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If the mainstream media’s relationship to President Barack Obama began as a slobbering love affair, some reporters eventually realized that the relationship had always been one-sided. The press corps may have fallen in love with Obama at first sight, but the president was never really that into them. The most transparent administration in history turned out to be merciless when it came to leaks, substantive interactions were nixed in favor of superficial pressers, and the president was more than happy to bypass the press corps in favor of carefully managed social media when it suited him (as it often did). Don’t take my word for it: This 2015 piece in the Columbia Journalism Review catalogues the pattern admirably.
President Donald Trump’s relationship with the press promises to be, shall we say, different: “Mutual abuse for each other’s benefit” seems about right, though — and this is important — the press keeps getting rolled. Witness the kerfuffle this weekend over the crowd size at the inauguration:
A few observations:
- This is among the least substantive issues I can imagine. The size of the crowds at the inaugurations is not and never was important.
- I’m not claiming to be any expert on this, but it sure looks like the crowd at Obama’s inauguration was bigger than the one at Trump’s, and it stands to reason that it would have been (first black president taking the oath of office in a majority black city, etc). Regardless, Spicer is transparently trying to have it both ways: i.e, claiming that the lack of any official count means it’s impossible for the press to make responsible claims, while insisting that Trump’s inauguration was “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period. Both in person and around the globe.”
- The media thinks this is gold. To take the obvious example, the New York Times has at least three pieces dedicated to the subject (here, here, and here), as well as a fourth that compares the inauguration crowd to those at anti-Trump protests.
If the press cares either for its reputation or serving the public, it needs to smarten up, and quickly. Dedicating this many resources to catching the administration in a blatant-but-meaningless falsehood is a waste of time and resources. Focus on the real stuff — the good and the bad — and don’t run down every rabbit hole the administration presents to you. Sean Spicer clearly didn’t put a lot of time or energy on this. Why should you?
As for the administration, I would suggest that it ain’t always going to be this easy. Other people will eventually get wise as to how this works and it’ll make you sloppy when you need to keep your skills sharp.