Trump, Murdoch and digital tabloids: from media bodyguards to Praetorian Guards

U.S. President George H. W. Bush awards former...

U.S. President George H. W. Bush awards former U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor awarded by the United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For I know that some human beings are like horses—the more they get what they want, the more unruly they are apt to become. [3] The way to manage men like that is to put the fear of the bodyguard into them. Xenophon Hiero 10, 1-3

All politicians need publicity, preferably good publicity, to be elected. Without publicity, they will find it difficult to promote their messages and policies. To promote their message, they have to work with those institutions, like the mainstream media, that help bring their message to the public. As the press mediate, or transmit, their message, they can help or hinder depending on the issue and the public’s view of it. When they are under threat from political opponents, critics, or a dissatisfied public, they want the press to be on their side. Donald Trump is no different. During his campaign, he received a lot of “free media” that helped him gain a wider exposure to voters and drain coverage of his opponents. His abusive language and campaign promises made him popular with television news programmes eager to profit from covering his campaign.[1]

As President, he and his advisors know that they need the media to broadcast the administration’s policies and proposals. Without that coverage, it is harder to ensure the public support needed to pass legislation, explain difficult decisions, or defend unsuccessful policies. When the president governs, unlike campaigning, he and his policies are held to account for decision rather than promises because the decisions no matter how generous always leave someone dissatisfied. Each decision attracts the media’s attention as the public want to know how they are being governed and what it means for them. Although scrutiny comes from the other branches of government, the public turn to the press for their information. With that information, the public can hold the president to account. As a result, such coverage can appear critical or even negative, as the public are always interested in what they will lose or will hurt them more than what they might gain from a government policy or decision.

Politicians and presidents respond with various strategies that help them to manage public opinion as they mitigate the worst effects from negative or critical coverage. Some might alter their policies or at least the tone of the policies often time softening the messages they use to explain it so that it is acceptable to the public. Others will court reporters, editors, and proprietors to encourage their support or provide them additional insight so that they modify their coverage. In some cases, a politician, or their party, will buy television advertisements to promote or defend their message. The oldest way to do this is to make public speeches directly to the public. These are positive or persuasive methods, but there are negative or coercive methods. Some will attack the media or berate individual reporters or outlets for their coverage. We saw this under President Trump when he said CNN, which had criticized him, was “fake news”[2]. However, what is common to all of these is the power of access.

The politician, especially the President, knows that access is important for the press, which means by rationing it they can influence, to a large extent, their coverage. If they can influence the coverage, they can shape public opinion. By these methods, the president can mitigate or avoid the public’s attempts to hold him account or limit his policies especially ones that will hurt them. Despite the power of access, presidents know that it alone will not ensure positive coverage so they need to have other ways to manage the coverage effectively.

To manage public opinion, a politician needs to have the media, or at least some of the media, and by extension the public, support his message or policy to some extent. However, the support, like access, can always be withdrawn or can quickly turn to criticism as the media and public disagree with the policies or the message. Instead the attempts to manage the press through access or the attempt to manage the public opinion by attempts to gain support from the media, a politician and a president, especially one who dislikes the press, will need something more.[3] What a politician, even a president, wants is to be able to manage the process by which opinions are made and the press report or respond to those opinions. What the politician wants is an equalizer, someone within the media, who will regularly defend them, promote their message, and most importantly attack their critics either in the media or in the public. What they need is a media bodyguard.

Margaret Thatcher was the first to employ a media bodyguard

Margaret Thatcher was the first political leader to engage a media bodyguard. Early in her first term as Prime Minister (PM), Thatcher was under threat; she was behind in the polls and increasingly unpopular. She needed help. To improve her media coverage, she made a secret deal with Rupert Murdoch for media support.[4] He came to her privately with an offer she could not refuse. He needed her to support his plan to expand his control of UK media. In return, she needed, and would receive, his support through his newspapers. However, Thatcher wanted more than a cheerleader or a partisan supporter, what she needed was someone who would attack her political and media enemies inside and outside the party. Murdoch and his journalists obliged with unrestrained vigour and enthusiasm. In addition to their own targets, they tried to destroy or “monster” anyone who incurred their disfavour through any means, legal or illegal. As a result, Murdoch and Thatcher changed and debased British democracy as no PM has been elected without Murdoch’s support.[5] For his part in the bargain, Murdoch and his editors, and journalists, have had preferential access to the PM and their governments.[6] Neither outcome reflected a healthy or transparency democracy as neither reflected a decision that the public could hold to account.

Those who claim to fight tyranny are often those who secretly desire it.

Despite Thatcher’s claim to support freedom and by extension freedom of the press and its ability to inform the public to hold the powerful to account; she acted to influence, if not control, what people read through her alliance with Murdoch.

“It has been the guiding sentiment of tyrants in every age who believe that if you can control what people read and thereby what they think then you can control them.”[7]

Even though Thatcher used this statement to criticise governments that did not tolerate a free press, she showed a similar attitude, if not a similar approach. In this she was being consistent for she behaved as she believed. Like many ancient rulers, she undermined the common good to promote her personal or private good.[8] As she famously argued, there is no such thing as society or a common good, there are only individuals or individual goods.[9] She ensured that Murdoch served; her, her party, and her supporters. If the public interest was served, it was only to the extent that it reflected those interests. She used her media bodyguard to protect her, her party, and her supporters at the public’s expense. With Trump, Rupert Murdoch has brought that idea to America.

How did anyone survive without a media bodyguard?

With the rise of Trump, Murdoch has brought a similar deal to Donald Trump. What is different, though, is that while Trump continues Thatcher’s legacy, he and his advisors have updated and expand on this relationship. They have transformed the idea of the media bodyguard. During the campaign, Donald Trump gained great media exposure from the large media corporations, especially through television news coverage. This wider coverage, was supplemented by social media blogs and digital tabloids such as Breitbart News and Gateway Pundit, which carried his messages, enhanced them, and attacked his opponents and critics with them. The digital platforms and outlets provided vociferous support and enthusiastic attacks on Hillary Clinton and her supporters.[10] The digital media’s most important role was their ability to create the fear, uncertainty, doubt needed to make Trump’s messages sound hopeful. Trump was able to mix fear, of immigrants and terrorists, with his ability to ensure safety and restore the country’s “lost greatness”. Yet, for Trump, this was not enough; he wanted Rupert Murdoch’s support since he has to counter any threat from cable news.[11]

How Trump has transcended Murdoch’s media bodyguard business model.

Trump, like any president, knows he needs the mainstream media to broadcast his messages. To influence, if not control them, especially when they criticize him, he needs to be able to do more than deny them access. He has to be able to be able to manage them as well as bypass them to render them less effective or needed. He needs an ability to speak directly to the public and provide the information he wants to be seen. If a president can do this regularly then his contact with supporters and the public, unmediated by the mainstream media outlets, enables to him to choose when and how to rely on the mainstream media. If he can choose when and how he engages with the mainstream press, he can influence, if not control, them. If he can control or manage them, he can manage public opinion.

What tools does he have for this work?

He can bypass the press with public speeches and rallies, but these only reach a limited or local audience. He can bypass them through online or radio platforms, like Infowars, but this only reaches a slightly larger audience. These platforms may dilute or distort his message simply from their reputation or audience demographics. These methods help him to bypass the media but they do not reach as large of audience, which is where Murdoch becomes important. Murdoch helps Trump reach a wider audience through his outlets. For many commentators, it appeared that Trump needed Murdoch more than Murdoch needed Trump. Recent events have suggested that the relationship is more complex.[12] Even though Murdoch provides critical support through Fox News and his newspapers, he only solves one part of the problem because negate or mitigate other cable news programmes. Unlike in the UK, Murdoch cannot control or coordinate his US news corporations as clearly or as effectively. Even without that control, Murdoch and the other platforms and outlets gave Trump a way to bypass the mainstream media during the campaign. To govern, though, Trump needs something more than the type of media bodyguard that Murdoch can offer. Trump has transformed the media bodyguard relationship to deal with the problem of the White House press corps.

If you can’t convince the press, then you can sure try to coerce them or punish them.

The White House press corps (WHPC) present one of the toughest media challenges for a president. As they literally live in the White House, they are available to help him broadcast his messages or to hold him and his message to account with an immediate and direct challenge to his message and policies. At their most effective, the press, in particular the WHPC can almost act as another branch of government checking or balancing his authority. When the president’s party, controls both the House and the Senate, the WHPC and the press can become like a default “opposition” party. For the president to succeed, he knows he has to manage the WHPC differently since access is almost guaranteed even with the threat of physically removing reporters. To deal with the WHPC, Trump has diluted them, intimidated them, and undermined them.

Trump has diluted the White House press corps in three ways.[13] First, he opened the questions up to a Skype questions from journalists outside the WHPC or the DC area.[14] The Skype questions can be used to dilute or avoid the WHPC. Second, through his alliance with Murdoch, he can field questions solely from Murdoch owned outlets. He did this when Japan’s Prime Minister visited.[15] With these methods, a president can to avoid questions[16], but his most important strategic device moves beyond avoiding questions or requiring a basic media bodyguard. Trump has diluted the WHPC, in a third way, by adding partisan media organisations that support his message. By giving Gateway Pundit press credentials,[17] Trump has changed the White House press corps forever. He has shown that if he, or a future president, wants their messages undiluted by the mainstream media, they can go to a partisan news outlet.[18] Trump can overcome media “bias” by turning to platforms and outlets that are biased for him or will say what he wants them to say to further his (and their) agenda. Any future president can bring in a media outlet that reflects their partisan group and answer its questions without reference to the mainstream media. He can access, and through that access legitimate, an outlet or platform that will attack or undermine the mainstream media. He has brought a media bodyguard to supplement his physical bodyguards so he can attack the media, journalists, or stories he finds disagreeable. He can influence the process by which the media mediate his message. Trump and his operatives use of psychological and physical intimidation aided by his media bodyguards creates an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty among the mainstream press and the WHPC in particular. They know that if they appear too disagreeable Trump will have his private security eject them from the meeting. Even if these methods appear successful or satisfying to Trump and his supporters, especially as they protect and assuage his ego, they will create a deep problem that will harm Trump more than it will help him.

Once you have a media bodyguard, you cannot do without it.

During the campaign, Trump and his admirers worked to undermine the mainstream media. For his supporters, they have a candidate, and a president who will “punch back”. However, this is more than “punching back” it is an attempt to disrupt how the how the WHPC and the mainstream media mediate his message. Trump and his advisor behaviour suggests a plan that is radical and daring for it relies on physical and psychological coercion to habituate the press (and by extension) the public to accept his message uncritically since any critics or analysis will be undermined as “fake news”. Such a strategy, to undermine the system, and enable his media bodyguards is fraught with danger not only to the president and the presidency but to democracy. We have moved beyond Thatcher and Murdoch making a hidden deal, one hidden because it was morally and politically ugly (both participants knew it was ugly and immoral which is why neither has ever spoken about it publicly), to what is done openly and brazenly in the name of “free speech”, “free press”, and even “national security”. Instead, Trump has awakened us to an ancient problem, one long thought to have been banished by modern democracy and the modern free press, that will prove problematic for his presidency with a risk greater than any benefit it might create.

Leo Strauss writing in a different context describes their problem.

“Thus no tyrant can dispense with a bodyguard which is more loyal to him than to the city and which enables him to maintain his power against the wishes of the city.”[19]

What Trump and his advisors have done by their effort to dilute the WHPC and attempts to bypass the mainstream media, and intimidate journalists, is they create a media Praetorian Guard. Once in place, they may help Trump achieve his ambitions as well as allow him to shape the political landscape to determine his successor. In effect, such a change in the regime would allow him rule in a way that can reshape the previous constitutional structures that depend on an informed public holding the president to account. However, his plans contain a great risk since they require him to him to keep the media bodyguards satisfied so that they continue to support him or he will find they and the mainstream media are both opposed to him at the same time.

For the moment, he believes that he can play them off of each other, but can he do this indefinitely? Can he convince the public this will improve the country’s democratic health by dealing with what appears to ail it? He may find that instead of remaining as bodyguards, they become Praetorian guards who determine the message and take control of his plans. He would do well to remember the Aesop’s tale of the horse and the stag.[20]

If he continues, then his idea, if not its principle, will suggest that future presidents can bring in their partisan blog, outlet, or platform to dilute the mainstream media and determine the message that the public will receive without the previous checks and balances offered by the existing system. In such a system, the media bodyguard becomes the “official” media, then begins to escape the normal constitutional bonds that check the president’s power. In a word, the president starts to appear as a tyrant for the media serves his interest not the public interest. The media bodyguard model becomes transformed into a Praetorian Guard model. From the UK, which has to be seen as the cautionary example, we can see that such a relationship will be at a minimum problematic for it will encourage excesses that will quickly and easily become criminal.[21]

[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/les-moonves-donald-trump_us_56d52ce8e4b03260bf780275 One estimate suggested that the media coverage was worth Two billion dollars to Trump’s campaign. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/16/upshot/measuring-donald-trumps-mammoth-advantage-in-free-media.html

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/video/us/politics/100000004865825/trump-calls-cnn-fake-news.html

[3] Something more can be as extreme as bribery or physical coercion. It is no accident that Sean Spicer threatened to have a reporter ejected from a presidential press conference or that Trump employs private security for the sole purpose of dealing with protestors or journalists he finds disagreeable. On Sean Spicer see: https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/erik-wemple/wp/2017/01/31/sean-spicer-attempts-to-trash-cnn-correspondent-jim-acosta/ and http://edition.cnn.com/2017/01/11/politics/acosta-says-trump-spokesman-threatened-to-expel-him-from-presser-cnntv/ on Trump’s private security see http://www.politico.com/story/2016/12/donald-trump-security-force-232797 and his approach to difficult journalists. http://uk.businessinsider.com/donald-trump-ejected-a-prominent-journalist-from-a-press-conference-2015-8 United Secret Service are there to protect the president from threats not to deal with protestors. One is reminded that tyrants have always sought bodyguards. http://www.politico.com/story/2017/02/trump-securitys-use-of-force-questioned-234396 see also

[4] [1] http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/apr/28/how-margaret-thatcher-and-rupert-murdoch-made-secret-deal  “She was trailing in the polls, caught in a recession she had inherited, eager for an assured cheerleader at a difficult time.”

[5] For example see this article http://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/rupert-murdoch-berated-sun-journalists-for-not-doing-enough-to-attack-ed-miliband-10191005.html  and this analysis of the coverage http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2015/05/06/general-election-front-pages_n_7219736.html

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/feb/05/rupert-murdoch-access-to-downing-street-theresa-may-david-cameron

[7] http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/108364

[8] This is not surprising at all. In all of her public statements from 1945 she only mentions the term “The common good” 16 times. In nearly 60 years of public statements this seems surprising. Rupert Murdoch is mentioned 19 times (although in some cases he is mentioned by her interlocutor)

This is found at this site http://www.margaretthatcher.org/

With this search http://www.margaretthatcher.org/speeches/results.asp?dt=4&btn=Search&w=%22Common+Good%22&searchtype=and&t=0&starty=&startm=&startd=&endy=&endm=&endd=&onedayy=&onedaym=&onedayd

However, this should not come as a surprise given her antipathy to the idea of the common good. She believed in the individual and the individual good. She believed that if the individual pursued their own good, then the public would benefit as it would be automatic that they would act for the common good to achieve their personal good. Yet, this seems to ignore or forget the famous book by Mandeville The Fable of the Bees: Or, Private Vices create Public Virtues http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/846  She knew that individuals have unequal talents and unequal access to opportunities so her proposals would privilege the few at the expense of the many. Her approach would undermine the common good upon which justice depends. Like a classical tyrant, she pursued her individual good at the expense of the common good and justice.

[9] http://www.margaretthatcher.org/speeches/displaydocument.asp?docid=106689

[10] The public or exoteric efforts were supplemented by private or esoteric efforts such as through Cambridge Analytica. In this approach, people who used Facebook to gather their news were manipulated through algorithms that promoted articles that reinforced their existing views or could be adjusted to promote the messages being promoted or more worryingly to suppress ideas and messages.

“Much of this is done through Facebook dark posts, which are only visible to those being targeted.

Based on users’ response to these posts, Cambridge Analytica was able to identify which of Trump’s messages were resonating and where. ….

Dark posts were also used to depress voter turnout among key groups of democratic voters. “In this election, dark posts were used to try to suppress the African-American vote,” wrote journalist and Open Society fellow McKenzie Funk in a New York Times editorial. “According to Bloomberg, the Trump campaign sent ads reminding certain selected black voters of Hillary Clinton’s infamous ‘super predator’ line. It targeted Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood with messages about the Clinton Foundation’s troubles in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.’”

Because dark posts are only visible to the targeted users, there’s no way for anyone outside of Analytica or the Trump campaign to track the content of these ads. In this case, there was no SEC oversight, no public scrutiny of Trump’s attack ads. Just the rapid-eye-movement of millions of individual users scanning their Facebook feeds.”

 https://medium.com/join-scout/the-rise-of-the-weaponized-ai-propaganda-machine-86dac61668b#.p2ypgotco  For a related article on the EU referendum see https://www.commonspace.scot/articles/10320/jj-patrick-brexit-and-undeclared-data-war-driving-rightwing-campaigns

[11] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3660027/Look-s-coming-dinner-Trump-dines-Rupert-Murdoch-wife-Jerry-Hall-posh-Scottish-golf-course-meal-s-house-Donald-owns-place.html

[12] http://mediamatters.org/blog/2017/02/15/explosive-allegations-fox-sexual-harassment-lawsuit-include-electronic-surveillance-and-violations/215360 If Murdoch knows he is in trouble over US phone hacking allegations, then he would need Trump as an ally to restrain such investigations.

[13] President Obama was the first to include web only outlets such as Yahoo News and Real Clear Politics as well as Huffington Post and Buzzfeed. Yet, none of these was openly partisan for the president’s messages or openly opposed to the mainstream media.

[14] http://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/politics-government/article130120799.html

[15] http://thehill.com/homenews/administration/318971-rupert-murdoch-owned-outlets-get-only-us-questions-at-trump-japan

[16] http://money.cnn.com/2017/02/14/media/white-house-briefings-tough-questions/

[17] http://fox2now.com/2017/02/14/a-purveyor-of-fake-news-may-get-white-house-press-credentials-tmwsp/

[18] http://www.advocate.com/media/2017/2/15/white-house-reporter-twinks4trump-creator-attacks-media-within

[19] See Leo Strauss On Tyranny Corrected and Expanded Edition eds Victor Gourevitch and Michael S. Roth University of Chicago Press, 2013 London) p. 75

[20] Consider the following Aesop Fable of the horse and the stag as quoted by Aristotle. Rhetoric Book 2 Chapter 20 section 5 http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0060:book=2:chapter=20&highlight=body%2Cguard

“The horse agreed to the terms and the man mounted him, but instead of obtaining vengeance on the stag, the horse from that time became the man’s slave. So then,” said he, “do you take care lest, in your desire to avenge yourselves on the enemy, you be treated like the horse. You already have the bit, since you have chosen a dictator; if you give him a body-guard and allow him to mount you, you will at once be the slaves of Phalaris.”

 

[21] The problematic relationship between the media, politicians, and the police was explored in the Leveson Inquiry. http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20140122145147/http:/www.levesoninquiry.org.uk/  This inquiry was trigged by the Phone Hacking scandal. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/News_International_phone_hacking_scandal where the newspaper News of the World, which as closed as a result of the phone hacking scandal was described as a criminal enterprise. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/jun/30/andy-coulson-news-world-phone-hacking-trial What is central to all of this is Rupert Murdoch who has nurtured his media bodyguard relationship with these news outlets. In particular, the Sun Newspaper keeps safe which holds compromising information on a number of individuals. https://www.byline.com/column/2/article/925 What we find is that journalism becomes a form of blackmail where the process creates morally disfigured employees who have no compunction in attempting to use private information against a Home Secretary. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2013/nov/07/david-blunkett-taped-by-news-of-the-world

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About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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