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White House vs the media: No winners!

The growing hostility between US President Donald J. Trump and the left-leaning/centrist mainstream media is an unseemly squabble amounting to an attack on America’s core democratic values. Such blatant mutual disrespect poisons the atmosphere and does nothing toward making America great again; on the contrary it diminishes the US in the eyes of the world.

How can anyone take seriously the “Leader of the Free World” who claims the media is the “enemy of the people” deliberately disseminating “fake news”? In reality, he should thank the media for helping to put him where he is today, by providing him with an almost 24/7 pulpit inside voters home during the election. No one ever imagined that Trump would end up having the last laugh.

Who wants to watch a news channel whose anchors and expert panelists focus more on ridiculing the president than on the important events of the day or a newspaper bent on digging up dirt on a presidential incumbent its publisher does not like? The media created Trump the President and many influential outlets are now working to bring him down.

What happened to respect for the office of the president? Now that has been demolished, it will be open season for evening show hosts and Hollywood’s leading lights to subject future commanders in chief to ridicule. Taboos have been smashed for all time. No future president will be immune.

Neither side is behaving responsibly. Both are more interested in oneupmanship than serving the greater good. The worry is that should this acidic climate worsen, it — or rather the White House’s slaps against critical networks and newspapers — will corrode the country’s cherished democracy.

Barring press pool reporters from such major news corporations as CNN, the BBC, The New York Times and The Guardian from White House briefings is an unprecedented assault on media freedoms protected by the First Amendment.

Trump sneers at this truth saying no one loves the First Amendment more than he does. However, as long as he insists upon shutting out reporters who dare to ask hard questions preferring those from right-wing and toxic alt-right (alternative far-right news) sycophants, the news will be angled and distorted.

In a democracy, one of the media’s main jobs is to hold officialdom’s feet to the fire when mistakes are made. If it was not for the determination of two Washington Post reporters and their mysterious whistleblower, President Richard Nixon’s Watergate might have remained under wraps. And if the award-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh had not courageously pursued the truth, we may never have heard of the US Army’s cover-up of the My Lai Massacre or the atrocities committed at Abu Ghraib.

Former US President George W. Bush, who once said his role as president would be easier if the US were a dictatorship, has weighed in on this describing a free press as “indispensible to democracy.” “We needed the media to hold people like me to account,” he said, stressing that “Power can be addictive…”

I agree with him totally, but can not help thinking his message is more “do as I say” rather than “do as I did.” While he was in charge, Al Jazeera was threatened by his Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, one of its employees was incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay, two of the Qatari-owned network’s offices were bombed and a Baghdad hotel that famously housed international journalists was shelled.

Instead of launching personal attacks on the man, journalists should focus on dissecting his policies, spotlighting the positive while critiquing the negative. A fair and balanced media will regain its authority and the trust of the people seeking unbiased truths. 

Khalaf Ahmad Al-Habtoor

If anything, during the Bush II presidency, the corporate US media was guilty of toeing the party line. A glaring example was the outing of an ambassador’s wife as a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agent by Judith Miller of The New York Times, believed to be in retaliation for his investigation proving the Bush administration’s assertion that Saddam had procured yellow cake from Niger was false.

Since those ultra-nationalistic “War on Terror” times, the media has swung in the opposite direction. Former President Barack Obama did not have it easy but the knives are out for Trump just a mere few weeks into his presidency. While the president’s limited vocabulary and his simplistic “America First” policies are the butt of jokes and comedic videos on YouTube, he is no fool.

He is rather a master at self-promotion. In his book, “The Art of the Deal,” he admits playing to people’s fantasies “People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do… People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular,” he wrote. He calls this “truthful hyperbole” an “innocent form of exaggeration.”

But such exaggerations are not so innocent when they are used to attack an adversary. For instance, the president uses almost every one of his speeches and interviews to hammer home his “fake news” allegations while emphasizing his distaste for “dishonest” journalists, networks and papers.

His antipathy was set in stone when he announced he had no intention of attending the annual White House Correspondents Dinner on April 29, the first president to do so since Ronald Reagan had to miss it because he was recovering from a bullet wound.

Listening to his predictable rants, I just roll my eyes and say to myself, “Here we go again.” But here is the danger. As propagandists during World War II and Vietnam knew only too well, if you repeat a lie often enough it becomes the truth.

The sad fact is that Trump’s repetitive indoctrination technique partnered with his direct interaction with Americans via Twitter is enjoying some success.

A survey conducted by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal shows that over half of those polled say the media is too critical of Trump and is guilty of exaggerating problems within the administration. Some 80 percent of Fox News viewers who participated expressed their belief that the media and elites are exaggerating Trump’s deficiencies because they are fearful of the kind of change he represents.

If the ratings of media outlets condemned to Trump’s doghouse start diving his critics will begin to be tamed or even gagged by owners concerned at falling advertising revenues.

Lastly, the war between the White House and the media is a time-consuming distraction from the real issues Americans should be concerned about. Americans should be worried that police are about to be given new powers of arrest and the fact that the US military will receive a massive injection of cash (an additional $54 billion) at the expense of domestic spending because as Trump says, “We have to start winning wars again.”

It seems to me that the media must not allow itself to be intimidated. Dissenting voices must not be silenced when civil liberties and press freedoms are increasingly under threat. That said, there is a better and more effective way of getting messages across.

Instead of launching personal attacks on the man, journalists should focus on dissecting his policies, spotlighting the positive while critiquing the negative. A fair and balanced media will regain its authority and the trust of the people seeking unbiased truths. Anything less will play right into this maestro of manipulation’s hands.

• Khalaf Ahmad Al-Habtoor is a prominent UAE businessman and public figure. He is renowned for his views on international political affairs, his philanthropic activity and his efforts to promote peace. He has long acted as an unofficial ambassador for his country abroad.