Looming showdown in Trump versus law and media

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Michael Cohen turned on Trump citing his family as his priority of where his loyalty should lie (Image YouTube screenshot)

How will Americans register the double-blow meted out to Donald Trump on Tuesday this week, 21 August 2018, or how much will they know about it?

Independent Australia’s Media Editor Lee Duffield has been tasting the news on offer in the United States, finding mainstream journalists reacting against being under fire.

He says there is space for people using “new media” to get more serious about what is taking place in the “real world” of politics and the law.

WHEN PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON would go on television in 1974 to try and fight off developments in the “Watergate” scandal that brought him down, it was a national event.

This time, the shape of the public debate surrounding the presidency is more complicated, both because of the man’s nature and because of the transformation of media.

Ominous times for Trump

Tuesday’s case is the prime example, with the substance of the story ominous for President Donald Trump.

He saw his former campaign director, Paul Manafort, found guilty of financial fraud and on the same day his private legal counsel, Michael Cohen, dumped on him, admitting to buying the silence of two of the President’s former bedmates, implicating the President himself in a likely federal crime.

Both cases were invoked by the legal team under Robert Mueller, Special Counsel investigating possible Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential elections.

Success with those cases would strengthen the position of the Mueller investigation.

Rather than be able to “fire” the investigator, something he has talked about, Trump might find himself charged with obstruction of justice and the two culpable former advisors, bargaining with prosecutors, might give further information prejudicial to his position.

If the American Republican Party takes heavy losses in mid-term elections this November, in both houses of Congress, the opposition Democrats would be likely to impeach him.

Complicated tales, simple tastes

If this all sounds complicated, it is only a scrap of the pile of day-by-day exposures American journalists have been dealing with.

Mainstream media in the United States has been giving it a detailed and fulsome airing reminiscent of the mounting up of the public record against Richard Nixon.

This will involve, for example, a drenching of detail, three hours of late night programming on the MNBC national television network.

It will involve pages of detailed court reportage and other coverage in newspapers.

For Americans on vacation worldwide on Tuesday, the hotels outlet USA Today provided a full bath — two full broadside pages of such material.

However, while U.S. journalists are among the world’s best at making things very clear, it demands that audiences know something to start with, pay attention and concentrate on understanding.

Thanks to digitisation and the proliferation and atomisation of media, people have many “painless” alternatives to media outlets carrying the hard news.

Trump himself provides the chief example with his do-it-yourself news, on his “black day” attacking journalists as “fake news” and asserting he had no connection with the Russian exercise or any crimes.

So many outlets exist, there is space for highly opinionated, politically partisan outlets like Fox News, where he gave an interview saying the stock market and the U.S. economy would fail if they impeached him.

(In the fallout from that interview, he has attracted public criticism from yet another senior official, the Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, by complaining that Sessions, as a political loyalist, had let him down.)

Trump hoping to treat law like politics

Donald Trump’s handing out of political responses to essentially legal actions provides the shape of the present debate.

The legal process goes on, generating pressure that would be terrible to bear for any high office holder, let alone one with the kind of ego and character of Trump.

But, despite what he wants, it is strictly legal business, only politicised to the extent the beleaguered President might try to shut it down, like his predecessor Richard Nixon, who sacked his own Solicitor General, Archibald Cox.

Who's paying attention, or not?

Out there, among the American public, millions who voted for Trump and still like his style don’t have to pay any attention at all.

They can find out what they need and what they keenly want elsewhere.

Searching for news in the U.S. media produces waves of opinion and propaganda, made to order for partisan audiences interested mainly in hearing their own views confirmed.

For example, with radio, much of the talk space is occupied by revivalist preachers or the rightwing “shock jocks” — some plainly talking made-up, conspiratorial nonsense.

Therefore we have:

  • formal legal processes in which President Donald Trump appears to be getting drawn into a whirlpool of culpability;
  • very thorough reporting in the “social responsibility” form of mainstream journalism, where the legal narrative is explained for all who want to pay attention; some main outlets such as the New York Times independently digging out additional facts, feeding into the story as it unfolds; and
  • bulk media of all kinds and all levels either ignoring the “President” story or denouncing the legal action as politics, providing some comfort for the Trump-converted, who might by now be getting anxious.

If the American institutions hold and a kind of “dictator” President does not emerge and kick over the law, the media side of it might make little difference.

Will they get him?

If Trump is responsible for crimes, presidential immunities or not, in the end, they will get him.

The question about media is what value to place on the public being informed by mass media, taking the opportunity to get themselves informed and participating in democratic processes, such as talking with their members of Congress?

Just last week, Thursday 16 August, over 300 U.S. newspapers published a rebuttal of the attacks on news media by the American President, who was calling them untruthful and conspiratorial — “fake news”.

Media talking back

The editors and journalists were at pains to reply on the grounds they had been just reporting what happened, with transparent commentary done to explain it.

They have been concerned, of course, that the abuse has come from the “top”, since the United States President is not only the head of the Government administration but the actual Head of State — like the Queen or the Governor General going around abusing people.

They have become alarmed at the viciousness in it, for example, at a recent Republican Party political rally, Trump sooling the crowd onto an individual CNN journalist.

He then famously went on social media to reaffirm his feelings:

(A joke device appropriating the term “fake news” used to describe hoax sites in social media; of concern because of precedents in history where extremist cranks in government have denounced and then closed down free and independent media.)

Who's responsible?

Some overseas media joined in the joint action to rebuff the Presidential attacks, such as the British Guardian, which has editions in the United States.

A writer on the London Evening Standard, Joy Lo Dico directly focused on the point that the proliferation of media sites has been providing a distraction – much information and entertainment – but not bringing all people together around collective celebrations, problems or threats.  

What about outlets in “new media” taking up some “social responsibility”, at least when a crisis is menacing the country?

In an article titled 'When will Twitter and the new media stand up to trump attacks?', Lo Dico wrote:

There is one big voice missing from this — Twitter, Trump’s chosen platform. The past 24 hours have been an opportunity for the site… to restate the American values that allow it to operate in the first place: freedom of the media and its sister value, freedom of speech. Where is the tweet from @jack, the founder of Twitter Jack Dorsey… that defends Trump’s right to the latter, while defending the former?

When the old media is under attack and journalists feel threatened by the dog-whistle insults, it is time for the new media to stand up, or they too are part of the problem.

When “Tricky Dicky” Nixon was under fire, everybody saw it on television because there were not many media channels. Now, with so many channels, more onus passes to audiences to find and follow those who are accountable and telling the truth.

Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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