(Peter Van Buren, a 24 year State Department veteran, is the author of “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.” The opinions expressed here are his own.)
By Peter Van Buren
Dec 2 (Reuters) - President-elect Donald Trump discovered the Holy Grail of media relations: the ability with a 140-character tweet to ignore the Fourth Estate. This is brass-knuckled political power that at a minimum pushes the press another circulation drop closer to irrelevancy.
The latest example is directed against a journalist who reported Trump’s tweet that he lost the popular vote because of extensive fraud. CNN’s Jeff Zeleny called Trump a “sore winner,” adding the president-elect had “zero evidence” to back up his fraud claim. Trump responded with a series of tweets and retweets condemning Zeleny, all echoing around the web for days. (The White House, election law experts and state officials have all debunked the claim of widespread irregularities; the president-elect has yet to provide evidence of his allegation.)
Journalists mockingly treat Trump’s tweets as examples of his oafishness, just as they did his bombastic stump style. More inchoate Trumpsplaining! But as the media missed the populist appeal of Donald Trump right up until election night, so are they missing the popular power he is wielding over them via social media. This is no joke, except maybe on the journalists whose credibility is already a laughing matter.
While Obama claimed the title of first “internet president” by virtue of his online fund-raising, brilliant datamining, and seeding of the 24-hour news cycle, the bulk of his efforts were essentially repurposing technology to do things politicians have always done, albeit faster and better.
Trump discovered something bigger online: he doesn’t really need much from journalists. Social media for Trump is not simply a display board to pin policy statements on, as others use it. Social media allows Trump to bypass everything and speak to individual citizens, and then force the traditional media to amplify what he says as part of its thirst for “content.” There really isn’t any news anymore when Trump has it on Twitter as his own scoop. The media is playing defense.
And if the media ignores the tweets thinking they can starve the troll? The audience that advertisers depend on can just go read the tweets themselves (Twitter accepts advertising, too.) In a period where the credibility of the press is already in question after many journalists epically failed to accurately report on the election, many viewers may prefer to go to the source directly anyway. Exactly how much reach outside its bubble does the media think it really has anymore? Oh well, there’s still weather and sports to report.
Every president who’s left a record expressed some level of disdain for the media of his day. But no president previously could afford to ignore, or truly anger, the press. Influence, of course: presidents would leak juicy stuff to one reporter, cut off another, but at the end of the day the media and the president needed each other to do their respective jobs.
A president-elect once upon a time would have had to be careful chiding a columnist for the New York Times, for fear of the editorial page. Trump treats reporters with contempt because in his mind, all they really do of value is retweet him. Who cares what CNN’s Zeleny thinks? How many followers on Twitter does he have anyway (Zeleny = 136k, Trump = 16.4 million)?
Trump has also mastered the dark art of internet logic. His tweets often read like the “Comments” section of some blog. Make a bold, unsupported statement that may or may not be true, then demand challengers provide proof you’re wrong. Dispute sources, not facts - X can’t be true because it was reported by a pro-Clinton outlet. Attack ad hominem. The enemy isn’t just CNN, it is Zeleny himself. Then stand back and disavow what happens, up to and including death threats. All that bruised ego guardians-of-the-people stuff from the pundits? Label it just another example of media arrogance and elitism.
The president-elect has also understood the value of moving beyond talking points. Express things in #ShortForm. No policy paper ever went viral.
Social media Trump-style also offers an unprecedented ability to control the agenda at will, without requiring a sympathetic editor to run a puff piece. Should a troublesome story appear, a handful of bombastic tweets changes the conversation on Trump’s schedule. If no one seems to be listening after some rude remarks about the musical Hamilton run their course, just yell louder - flag burners should lose their citizenship! Trump isn’t communicating, he’s dueling. All in real, real time; Trump is no stranger to sending out 140 characters of white noise at 3 a.m.
With its reliance on friends, followers, and sharing, social media also creates a personal bond among Trump and individual Americans, something not really experienced since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Depression-era fireside chats. As those radio broadcasts brought Roosevelt into the living room, Trump’s tweets put his policies, opinions, and rants into the same feed as Aunt Sally. That creates intimacy, and by association (who doesn’t like Aunt Sally?), may increase trust.
And make no mistake about it; unlike most politicians’ robo-social media, Trump’s tweets come from Trump. It’s him talking to you. People write back in the first person, using the informal language of the web, and Trump retweets messages from his followers. The medium is the message and both are Trump. No other politician today can pull this off; it has to be real, organic, to work.
While many will advise Trump to soften his social media to a more “presidential model,” it seems unlikely he will agree. This is a powerful tool. It played a significant role in the election. It will allow Trump to choose how, when, or if, he wants to engage with the traditional media. There are no laws or regulations that govern how or when a president may communicate with the public, and indeed there are @POTUS and @WhiteHouse accounts already in place. Trump would only have to use a stand alone, dedicated device for his tweets to keep them separate from his classified communications.
With all that on one side of the scale, and with Trump being both the president, and, well, Trump, who can make the argument (perhaps in 140 characters) that pulling back is in his interest? (Reporting by Peter Van Buren)