Matt Bai: Distrust of the media allows Trump to flourish

The Axe Files, featuring David Axelrod, is a podcast distributed by CNN and produced at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics. The author works for the podcast.

Chicago (CNN)Growing mistrust of traditional news outlets has emboldened President Donald Trump and his aides to challenge journalists and promote the administration's own version of facts and events, a veteran journalist warns.

"They know that the facts aren't with them, but they also know that we enjoy no trust," Matt Bai, the national political columnist for Yahoo! News, told David Axelrod on "The Axe Files," a podcast from the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN.
"And this is the first time we've basically had a political operation at this level say to us, 'Go ahead, jump up and down. Nobody cares what you think.'"
When Trump makes verifiably false statements -- about the size of the crowd at his inauguration or the alleged millions of illegal voters responsible for his losing the popular vote, for example -- Bai says it's because the President understands that publicity, not probity, is what actually counts in today's media environment.
"He knows how to get everybody jumping up and down, 'How could Donald Trump say that?' He knows that it doesn't matter. What matters is that he's getting the attention. Whatever he says just kind of slides off, goes away," said Bai.
Trump benefits from these efforts due to his unique status as a celebrity and entertainer, not a traditional politician, according to Bai.
"Entertainers take on roles. They change characters. They change personas," he said. "Entertainers are constantly reinventing themselves. And Trump is in a constant state of reinvention."
Bai, a close observer of what he calls "politics as soap opera" -- an inflection point, he writes compellingly in his book "All the Truth is Out," that began in earnest in 1987 with Gary Hart's sex scandal -- argues that the media bears some responsibility for Trump's swift rise in our politics.
Pointing to the Republican primary in particular, Bai said that the media's responsibility to inform and its desire to entertain and boost ratings was entirely out of balance, leading to a saturation of media coverage for Trump, which redounded to his benefit but put his opponents at a significant disadvantage.
"[The media executives] understood that it was out of all proportion, but nobody thought he could win," Bai said. "Part of the reason we got lost as an industry is because we didn't think it mattered, and it did."
Bai has been heartened by what he views as tough news coverage in the opening days of the Trump administration, as the words "liar" and "baseless claim" appear in more and more headlines. But, he says, journalists should be careful to not form lasting impressions based on Trump's inauspicious first impression.
"Once we've decided he lies -- because he has lied -- once we've accommodated ourselves to saying that a president lies to our readers, are we capable of being fair?" Bai asked.
"I think we really need to be conscious of the fact that if he were different tomorrow, if he didn't lie again, if he achieves things, if he succeeds, if he makes a case that makes sense, we can't be cynical about this. We still have to cover him as a president."
To hear the whole conversation with Bai, click on http://podcast.cnn.com. To get "The Axe Files" podcast every week, subscribe at http://itunes.com/theaxefiles.