It’s bad enough that media companies are struggling with declining revenue, fragmented audiences and the increasing power of intermediaries like Facebook. Now add to that a president who has shown himself to be actively hostile towards the press and the First Amendment.
What does that future look like? It looks like a pitched battle between a man who made his own media rules and rode them to victory, and a traditional press that has lost much of its power.
Many media outlets are still licking their wounds over their failure to predict that Trump may win, a victory that came despite a wave of fact-checking and reporting on his numerous falsehoods and ethical failures. The only exception to this is cable television, which made so much money from covering him that introspection over the outcome is unlikely.
But even cable giants have to contend with a media landscape that has fractured and heaved to the point where alternative media players and social media arguably played a far larger role in the election than any mainstream media source, including television.
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Nothing made that point more strongly than the fact that reams of articles in august publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post about the Trump Foundation’s self-dealing or Trump’s sexist remarks on an Access Hollywood tape had virtually no impact on the election.
What Trump supporters were listening to was Trump himself on Twitter, and organs of the Trump Nation such as Breitbart News, InfoWars, and other alternative and fringe news sites.
Add to that mix the world’s largest engine for distributing news of all kinds—including hoaxes and fake news—namely, Facebook. Co-founder Mark Zuckerberg has dismissed the idea that his social network bears any blame for Trump’s ascending to power, but how could it not?
Deliberately or not, the Trump campaign—run partly by Breitbart co-founder Steve Bannon, who may become Trump’s chief of staff—took advantage of the way social media works to spread both accurate and inaccurate information that helped their cause. In effect, they were using tactical nukes while the mainstream media was still using tanks and bayonets.
Into that fractured environment comes a president who has spent most of his time attacking and belittling the traditional media, when he was paying attention to it at all.
Throughout the campaign, Trump penned journalists up at his rallies, encouraged the crowds to attack them, went after reporters he didn’t like, and encouraged his surrogates to do likewise. He denied press credentials to outlets like the Washington Post when he didn’t like their coverage.
And let’s not forget that the incoming president also promised to “open up libel laws” in order to make it easier for him to sue the New York Times and other media outlets. Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire who bankrupted Gawker Media because he didn’t like some aspects of their journalism, is expected to be part of Trump’s transition team.
Opening up libel laws would actually be a lot harder to do than Trump made it sound, thanks to things like the First Amendment. But that’s not to say he won’t try.
Donald Trump outsmarted Hillary when it comes to earned media. Watch:
In the meantime, it seems obvious that President Trump’s relationship with the press could be one of the most contentious since Richard Nixon. His spokesperson had to go out of her way to reassure the media that Trump was planning to operate a normal press “pool,” in which the president travels with reporters who share their news reports with others.
What happens when a man who is used to attacking the press has to deal with them as president? Will Breitbart News and Fox get preferential treatment while the New York Times is left scrambling for the scraps they leave behind? And if he does, who will stop him?
Even if mainstream outlets fight back against the new president, as Washington Post media writer Margaret Sullivan recently advised them to, who’s to say they won’t just be ignored by Trump’s core supporters—the same way all of that fact-checking was ignored during the campaign?
A weakened and increasingly marginalized traditional media, fighting with the tools of a previous era, surrounded by more nimble adversaries who know how to use social platforms for their own ends, and a president who is actively hostile to the traditional press. Not that long ago, it probably felt like things couldn’t get any worse for the media—but they just did.