The impromptu press conference convened by US President Donald Trump last Thursday was an event not to be missed. Trump decided to take on, single-handed and apparently without consulting any of his advisers, the entire media establishment, and especially the political reporters, whom he accuses of “dishonesty” and disseminating “fake news.”
Watching the 70-year-old President, with his yellow hair, standing in front of the gilded drapes in the East Wing of the White House, “answering” questions from carefully selected or random journalists (with a lot of juicy crosstalk with his “victims,” who were trying unsuccessfully to get straight answers to their questions) was certainly a unique experience. It was 77 minutes of what Richard Wolff of the British Guardian termed an anti-press conference and freak show, that could be considered funny “if it weren’t so scary.” Fox News host Shepard Smith called it “crazy.”
The president was his usual inarticulate, not-very-well- informed self, knowingly or unknowingly blurting out non-truths, half-truths and non sequiturs. But he certainly was in full control of the show, and enjoying every minute of it. In his own words: “I’m not ranting and raving. I’m just telling you. You know, you’re dishonest people. But... I’m not ranting and raving. I love this. I’m having a good time doing it.”
What were the messages one got from his frequently incoherent answers? Here are a few prime examples: he inherited a mess “at home and abroad” from the Obama administration; he believes his administration is “running like a finetuned machine, despite the fact that I can’t get my cabinet approved”; “we had a very smooth rollout of the travel ban. but we had a bad court. got a bad decision”; that the story about inappropriate if not illegal contacts between his team and the Russian authorities during the presidential election campaign was nothing but “fake news, a fabricated deal”; that Hillary Clinton gave the Russians 20% of American uranium – a claim that is absolute nonsense based on the total misrepresentation of facts; and that there is apparently no incongruity between his accusation of “real leaks” (by the intelligence services?) to the media, and the resulting “fake news.” Surely, either the leaks on which the news are based are fake and thus not real, or the leaks are true and the news based on them fake, in which case why not reveal the truth, allegedly concealed by the media?
The problem of antisemitism in the US also came up. During the Trump-Netanyahu joint press conference the day before (another piece of political theater, but nothing to compare to Trump’s solo performance), Channel 10 reporter Mo’av Vardi failed to get an answer from Trump on what his administration was planning to do about the wave of antisemitism. Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) reporter Jake Turx, from the Ami magazine, repeated the question. Though Turx started his question by telling Trump that no one in the Jewish community was accusing him or his staff of antisemitism, Trump took the question personally, saying, “Let me tell you something, I hate the charge. I find it repulsive.” As to what his administration plans to do about antisemitism in the US – there was no answer. It was as if Trump wasn’t really listening to the question, just assuming that he was being attacked. That is called paranoia.
It is interesting to compare Trump’s solo press conference to Netanyahu’s onslaught on the various Israeli media outlets last summer. Netanyahu and Trump were both reacting to the same phenomenon – the generally hostile treatment both get from a predominantly liberal media, and their obsession with it.
Trump’s reaction was simply to take on the media as a whole, lashing out at it in general, and at particular media outlets (especially The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, NBC and the BBC). Netanyahu’s reaction was to confront each media outlet separately (except for Channel 10 and his nemesis, Raviv Drucker) in a closed and confidential meeting, in which he exercised all his charm and PR experience. Unlike Trump, Netanyahu is extremely articulate, familiar with the facts and the nuances (even though he may use them in a manipulative manner), though he does from time to time deteriorate to lashing out in an unrestrained, sometimes scandalous manner at individual reporters (e.g. Ilana Dayan of Channel 2).
However, in the final reckoning, neither Trump nor Netanyahu managed to achieve the main goal of the exercises – namely to reduce the hostility and lack of objectivity of the reporting related to them.
The reason is that the hostility and resultant bias are more a function of how the two gentlemen comport themselves in their private and public lives, and their complicated and problematic narcissistic personalities, than of what they actually believe in, seek to achieve, and actually do.
It is not clear why both Trump and Netanyahu keep fighting for the approval of the media. Both have won elections despite the media (Netanyahu four times!). And as Trump said in his press conference: “I certainly didn’t win by people listening to you people.”