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Bodyslams and Fake News: Trump’s battle with CNN

President Trump took the unusual step this week of calling out his own hand-picked appointee, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, on Twitter:

CNN, reporting on the tweet, displayed this banner on air: TRUMP CALLS AG SESSIONS “VERY WEAK”

Any reasonable person can see that this is an intentionally dishonest read of the President’s statement. The original tweet was controversial enough. The sensationalism was unnecessary. And it is precisely this sort of exaggeration that boosts Donald Trump’s credibility when referring to CNN and other media outlets as “fake news.”

Media credibility suffers

You can blame click-driven journalism for this trend, or increased competitiveness for dwindling cable audiences, but the mainstream media’s decisions have already had consequences for their industry.

A Gallup poll from April 2017 reveals a startling lack of trust in media. More than 6-in-10 Americans say the news media favors one party over another; just 27 per cent have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in newspapers; less than 1 in 4 has “high confidence” in television news.

The Pew Centre’s numbers, from May, are similar: 87 per cent of Republicans and 53 per cent of Democrats believe the news media favors one party. Worse, just 11 per cent of Republicans and only 34 per cent of Democrats consider national news media to be “very trustworthy”.

And CNN has fared the worst. They’re currently drawing much smaller audiences than Fox News or MSNBC. By pursuing attention-grabbing headlines at the expense of accuracy, CNN’s credibility has suffered.

So perhaps it is not surprising when, in late June, after three CNN journalists were forced to resign for a retracted story about Trump and Russia, the President seized his chance to prey on the network’s weakness.

The tweet heard around the world

At 9:22 AM, on the morning of July 2nd the president tweeted a photoshopped video of a 2007 Wrestlemania match starring himself  (who, at the time was an occasional WWE guest star) and WWE founder Vince McMahon. The video shows Trump throwing punches at McMahon with a CNN logo superimposed over his face.

Hours later, Trump retweeted it from the official presidential account (@POTUS). Since then, the original tweet has racked up 370,000 retweets and more than  603,000 post likes, making it one of Trump’s most popular tweets of all time.

Beneath the humorous video, though, the tweet carries a serious psychological subtext : CNN is just as fake as pro wrestling.

CNN’s reaction – to go on the defensive – only exacerbated the problem.

The media, predictably, were apoplectic. CNN even complained to Twitter to see if the offending tweet could be taken down for inciting violence. Without a trace of irony, the network did this even after giving extensive and uncritical coverage to Kathy Griffin’s faux beheading, and to the ‘Trump as Julius Caesar’ play in Central Park – both of which presented far more graphic scenes of political violence than Trump’s video.

In the days that followed, CNN traced the video’s source back to a single Reddit user and threatened to reveal his identity. What a sad commentary on the state of the news media in 2017: a corny wrestling video leads a national news organization to threaten to dox (online slang for revealing an individual’s personal information) a private citizen. The result? CNN was criticized from both the right and left — and the president’s wrestling video looked less goofy than the network’s reaction to it.

In the end, CNN got played by Trump and the bodyslam video. The media didn’t know how to react, and, instead, did little more than give the President four days of free coverage on its network, all the while energizing Trump’s supporters..

Trump knows exactly how to seize control of the media cycle

Even if the mainstream news media play the role of an opposition party to Donald Trump, the president has one effective lever at his disposal to provide counterbalance.

With 34.5 million Twitter followers (plus an additional 20 million on the official @POTUS account), Trump has the capacity to share his unfiltered message with a single keystroke and co-opt the news networks into covering his own words.

And when Trump tweets, it instantly shapes the public debate.

Each Wrestlemania-type post energizes Trump’s large and passionate Reddit and Twitter followings. They whip up enthusiastic support online, and spin off endless memes, predominantly among his younger fans.

Where this goes from here

There is a darker side to the president’s capacity to play the news media. Sadly, substantive news coverage may be the number one victim. The President’s more tangential “tweetstorms” are often distractions that divert media coverage from more important issues in the news – what was the public benefit of knowing whether Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski visited Mar-a-Lago?

Erosion in trust in the media is obviously the longer-term concern, but it is one that is equally in the hands of the media to repair. For their part, they can start by rethinking banners like Trump calls AG Sessions ‘Very Weak.” It’s a two-way street, after all. As a White House spokesperson indicated after Trump’s recent tangle with Brzezinski, the president views his actions as “punching back” rather than starting the fight.

And the media needs to play a role in righting their ship, in part because we should not otherwise expect the CNN-taunting to stop. The weaker they are, the more Trump sees it as a winnable fight. As former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer recently tweeted after the Wrestlemania incident:

“The reason POTUS does it is because the press has made themselves so unpopular. It’s a fight POTUS actually wins w much of the country.”

So perhaps it’s not a channel changer, but more of a strategy. Perhaps it’s part of what President Trump means when he says his style is “modern day presidential. In any case, President Trump is fighting the media’s sensationalism with his own. A series of his tweets from July 1 may shed light on his thought process:

“The FAKE & FRAUDULENT NEWS MEDIA is working hard to convince Republicans and others I should not use social media – but remember, I won … the 2016 election with interviews, speeches and social media. I had to beat #FakeNews, and did. We will continue to WIN!”

In President Trump’s view, bypassing and attacking the media is a feature, not a bug. What’s unclear is who will sustain the most collateral damage on the way to 2018 and 2020.

UKIP and Lessons in Pyrrhic Victory

It seems unimaginable. Despite extensive media coverage about the growth of far-right and populist parties across the West, some of these most effective parties are imploding. Case in point: The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). After securing a favourable Brexit vote, UKIP is collapsing under the weight of its own victory.

Why? Because despite its best efforts to create a complete policy manifesto, UKIP is a one-issue party.

It’s one issue? European Union membership. Once this balloon popped, UKIP’s grab bag of policies—opposition to privatization in health care, limits on immigration, and state funding for grammar schools—just wasn’t enough to maintain the support it had built over previous elections.

Furthermore, UKIP’s success made Brexit a primary election issue across the political spectrum. UKIP opened the door for establishment parties to make their own pro-Brexit promises. UKIP’s success in establishing Brexit as a policy all major parties would eventually agree with, destroyed the only argument the party had in its favour — that it was addressing an issue the establishment was ignoring.

But UKIP is as much a single-candidate party as it is a single-issue party. As with most populist movements today, its leader’s personal brand is as powerful as the movement itself. Former leader Nigel Farage is an icon of populist politics. His name was synonymous with UKIP for much of its existence. Repeated attempts (in 2009 and in 2015) to leave his position as leader of the party left UKIP in shambles and forced him to return to his post. Now, however, Farage claims to be gone for good. This time, it sounds like he means it. He has relocated to the United States and has seen his marriage collapse with revelations of his own infidelity.

Since his departure, UKIP has been thrown into chaos yet again. An initial leadership election in the wake of Farage’s catapulted Diane James as leader. Less than three weeks later she resigned the position, citing a lack of support among the membership and caucus. Paul Nuttal, long-time deputy leader of the party under Farage, won the subsequent leadership race and took the helm of UKIP as it entered the 2016 general election.

Nuttal’s leadership proved only marginally less divisive than James’. UKIP’s only MP, former-Conservative Douglas Carswell, had announced he would not seek re-election. He threw his support behind incumbent prime minister Theresa May. Nuttal attempted to shift the party’s policy towards left-wing economics despite his own libertarian beliefs. Despite the tact, UKIP continued to lose support week-over-week.

Which is stunning, when you think about it.

In 2015, UKIP became the largest British party in the EU parliament by winning more than 12% of the vote. It had done so by building a coalition of disenfranchised pre-Blair Old Labour voters and anti-EU Thatcherites.

Then Brexit happened.

And in 2016, UKIP’s coalition has little reason to return their support to UKIP. Jeremy Corbyn promised to follow through on Brexit. Theresa May campaigned that only a Conservative majority government would uphold Brexit. There was little reason for voters on the left or right to back UKIP. Why bother? Similarly-minded parties far more likely to form government were now on board.

UKIP’s collapse teaches us the fragility of populist parties. Parties that appeal to specific issues (like EU membership or immigration) lack the broad appeal of big-tent parties like the Conservatives or Labour. The appeal to fringe issues can generate significant support but only when it appears the establishment is ignoring these issues. When establishment parties adopt similar rhetoric and policies, support for fringe groups evaporates.

In hindsight, it’s obvious that UKIP was hurting. It didn’t have the charismatic leadership of Nigel Farage. With Farage out of the picture, it couldn’t generate the same volume of earned media attention. With Brexit in the rear-view mirror, it lacked a meaningful soapbox. Without a soapbox, it couldn’t regain the levels of support it has seen pre-Brexit. Achieving Brexit was the death knell for UKIP. UKIP is an acronym for UK Independence Party, after all. Once the UK became “independent” of the EU, there was little reason for voters to maintain their support.

UKIP’s struggle is a harbinger of things to come for other far-right populist parties in Europe. When politicians appeal to base emotions on specific, hot-button issues, they expend political capital that could otherwise be spent growing their movement to appeal to a broad range of voters. More importantly, when those same hot-button issues are resolved, their base weakens. Whatever grab bag of policies the party supports isn’t enough.

As mainstream parties in Europe and across the Western world address issues like the EU, immigration, and multiculturalism, they will appeal to voters who previously backed radical parties. As one-issue parties like UKIP prove the electoral popularity of populist programmes, major parties will increasingly adopt their proposals. This, in turn, will hollow out support for fringe parties and re-establish support for mainstream ones. In the end, while their proposals may make their way into legislation, the fringe parties themselves have little future in government.

What Closing The Tax Loophole Really Means

Navigator’s resident crisis expert Randi Rahamim joins Global TV’s Morning Show panel to discuss finance minister Bill Morneau’s plan to close a tax loophole for the wealthy that’s worthy $250 million – what does it really mean for the middle class?

Aired on Global TV on July 19, 2017