Amid the steady drumbeat of news about major cabinet appointments, the main theme of Donald Trump’s post-victory statements so far has been the continuation of his campaign’s war on the media. Trump has continued to refuse the presidency’s traditional press pool, even giving reporters the slip to go to dinner one evening, chastised (with varying degrees of severity, depending on which report you read) representatives of the major TV networks in an off-the-record meeting, and bashed the “failing” New York Times on Twitter.
All this was met with predictable outrage. Anonymous attendees at the TV meeting told The New Yorker’s David Remnick that Trump’s behavior was “totally inappropriate” and “fucking outrageous.” But the uncomfortable question is whether Trump needs the media at all, other than as a base-pleasing piñata to be regularly whacked. His ability to direct entire news cycles simply by firing volleys 140 characters at a time is often regarded as masterful. Can he just tweet out whatever he wants, building twitter.com/@realdonaldtrump into a primo source for news from the executive branch and shutting the fourth estate out entirely?
There’s some precedent for this. Obama, the first president of the social-media age, sometimes put his message out through non-journalistic outlets like YouTube and Reddit; he frequently gave long speeches and relied on his supporters on Facebook and Twitter to distribute them in full, rather than leaving journalists to chop them up into articles. But for all his new-media savvy, Obama rarely tweeted, and it seems like the tweets he signed were workshopped. He also continued to regularly speak with the press via traditional means.
Trump, on the other hand, tweets like a teenager — often, and seemingly without much forethought — and his tweets are shared, retweeted, “liked,” and replied to en masse. In theory, they allow him to avoid the media infrastructure entirely, speaking directly to voters and supporters in his inimitable and clearly powerful voice. As a way of making his points, his Twitter account is more useful to him than a relationship with the New York Times or Washington Post. And in some ways, it’s even laudable: Over Twitter, Trump is more seemingly forthcoming about his positions and thought processes than most practiced politicians are in interviews.
The problem with this idea, though, is that Trump still needs traditional media to pick up what he says and further it. Many more people talk about Twitter than actually use it (consider this: How many times have you seen a direct link to a tweet in your Facebook news feed?). It’s role is more as a feeding ground for other media, so Trump still relies on other outlets to distribute the content of those tweets to his supporters. In this sense, Twitter is not that different from issuing a press release.
So what Trump has mastered is less the use of a social-media platform to perform an end run around the media than the use of the attention economy to ensure he dominates every news cycle. Space is no longer an issue; outlets are obligated to find stories to fill lengths of time and engagement targets, rather than numbers of print pages. Trump provides great food to fill that beast. Every outlet — mainstream, fringe, or fake — performs the job of sifting through social media for worthwhile things to feature in a blog post or article. And things that the president says are, by definition, “worthwhile,” or at least worth covering. Trump might start on Twitter, but that tweet gets amplified and discovered when it shows up repeatedly in articles and cable-news clips posted to Facebook afterward.
Given this, you might say that the media needs Trump more than the reverse. But, of course, it’s a two-way relationship. Trump relies on media, and can’t ignore it. It’s just that the media he relies on most isn’t storied Establishment outlets like the Times and the Post. It’s the cable shows from which many Americans get their news, which will spend several segments dissecting a Trump tweet. It’s the bootleg news sites that try to leverage Trump’s popularity on Facebook into advertising revenue by posting obsessively about his social-media activity. And it’s Twitter and Facebook themselves — not traditional media companies by any means, but companies that Trump requires for his own success. Much scarier to Trump than a fight with the Times over on-the-record rules would be a fight with Twitter about his account.