Donald Trump is the first president of the United States to push back against the media in forceful way that makes the news.
“I tell you what,” Trump said to Jim Acosta, “CNN should be ashamed of itself, having you working for them. You are a rude, terrible person.” On another occasion, Trump told Acosta “you have an agenda. You’re CNN. You’re fake news.”
CNN White House reporter Abby Phillip asked if the president wanted acting attorney general Matthew Whittaker to “rein in Mueller.” Trump responded, “What a stupid question. What a stupid question that is. But I watch you a lot. You ask a lot of stupid questions.”
President Trump also called CNN’s April Ryan, “nasty” and a “loser.” And when PBS’ Yamiche Alcindor asked if the president’s rhetoric was encouraging white nationalists, Trump shot back, “That is such a racist question.”
Even some of the president’s critics welcome that pushback as long overdue. Millennials and such might benefit from a look at how President Trump might have handled past partisan activists masquerading as journalists. Consider, for example, Helen Thomas of UPI, the “dean of the White House press corps” who always got to ask the first question.
“Mr. President, two days ago you launched a war, and war is inherently a two-way street,” Thomas said in 2003. “Why should you be surprised or outraged when there is an act of retaliation?”
President Bush denounced the launching of “a terrorist attack against the population centers in Israel with no military design whatsoever,” noting that “Israel is not a participant,” in the conflict. Thomas responded, “Why is it that any move for peace is considered an end run at the White House these days?”
Bush did his best to answer but President Trump would flag “a stupid question” and call out Thomas on her partisan agenda. As Jack Shafer noted in Slate in 2003, Thomas “never masked her crush on Democrats” and in her columns targeted “Bush’s headlong drive into war, his favor-the-rich economic policy and his campaign to put right-wing ideologues on the Supreme Court.” And the dean of the White House press corps told anybody who would listen that Bush “is the worst president in all of American history.”
Trump might have told her, “Helen, you’ll be okay once you come out of your shell,” but she never did. On May 27, 2010, Thomas was asked for an opinion on Israel.
“Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine,” Thomas said. “Remember, these people are occupied and it’s their land, not Germany or Poland.” Asked where Jews should go, Thomas said, “Go home. Poland, Germany. . . and America and everywhere else.”
Thomas apologized but Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League wasn’t having it. “Her remarks were outrageous, offensive and inappropriate,” Foxman told reporters, “especially since she uttered them on a day the White House had set aside to celebrate the extraordinary accomplishments of American Jews during Jewish America Heritage Month.”
This went beyond any kind of a stupid question and President Trump might have pushed back with “the woman is a bigot, an anti-Jewish bigot. She has an agenda. Helen Thomas is fake news.” And how about Walter Cronkite, anchor of the CBS Evening News, once hailed as the most trusted man in America.
“Why should we trust this guy?” President Trump could have noted, citing Cronkite’s bogus WWII dispatches and his coaching of John Kennedy for television debates. But there was more to the trusted anchor.
Trump could note that long before Watergate Cronkite secretly taped a Republican credentials committee meeting. “The man is basically a spy,” Trump could explain. Cronkite said Jimmy Carter has “one of the best brains of anybody I’ve known.” Trump could have called him a “dope,” and pushed back against Cronkite’s statement, after the end of the Cold War, that the USSR “wasn’t ever a dangerous threat.”
“Did you hear that all you people in Poland, Hungary and the Baltic States? The USSR was never a threat. How can anybody be so stupid and ignorant.” When you watch the evening news, Trump could say, “you not only CBS but you hear it too.”
A past President Trump would have noted the sanctimonious fake news of “60 Minutes” in its heyday. They ran a story that the Audi 5000 was prone to “sudden acceleration” but viewers had no clue they secretly rigged the car and there was nothing wrong with the Audi 5000.
“It’s fake news,” Trump could say, the same for the fake documents CBS used in the story of George Bush’s National Guard service. That story was narrated by Dan Rather, who was once approached by two men who asked, “Kenneth, what’s the frequency?” as they beat the fertilizer out of the CBS man.
Nobody knows what a past president Trump would have nicknamed Dan Rather, Walter Cronkite or Helen Thomas. Everybody knows that the actual President Trump pushes back against activists masquerading as journalists, and he never hesitates to call out fake news. It’s hard to think of anybody on the current scene who would do likewise should they manage to become president of the United States.