Donald Trump’s decision to tweet a video showing him body-slamming the wrestling promoter Vince McMahon, with the clip doctored to show McMahon’s head as a CNN logo, was “un-American”, a leading media ethicist said on Sunday.
“It’s definitely un-American,” Kelly McBride, vice-president of the Poynter Institute school of journalism, told the Guardian on Sunday.
“We have a couple of documents that define us as American: the constitution and the Bill of Rights. It’s Fourth of July weekend, we are supposed to be celebrating those, and the first amendment enshrines freedom of the press.”
The original action was a sideline stunt at a 2007 professional wrestling event, where fights are faked for entertainment. Trump’s punches did not really land. His tweeted message, experts said, certainly did: if you don’t like the media, take them down.
The tweet was posted on a Sunday morning when politicians were all over TV, debating the key issue of healthcare reform. Around the world, leaders were extolling their philosophies on trade, human rights or climate change, ahead of a G20 summit in Hamburg at which Trump will meet Vladimir Putin for the first time.
In Washington, the president tweeted. In doing so, one expert said, he did more than lower the tone. He once again undermined American democracy itself.
“It’s so far beyond the pale of any office holder in any jurisdiction in this country, from the smallest of towns to the highest offices, and the fact that this is coming from the president of the United States is almost inconceivable,” said Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
“This is inciting violence. People who are close to him at the White House have to do their part to restrain the president’s violent impulses.”
In May, Greg Gianforte, the Republican candidate in a special election in Montana, assaulted a Guardian reporter. After body-slamming and punching Ben Jacobs, who had asked him a question, Gianforte first tried to blame the reporter. He later appeared in court and pleaded guilty to a criminal charge.
“This latest tweet from Trump is greatly distressing and is threatening,” said Brown, “just a month after a reporter was thrown to the ground in an incident the Guardian is all too familiar with. And the president congratulated Gianforte [after his victory], which in itself is to condone the behavior.”
Trump’s Sunday tweet constituted an escalation of Trump’s conduct towards the media, Brown said, pointing to a viciously personal series of attacks on two MSNBC hosts.
Courtney Radsch, advocacy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said the CNN tweet not only undermined the principle of the media being free to do its job by reporting on the president, but could also “embolden autocratic leaders around the world” who restrict press freedoms and imprison editors or journalists who criticize them.
Trump is playing to his base: on Saturday night, supporters in Washington roared their approval when he attacked the media during an address in honour of military veterans.
McBride, however, detects a president who is having trouble coping with the responsibilities of power and attacks unsympathetic members of the media as a way to distract from ongoing administrative chaos.
“It’s abundantly clear that this president hates the idea of a free and vibrant media landscape,” she said. “His dismissal of legitimate news organizations reporting true and accurate facts as ‘fake news’ or his new nickname for CNN, ‘fraud news’, is evidence of him trying to distract from the fact that he is in over his head.”
McBride said she saw an echo of tactics Trump discussed in his bestselling book, The Art of the Deal.
“He describes starting off in a negotiation in a friendly manner then, if you don’t get what you want, you switch to full frontal assault and you don’t let up until you think you’ve won,” she said. “It’s really clear that this is his strategy.
“Someone needs to explain to the president that this is different from when he was a businessman and an entertainer. When you enter the White House the media is obliged to cover the president, so he is never going to be able to manipulate them in the same way.”
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