This is the tenth annual Woolly Days media person of the year, and the award itself is a bit woolly. Sometimes I give it to journalists or other media professionals who impressed that year and sometimes I give it to people outside the industry who for whatever reason dominated the media that year. A bit like Time’s person of the year, there is no actual award nor does the person have to be admirable – Time gave it to Adolf Hitler in 1938 as a warning not an accolade. “Hitler became the greatest threatening force that the democratic, freedom-loving world faces today,” Time wrote at the time.
This year Time have strayed into my territory giving their person of the year to the admirable guardians. The guardians are four journalists and one news organisation who have courageously brought the truth to the world: Jamal Khashoggi (the Saudi Arabian journalist murdered in the Saudi Istanbul consulate) Maria Ressa (the Filipino journalist who has taken on her murderous regime), Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, (imprisoned by Burma for their journalism) and the Capital Gazette of Annapolis, US (who lost five staff in a mass shooting). Any one of them would have been worthy winners of my award this year. But rather than repeat Time’s work, I take a leaf out of their book and give my media person of the year as a warning not an accolade. US president Donald Trump has thrashed global accords, promoted a neo-Nazi agenda, declared war on the media, has openly lied to advance his agenda, and is inspiring a plethora of authoritarian leaders and would-be leaders across the world. Eighty years on from Hitler in 1938 Trump is the greatest threatening force that “the democratic, freedom-loving world” faces.
Elected in a stunning upset in November 2016, it remains a mystery two years on, how he remains in his job. Barely a day has passed when he hasn’t been embroiled in some controversy. Wikipedia lists 69 pages in its category “Trump administration controversies“, another 33 in “Donald Trump litigation controversies“, 43 pages in “protests against Donald Trump” and 21 in general “Donald Trump controversies” which feature doozies like his links with Russia, his tax affairs, his sexual affairs, the Access Hollywood tape, and Stormy Daniels, just to name an incendiary top five.
Any normal politician would have been destroyed if they were involved in just one or two of those controversies. But Trump is not normal and his scores of controversies appear almost all without consequence. Indeed his strategy is to flood the media with controversies and lies (The Washington Post estimate in 710 days, President Trump has made 7645 false or misleading claims) which all compete for media space. None lasts long enough in the short news cycle to land a mortal blow while each individual attack is dismissed as “fake news”. The real fake news, usually in his favour, is disseminated widely via uncurated, algorithm-driven social media while the truth is still getting its pants on.
It is true that the Mueller investigation hangs over him like a Sword of Damocles threatening imprisonment and impeachment. The US Constitution allows for the impeachment of a president for “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanours.” The Democrat-controlled House of Representatives can vote with a simple majority to impeach a president. But the impeached leader is then tried in the GOP-run Senate and it needs an unlikely two-thirds vote to find him guilty and remove him from office. In the meantime Trump remains in King Lear mode raging against the unnatural elements toying with his fate.
Trump wants to portray the media as enemies. His strategist Steve Bannon blatantly told the New York Times after the election the media was the opposition party, not the wounded Dems. But the media did not want to be the enemy, merely the chroniclers of his presidency. They wanted to normalise his presidency using existing frames of reference, with outdated notions about “respect for the presidency” and hearing both sides of the argument despite being blatantly manipulated by the White House and its support base.
Media companies have come to rely on Trump, despite his animosity. For ratings-driven news outlets, the always-controversial candidate was the gift that kept giving. As CBS CEO Leslie Moonves admitted: “Trump may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” Organisations critical of Trump such as the New York Times have grown their subscription base greatly covering Trump’s ups and downs. But with the American newspaper industry losing over a third of its staff since 2006 the analysis of the downs has not been as thorough as it used to be.
The supposed “adults in the room” have had as little success as the media in managing Trump. Former foreign secretary Rex Tillerson spoke about Trump’s modus operandi. “When the President would say, ‘Here’s what I want to do and here’s how I want to do it.’ And I’d have to say to him, ‘Well Mr President, I understand what you want to do, but you can’t do it that way. It violates the law. It violates treaty,'” Tillerson said in November. “He got really frustrated … I think he grew tired of me being the guy every day that told him you can’t do that and let’s talk about what we can do.” The transactional Trump preferred to move the argument to what he wanted to do, and his supporters followed suit. .
According to researcher danah boyd, “alt-right and alt-light” trolls, conspiracy theorists, and offensive and outrageous provocateurs, all bathe in the flood of negative publicity, and use the media’s coverage, “particularly its storm of outraged, fact-checking, oppositional coverage” to whip up their base, generate interest in their ideas, and stoke the belief mainstream media was against them. Trump’s actions mirror his base. In October when a supporter was arrested in October for mailing bombs to Trump opponents and another murdered 11 Jewish worshippers in a Jewish synagogue, Trump put the blame elsewhere: “There is great anger in our Country caused in part by inaccurate, and even fraudulent, reporting of the news. The Fake News Media, the true Enemy of the People, must stop the open & obvious hostility & report the news accurately & fairly. That will do much to put out the flame.”
Trump does not want to put out the flame – he relies on its light and heat. CNN and its White House correspondent Jim Acosta are public enemy number 1. Trump and Acosta’s extraordinary ongoing battle flared up in public in November in extraordinary fashion. When Acosta asked about the so-called “migrant caravan” and Russian meddling in the 2016 election, Trump shut him down. “You are a rude, terrible person,” Trump said to Acosta, also reprimanding him for “horrible” treatment of White House press secretary Sarah Sanders. Acosta stood his ground but failed to return to fire about Trump’s own terrible rudeness. Here was a golden opportunity to accuse an angry president of being a congenital liar but Acosta did not take it. And neither the underhand way his administration manipulated a video to make Acosta look worse, or the court overturning his decision to deny Acosta a White House pass has made an iota of difference to the way Trump deals with the press gallery, or them with him.
Media educator Jay Rosen has been arguing for years press organisations need to change the way they deal with Trump, who he called the “most significant threat to an informed public in the United States today”. Rosen says normal practice cannot cope with Trump’s political style which incorporates a hate movement against journalists. He says that instead of sending veterans like Acosta, media companies should send in the interns. “Our major news organisations don’t have to cooperate with this. They don’t have to lend talent or prestige to it. They don’t have to be props. They need not televise the spectacle live and they don’t have to send their top people,” Rosen said. “They can ‘switch’ systems: from inside-out, where access to the White House starts the story engines, to outside-in, where the action begins on the rim, in the agencies, around the committees, with the people who are supposed to obey Trump but have doubts… The press has to become less predictable. It has to stop functioning as a hate object. This means giving something up.”
No organisation has yet seen the sense in Rosen’s words and given something up. Instead they are constantly playing catch up while Trump bends or breaks the rules further. He also works around them using social media, especially Twitter. Donald Trump discovered Twitter around February 2013 – at the start of the presidential cycle that led to his extraordinary win in 2016. The @RealDonaldTrump Twitter account had existed since 2009 but for four years broadcast bland promotional fare. A young movie maker Justin McConney who Trump admired for a golf video advised him to transfer his freewheeling approach to the world’s most unregulated public arena. “I wanted the Donald Trump who is on Howard Stern, commenting on anything and everything,” McConney said at the time.
Trump was not immediately sold but after media coverage of his fork-and-knife pizza-eating dinner with Sarah Palin in 2011, McConney convinced him to record a video blog explaining his decision which was about not eating the crust to “keep the weight down”. Not only did it cut out the middle man in getting the message out instantly, it generated a bonus round of coverage of the blog itself. His use of social media grew as he toyed with the idea of a 2012 run and he began to throw in social commentary. When he bought an Android phone in 2013 the shackles came off completely and he tweeted 8000 times that year. When he entered the Republican primary field in 2015, Trump used outrageous tweets to earn traditional media coverage — as better-qualified opponents struggled for attention. Everyone expected it to end once he was elected president but he merely doubled down with his new-found authority, and 45 million followers positive and negative are gripped by his every 280-word rant. He has only gotten worse in 2018. As his public enemy number one CNN says “his tweets read like a stream of consciousness, verbal vomit — always (or almost always) focused on the ongoing special counsel investigation being led by Robert Mueller.”
Even McConney says Trump has gone too far, but who will stop him? Unlikely the American electorate. Trump has a plausible path back to the White House in 2020 because he has not lost the trust of the rust belt states that voted for him in the first place. Certainly not other world leaders as the famous photo taken in June that accompanies this article shows. The unrepentant schoolboy Trump stares up at headmistress Angela Merkel and fellow frustrated teachers Shinzo Abe, Emmanuel Macron and Theresa May as he stonewalled G7 agreement on trade and tariffs, a year after he withdrew from the Paris climate agreement.
Even if he is somehow brought to earth by Mueller’s investigation, there are other authoritarians such as Bolsonaro in Brazil, Duterte in Philippines, Salman in Saudi Arabia, Orban in Hungary all watching and learning Trump’s crafty anarchy at work dismantling democratic checks and balances. The guardians named by Time in those countries are doing a good job but Donald Trump is showing that with the help of state media manipulations the guardians can be depicted as enemies. That is the real media message of 2018. I hope 2019 finds a solution to this problem. Happy New Year.
Woolly Days media person of the year 2009-2017
2009 Mark Scott
2010 Julian Assange (my only other winner I don’t like but even that was later than 2010 when I realised he was a twat)
2012 Brian Leveson
2013 Edward Snowden
2015 Clementine Ford
2016 David Bowie