Presidents battering the press is hardly a new phenomenon in the United States.
In 1796, George Washington, the first president, told John Adams one reason he might forego a third term was because he was "disinclined to be longer buffeted in the public prints by a set of infamous scribblers."
Eleven years later, Thomas Jefferson, the third president, said, "Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper."
President Richard Nixon regarded the press as "the enemy," and his administration loved to use the media as a punching bag.
But during his first year in office, President Trump, who has said "it is frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write," has taken the assault on the press to a new level. Describing journalists as enemies of the people, repeatedly dismissing valid stories he doesn't like as "fake news," singling out individual journalists for abuse, and in general treating the news media as a nefarious institution rather than a constitutionally protected government watchdog, Trump is waging a full-throated campaign to delegitimize the press.
That's a problem for journalism. It's an even more serious problem for democracy.
Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley says that Trump's anti-press blitzkrieg is something new. "There has never been a kind of holistic jihad against the news media like Trump is executing," he told The Associated Press.
And there are indications that the jihad is bearing fruit. A recent Politico/Morning Consult poll found that 46 percent of voters believe that the news media makes up stories about Trump and his administration. For independent voters, that number is nearly as high, 44 percent, a worrisome statistic indeed.
"What Trump is trying to do is the wholesale disqualification of the mainstream reporting press as an institution," says Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute. He adds that techniques Trump has used such as talking about pulling licenses of broadcasters and depicting accurate stories as false "are used in other countries by dictators to undo constitutional freedoms," hastening to add that is unlikely to happen here.
Edward Wasserman, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, says that "the overall impact of what Trump is doing is deeply destructive. He is trying to destroy the idea that the media is authoritative by questioning not just its motives but the veracity of its reporting. That's a real problem."
Wasserman said that Trump is taking advantage of the fact that the news media is already held in low esteem by much of the public. "He has little to lose by attacking its credibility," Wasserman says.
But it's important to remember that much more than the fate of the news industry is at stake here. The democratic process also takes a hit.
It turns out the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was wrong when he famously declared that people were entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts. Trump's attacks on the media have helped throw the very concept of facts into dispute.
While most politicians are wrong some of the time, the fact-checking website PolitiFact has found that that Trump's assertions are inaccurate much more frequently than those of other pols. The Washington Post reported in October that up to that point in Trump's presidency, he had made more than 1,300 false or misleading claims, many of them repeatedly.
Nevertheless, Trump's relentless broadsides against true stories he doesn't like have an effect. Much of his base as well as other voters accept his version of the truth.
"It creates a climate for nonfactual narratives, for narratives that have no basis in reality," Rosenstiel says.
"The danger is that as a society we legislate on emotions," Rosenstiel says. "We don't solve problems, we address myths and folktales." While we are hardly there yet, he adds, we are moving in that direction.
Says Wasserman, Trump's sorties contribute to "the destruction of the authority of facts."
A recent example: John Kelly, Trump's chief of staff, lambasted Florida Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson, whose account of Trump's conversation with the wife of a slain Green Beret had upset the White House. Kelly accused Wilson of trying in 2015 to hog credit for the funding of a new FBI building in Florida. But after South Florida's Sun Sentinel unearthed a recording that showed Kelly had made numerous errors in characterizing Wilson's remarks, the White House refused to back off.
To be sure, the president has also been a boon to the news industry, which in recent years has struggled with the formidable financial challenges posed by the digital era.
Trump's often fact-challenged tweets and assertions and the rampant chaos of his administration have helped the press, or at least some elements, get its mojo back. The New York Times (NYT) and The Washington Post have been in the forefront with their watchdog coverage, but news outlets from CNN (TWX) to BuzzFeed and Politico to the national television networks have also chipped in.
"It has raised the game of traditional media," Rosenstiel says. "They have not been cowed by this." He points to amped-up investigative reporting, more reporters covering the White House and, significantly, more people leaking to the press. More and more administration insiders are running to reporters as sources, including many who are at the same time harsh critics of the media.
The tense standoff is also making news outlets more transparent, in Rosenstiel's view. When a news organization publishes a hard-hitting story, it often takes pains to itemize the number of administration officials and other sources to whom it has spoken. And with good reason. The cost of getting it wrong can be steep, as the president is not bashful about shining a bright light on media missteps. Three CNN investigative staffers resigned in June after the cable network retracted and took down a digital story about financier Anthony Scaramucci, who briefly served as Trump's communications director.
Trump's tendency to play fast and loose with the truth has had another positive effect on journalism, triggering a dramatic increase in fact-checking by fact-checking organizations and news outlets alike, often in real time. Far too often in the past, news outlets were content to settle for he-said, she-said stories, reaching no conclusions and leaving readers in the dark.
The frenetic Trump era has led to larger audiences for news organizations like The New York Times and The Washington Post and for cable news, But it is hardly a panacea for the news business' woes. Local news organizations, in particular, continue to struggle to find an effective business model for the digital age.
And while the tough coverage of Trump has brought some swagger back to journalism, it also brings with it some risk. With so much attention paid to the president's voluminous controversies and uproar-provoking comments and tweets, audiences are apt to encounter a large amount of negative news about Trump.
"It can feel when you are reading the mainstream press that you are reading the ideological press," Rosenstiel says. "He is always coming out with something outrageous." And all of that negativity plays into Trump's hands, reinforcing his view that the deck is stacked against him. Rosenstiel urges the media to make sure that it doesn't overlook or ignore positive stories about the Trump administration.
Wasserman shares that concern. He warns against falling into the trap that that the response to the president should be "knee-jerk adversarialism, that the only honest position is to poke at [Trump] and undermine.
"Sometimes even Donald Trump is right."
--Rem Rieder is former editor-at-large and media columnist at USA TODAY and before that the longtime editor of American Journalism Review.
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Editors' pick: Originally published Nov. 10.