The battle between Republican President Donald Trump and the mainstream media had been heating up for quite some time before one of the first big doses of reality set in — when Trump called CNN "fake news" during a press conference about a week before his inauguration and refused to take a question from the cable network.
It was an unprecedented slap in the media's face — and as you might expect, the press didn't like getting so heavily bombarded in the oft-noted "war on the media." No, not one little bit.
But controversial White House senior advisor Steve Bannon's words to the New York Times last week made Trump's "fake news" salvo to CNN seem relatively tame.
“The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while," Bannon said. "I want you to quote this: The media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States.”
And how did the media respond to Bannon? It fought back.
CNN's Jake Tapper met Bannon's face slap head on, simply saying "no" — he won't shut up. And avowed Trump hater Keith Olbermann couldn't help himself, either:
But according to Fortune senior writer Mathew Ingram, that in fact may be just the way the Trump White House wants it.
Ingram's piece for Fortune last week — Trump’s Media Strategy Is a Trap, and We’re All Taking the Bait — argues that Trump and Bannon and the rest of the White House inner know exactly what they're doing as they continue to anger the press. He called it a "winning strategy" that helped put Trump in the Oval Office to begin with.
Noting a story that (ironically) appeared in the Times which called Bannon's ploy "theater," Ingram pointed out that "the mainstream press — liberal, bi-coastal, latte-drinking know-it-alls, in the eyes of its critics — have been the campaign punching bag from the beginning."
And now with the press getting insulted, threatened and more or less marginalized by the newly minted Trump White House, Ingram argued that Bannon "knew that the instinctive response from journalists would be to cry foul, and to mount our horses in defense of free speech, truth, and justice. It's like poking a bear in a cage."
More from Ingram's Fortune piece:
And Bannon also undoubtedly knows that much of this response — the injured pride and the sarcastic lashing out on Twitter — would make the media look even worse in the eyes of Trump's supporters and many others. How dare he attack us, the gatekeepers of knowledge and defenders of democracy? Translation: We are what's important here.
The wisest response for embattled journalists, Ingram noted, is to "just do our jobs — that is, report the facts, without fear or favor." No chest-puffing, no shouting matches, no tweet storms. Just take the lumps and get on with the task at hand.
More from Ingram:
In some cases, that may involve some media outlets calling a Trump statement a lie. But this has to be a sober decision taken with care, if done at all, not a schoolyard taunt of "Liar! Liar!" Because if it's the latter, many will see it as simply an attack, and not bother to determine who is right. And that also feeds into Bannon's demonization strategy.
The thing that is the hardest to admit about Bannon's criticism is that he has a point. Much of the mainstream press did get the election wrong, by misunderstanding the base of Trump's support and by overplaying news that they thought would be damaging — but wasn't.
Rick Marschall — a veteran author and cultural and political commentator who directed the "Bias in the Media" research project for the American Conservative Union — told TheBlaze that the lines between reporting the facts and editorializing them haven't just been blurred over the years in the mainstream press, they've been "obliterated."
Marschall noted as a touchstone moment the night in 1968 when legendary anchor Walter Cronkite famously told his dinner-time audience that America should negotiate a troop withdrawal in the Vietnam war:
Now, Marschall said, "every reporter has a chip on his shoulder and plays Gotcha."
And while he called the notion "absurd" that the Trump White House is engineering the media's collective anger in order to further alienate it from the public — as if the public isn't already deeply distrustful of the press — Marschall agreed that the White House's tactic is both "intentional" and "brilliant."
“Journalists,” Marschall told TheBlaze, "will fight to the death, pretend to be offended, take others to reform — but will not [themselves] reform." Yet still, he said, they're "out for blood."
And all the while, Marschall added, the public — "Middle America, the Silent and Forgotten Men" — "have subliminally or vociferously known they are being lied to."
With that, enter figures such as Trump, Bannon and Kellyanne Conway who recognize this and act on it, he said. But despite all the media got wrong about Trump, Marschall said that "will never, to them, lead to connecting the dots to honesty and integrity in the news business."
"A blue-sky world of journalism would be one where reporters report," he told TheBlaze. "In an educated democratic republic, one that presumably has grown more informed and mature, the public ought to be able to sort facts for itself."
But now, Marschall noted, "reporters have assumed different, and dangerous, roles. For people and parties they despise, they now view every statement, every decision, every policy as merely the first proposition in a debate they have appointed themselves to engage."
And the Trump White House seems only too happy to oblige.