January 27, 2017

White House breaks precedent with shallow press release

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Last week on MobyLives Julia Fleischaker expanded on the idea, posited by NYU’s Jay Rosen, that Donald Trump’s success at manipulating the media has less to do with talent and more to do with his utter lack of shame. That doesn’t mean that Trump and his aides haven’t tried their best to shape the way the inauguration and early days of the presidency have been covered, as was painfully evident in the White House press release issued yesterday that was buffoonishly titled “Praise for President Trump’s Bold Action.”

For those who missed it, rather than conveying concrete information about any new initiatives, the release was comprised solely of positive blurbs from the media coverage of Trump’s first week in office. Never mind that a number of blurbs at mainstream media sources came from articles that were largely critical of Trump, and the rest from reliably junky outlets like the Washington Examiner and Fox’s Hannity show: the thing was clearly composed merely to promote a glowing perception of the president rather than his policies.

Here’s a snippet:

Praise for President Trump’s Bold Action

The President Is “Coming Out As A Winner On Many Issues…” – The Atlantic

ABC News’ Jonathan Karl: “Incredible Pace Of Activity In The Trump White House On Week One…” Karl Tweet: “Incredible pace of activity in the Trump White House on week one – when have we seen a public WH sked packed as yesterday’s & today’s?” (Twitter.com, 1/24/17)

Fox News’ Sean Hannity: “I Don’t Think I’ve Ever Seen So Much Happen In Such A Short Period Of Time.” (Fox News’ “Hannity,” 1/24/17)

Chicago Tribune Editorial Board: “Trump Could Have Chosen Any Topic To Get His Presidency Rolling. He Picked Jobs. Good.” (Editorial, “What Trump Got Right On Day 1: The Jobs Agenda,” Chicago Tribune, 1/23/17)

After the release went out, prominent political journalists immediately took to Twitter to register their surprise. “This is the kind of email you’d usually see from the campaign. I’ve never seen anything like it from the official White House press office,” tweeted Bradd Jaffy of NBC. “Some might call it Propaganda,” tweeted NBC’s Katy Tur.

According to the Washingtonian’s Benjamin Freed, it’s too soon to jump to make that call. “It might be news for the White House to tout its positive coverage, but it’s not new for the White House to behave like a campaign,” he writes. “That’s a mentality that goes back decades.”

Which is a fine distinction to make, but gets back to the question that continues to paralyze analysis of Trump’s behavior: whether he’s supremely incompetent or his seeming incompetence is calculated. Is the release a thinly-veiled threat to the “dishonest media” about how they will be expected to cover Trump going forward, or a hastily compiled dossier of rosy clips meant to sooth the ego of the an image-obsessed maniac?

But aren’t both interpretations accurate? Yes, the release is an empty and hyperbolic piece of amateur work, the kind of thing used to promote a movie but hardly an appropriate way to disseminate information about national governance. At the same time, this is coming from an administration that seems interested in censoring the press. Steve Bannon’s description of the media as “the opposition party,” and Sean Spicer’s threat to “hold the press accountable” made this more than clear. What we’re seeing, and have been seeing for a long time, is that it’s possible to laugh at the idiocy of these people while taking them absolutely fucking seriously.

 

Kait Howard is a publicist at Melville House.

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