For all his vast power, the President of the United States is always at a structural disadvantage in a “war” with the media. The First Amendment protects press rights to criticize the government, and everyone expects such criticism. But if government—or the president, as head of government—strikes back by assailing media, there’s an uneasy hint of bullying or oppression.
President Trump isn’t exceptional in generating media hostility, but Barack Obama was exceptional in avoiding such scrutiny for eight years. What’s more, there’s a double standard on defining victory in battles between the administration and the press. CNN would celebrate if it ever won 20 percent of the available viewing audience, but presidential approval ratings of just 20 percent would undermine chances for legislative and re-election success.
A president can’t win by exclusively catering to his most enthusiastic base, but a cable news operation can’t lose if it solely rallies its hard-core fans.