Is the United States witnessing a titanic struggle in which a populist president fights back against a concerted media onslaught waged by liberal-dominated news industry giants supported by wealthy coastal elites?
Or are we seeing a mentally unstable and increasingly unpopular former reality TV personality lashing out at media critics with vicious, vulgar tweets in a desperate attempt to divert attention from his collapsing presidency?
Events of the past few days have reinforced the image of two diametrically opposed factions, each deaf to the other, like parallel universes in a deeply polarized nation.
Trump promoted his media narrative Saturday in a speech at the Kennedy Center in Washington.
“The fake media is trying to silence us,” the president told a cheering crowd of mostly evangelical Christians. “But we will not let them, because the people know the truth.”
He followed that up Sunday with a Twitter video aimed at the Cable News Network (CNN), a vocal critic of the president which he has often derided as “fake news.” The video shows Trump as a wrestler body-slamming another figure whose head is replaced with a CNN logo. As Trump walks away, the CNN logo changes to “FNN, Fraud News Network.”
A CNN reply posted on Twitter called it “a sad day when the President of the United States encourages violence against reporters.” The statement described the Trump video as “juvenile behavior far below the dignity of his office.”
Trump followers approve
But significant numbers of Americans apparently approve of the smackdown video. Many among Trump’s 33 million Twitter followers found it humorous. As of Monday morning the Twitter post had received more than 455,000 likes and nearly 280,000 re-tweets.
Trump’s latest social media posting, which displaced stories about health care and Russia’s election meddling on Sunday news programs, comes on the heels of a highly public spat with co-anchors Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough of cable news channel MSNBC.
That feud has featured a barrage of personal insults, which were criticized even by members of Trump’s own Republican Party as “beneath the dignity of the presidency.”
The deteriorating relationship between Trump and the media has also played out in increasingly confrontational exchanges at White House news briefings, where TV cameras increasingly have been barred.
In one exchange last week clearly aimed at CNN, Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders decried what she called “the constant barrage of fake news.”
“If the media can’t be trusted to report the news, then that’s a dangerous place for America,” Sanders said.
Playboy magazine columnist Brian Karem fired back on behalf of many reporters in the room.
“We’re here to ask you questions, you’re here to provide the answers,” Karem told Sanders. “What you just did is inflammatory to people all over the country who look at it and say, ‘See, once again, the president is right and everybody else out here is fake media.’ ”
Trump’s approval ratings, hovering around the 40 percent mark, suggest that most Americans reject the contention that he is waging a heroic struggle against malicious media outlets trying to undermine his agenda. But to his core supporters, Trump’s attacks on the press are invigorating.
“I don’t care if he’s uncouth,” said Cynthia McCluskey, founder of a pro-Trump website called “deplorablefriends.com. “We need a bully who will fight for people like me who don’t have a voice. The nastier the media are, the more ingrained we are to protect him.”
Academics and media professionals generally scoff at the notion of a media in attack mode.
“It is the responsibility of the news media in this democracy to be running down stories” like the probe into charges that Russia interfered in last year’s presidential election, says Kathleen Bartzen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“Even if the White House does not want that to be happening, that should be happening. That is their role in a free society, it’s what they should be doing, I don't think that's waging war,” Culver told VOA.
Matthew Hindman, associate professor of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, says demonizing the media is a strategy that served candidate Trump during the campaign, but could backfire on him as president.
“It’s clear he’s alienating a significant chunk of the people who voted for him in the fall,” Hindman said.