and neither should you," ended the e-mail I received from The New York Times. I won't stop supporting them, but I sure hope they'd stop their current obsession.

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