Donald Trump’s unconventional presidency has roiled the media landscape, creating new dynamics that will play a major role in shaping his second year in office.
Some of the leading names in print journalism and cable news have taken an unusually adversarial approach to covering Trump, leading to charges of bias and sparking a debate within the industry about whether the president is being covered fairly.
Trump has responded by doing away with media interviews and press conferences almost entirely, even as he and his allies launch near-daily attacks on the media’s credibility.
They’ve been given ample political ammunition from several high-profile corrections and retractions in coverage of Trump, usually pertaining to the Russia investigation. Some press critics have accused media outlets of loosening their reporting standards in a frenzy to discredit the president.
Even so, Trump’s presidency has been a bonanza for the media, delivering record ratings, subscriptions and web traffic, with the president’s admirers and detractors all lapping up coverage about him.
The end result is that Trump will enter 2018 — a year in which the administration faces a special counsel investigation and the potential for impeachment-hungry Democrats to take control of Congress — with perhaps the most antagonistic relationship with the media of any president in modern times.
“I don’t expect Trump’s approach to media relations will change at all, nor should we expect the press to tire of antagonizing Trump,” said Jeffrey McCall, a professor of media studies at DePauw University. “Buckle your seatbelts. 2017 was a rough ride for news consumers trying find out what was really happening in the world and 2018 will be an even greater challenge.”
No media organization has been as critical of Trump’s presidency as CNN.
After being accused during the campaign of fueling Trump’s rise by broadcasting his speeches and rallies in full, CNN has gone wall-to-wall with programming that has been fiercely critical of Trump and his administration.
Under the leadership of Jeff Zucker — who hired Trump for the highly rated reality program “The Apprentice” in 2004 — the network is running one ad campaign accusing the president of being a liar and a second that showcases its anchors lecturing administration officials.
CNN regularly taunts the White House with mocking chyrons, and its chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, has taken the aggressive style into the briefing room.
Acosta is one of several reporters who have become media sensations — racking up viral news clips and tens of thousands of Twitter followers — by feuding publicly with administration officials or ranting about the unique dangers of the Trump presidency.
CNN recently tapped journalist Brian Karem — who sometimes writes for Playboy and was little known until he had an explosive argument with press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders at a press briefing — to be a regular contributor on the network.
The combative exchanges have led to accusations of grandstanding within the Washington press corps, a charge the White House leveled when it briefly stopped broadcasting the daily press briefings.
CNN once had a reputation as the mainstream alternative to right-wing Fox News and left-wing MSNBC, but will head into 2018 as the poster child for what many on the right view as media bias and hysteria around the Trump presidency.
“CNN has always been like this, it’s just never had the spotlight on it like it does now,” said Armstrong Williams, who owns several television stations on the right-leaning Sinclair Broadcast Group.
Fox News, meanwhile, was steadfastly anti-Trump during the GOP primaries, but has morphed into an ally and defender of the president.
The president is known to watch the network’s unabashedly pro-Trump morning show “Fox & Friends,” often going to Twitter to share his thoughts about news events covered on the show.
And Trump’s most influential ally in the media is Sean Hannity, whose 9 p.m. show is a nightly rundown for tens of millions of conservatives looking for coverage of Trump’s accomplishments and attacks on his enemies.
Hannity and the guests on his show have questioned the credibility of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, raising allegations of conflict of interest, political bias and corruption — attacks that have caught on among GOP lawmakers and others in the Republican mainstream.
“Fox News is reprehensible,” said Democratic strategist Andrew Feldman. “The way they’re trying to bolster Trump, it feels like a propaganda media outlet from a third-world country. It’s not supposed to be that way in the U.S.”
The New York Times and The Washington Post, meanwhile, are posting record subscription numbers and basking in Beltway praise for their coverage of the Russia investigation, the White House and the administration.
“These papers are on fire and in a competition for the kinds of consequential scoops we haven’t seen since Watergate,” said George Washington University media studies professor Steven Livingston. “I think we’ll look back on this as the golden era of journalism.”
Still, both papers have dealt with accusations of anti-Trump bias and faced criticism for reporting on the investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
The Post had to correct a story claiming that Russians had hacked the U.S. electrical grid. Former FBI Director James Comey told Congress under oath that a New York Times story titled “Trump Campaign Aides Had Repeated Contacts With Russian Intelligence” was “almost entirely wrong.”
The press had a particularly rough stretch in early December, when ABC News suspended its top political reporter Brian Ross for incorrectly reporting that Trump had directed his former national security adviser Michael Flynn to contact the Kremlin during the 2016 campaign.
Later that same week, CNN had to retract a story claiming that WikiLeaks had given Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., early access to stolen Democratic emails. It was one of three major reporting errors on the Trump-Russia connection that the outlet admitted to this year.
The president and his allies have seized on the corrections and retractions to attack the “fake news” media.
While Trump gave interviews to a variety of outlets after taking office, he now rarely gives interviews to outlets other than Fox News.
Trump’s most recent television interview was with Laura Ingraham, a friendly Fox News anchor, on Nov. 1. His last interview with a broadcast network was with NBC in May.
Trump gave only one traditional press conference in 2017 and is the first president in 15 years not to hold an end-of-year event.
The president prefers tweeting or chatting briefly with reporters in informal settings — a trend most expect will continue in 2018, even as he remains omnipresent in the media.
“Trump has used Twitter to bypass the normal press agenda-setting function and is essentially setting the agenda on his own terms through social media,” McCall said. “I am not convinced Trump’s Twitter use is all that strategic, but it certainly has given him direct access to the citizenry and the news agenda in ways never seen before from the White House.”