Last week, with his habitual lack of concern, President Trump tweeted a link to an Internet meme which remixed footage of him at a WrestleMania event so that he appeared to body-slam someone with a CNN logo superimposed on their head. The clip ended with the CNN logo altered to read, FNN (“the Fraud News Network”), a smear echoed by the hashtags:#FraudNewsCNN #FNN. The tweet came shortly after CNN had retracted an erroneous story about a Trump associate and fired the editors and reporter who were responsible for it. Nevertheless, as with many other messages from the world’s most notorious Twitter feed, the message quickly goaded the US commentariat into overdrive. The main reason for this, as a letter to the New York Times later noted, was that the video highlighted two of the most alarming trends in the American zeitgeist: “implied violence and demonization of the press.” The Times letter also referred to a recent National Rifle Association ad which encourages supporters of the Second Amendment to resist the President’s critics with a “clenched fist of truth.”
CNN investigated the origins of the meme and eventually tracked it down to a Reddit account with the username HanAssholeSolo. The account was associated with several racist and anti-Semitic posts. When journalists unearthed the user’s real-life identity and contacted him for an interview, fearing exposure, he posted a lengthy apology to the Reddit group r/theDonald and asked to remain anonymous. CNN then published a story about its investigation, saying the network had honoured the request because it was made by “a private citizen who has issued an extensive statement of apology, showed his remorse by saying he has taken down all his offending posts, and because he said he is not going to repeat this ugly behaviour on social media again.” Then, in a bizarre twist, it added “CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change.”
Following a now-familiar curve of outrage and misinformation, the article provoked a secondary wave of anger and confrontation. Believing, wrongly, that the Reddit user was a minor, groups associated with the alt-right and with the libertarian fringe of the internet quickly issued counter-threats against the network. A prominent alt-right troll warned that if CNN didn’t withdraw its threat of using “media exposure as a bludgeon” against “this child” for nothing more than “posting [truthful and funny] things that they don’t like” an army of trolls would “begin tracking down their families as a bludgeon against them for publishing [seditiously fraudulent] things that we don’t like.” Shortly afterwards, according to a report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, “personal information for multiple CNN staffers and their family members ‒ alongside images and gifs of individuals with CNN superimposed over their faces being shot in the head ‒ appeared in the comments of the posting.”
Reflecting on these events, Kyle Pope, Editor in Chief and Publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review, argues that the US media’s tendency to report “on every tweet with the volume of a declaration of war” has become a self-harming distraction that marginalizes more important news. “The country’s social safety net is being shredded,” he notes, “the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] is being dismantled; we are marching towards war with North Korea; America’s standing in the world is shrinking by the day” yet the mainstream media indulges this obsession with “the president calling us names on Twitter.”
Pope notes that perpetual outrage squanders the opportunity for “serious, nuanced argument about why everyone benefits from a free and vigorous press” and exaggerates the level of danger that US journalists face. (Consider, for example, the peril of journalism in Mexico and parts of the Middle East.) He adds that the US media “have reached the point at which the media response has become counterproductive and even beneficial to the president and his lackeys in the White House, who have turned the West Wing into a megaphone for Trump’s faux media war…”
Donald Trump outmanoeuvred the US media throughout his campaign, controlling the narrative despite their best attempts to embarrass and expose him. Worryingly, his skill at keeping them focused on himself, at centre-stage, while consequential decisions take place in the wings of the White House, has been one of the few undisputed achievements of his bewildering presidency. Unfortunately, unless and until the US media learns to ignore his serial provocations and restore their focus to his government’s many questionable actions, he will remain ringmaster of the current media circus.