There were conniptions galore when Steve Bannon made this assertion last week: "The media here is the opposition party. They don't understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the President of the United States." He also suggested that the "humiliated" media might do well to "keep its mouth shut."
Mere hours later, Jake Tapper began his segment on CNN by reminding viewers that "the President's top aide told The New York Times that the press should keep its mouth shut." After a brief pause and a ghost of a smile, Tapper said, "No!"
It was great TV, and we've had a lot of great TV moments in recent weeks. There will be more.
The thing is, Bannon is correct about the "opposition" assertion. It's just that it doesn't usually work that way in the United States. They do things differently there – normally.
In countries with a parliamentary democracy system, there is a long-established pattern: When a party wins a strong majority government and the opposition parties are withered by the defeat and in disarray, the media instinctively takes on the role of opposition.
It's been happening here in Canada since the election of 2015. Both the federal NDP and the Conservatives lack purposeful leadership, so elements of the Canadian media have acted as scolders and inquisitors, challenging the government on a regular basis. It is in the DNA of established media organizations.
In the United States, what usually happens after a president decisively wins is a process of acquiescence to the new administration. The instinct is to put aside the tumult of the campaign, acknowledge the will of the people and validate the new administration. It is in the DNA of the mainstream U.S. media. Some call it "normalization."
It seems like only yesterday that there was an uproar about Trump being normalized by the U.S. media. It did indeed begin to unfold. Trump's appearance on 60 Minutes on Nov. 13 was a classic ritual of normalization – not a hard-hitting interview but an attempt to assuage fears and dampen hysteria. It was packaged to give gravitas to the soon-to-be president and present him and his family as normal, if not downright adorable.
The normalization narrative didn't last long, though. As soon as it became clear that Trump remained in campaign mode and aggressively critical of the media – from Saturday Night Live to the BBC to CNN and The New York Times – all the while praising Fox News, many news outlets took up an oppositional stance. It's rare for this to happen, and it may have been done reluctantly, but the media outlets had no choice.
Trump is obsessed with TV coverage. Clearly, he is not adept online and focuses on cable news as his window on the world. Mainly, his window onto how his triumph is being viewed, which is the entirety of his worldview.
When a leader is so thin-skinned and sensitive to even implied criticism, any media except the favoured – Fox News in this case – is oppositional. In turn, this means that a lot of all-new coverage of Trump and his administration becomes like one very long episode of Saturday Night Live. At its centre is the clownish ogre of a president, and the comedy is generated by the chasm between the observable truth and what the clownish ogre wants the truth to be. It's a staple of comedy – the guy (usually, it's a guy) who is oblivious to the facts staring him in the face. Such as, for instance, the size of the crowds attending the inauguration.
Some of the conniptions about Bannon's assertions, especially that the media should "keep its mouth shut," have inspired spectacular hand-wringing on TV. CNN's Christiane Amanpour talked darkly, linking Bannon's statements to the regimes of Vladimir Putin in Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey.
But on CNN Tonight, Carl Bernstein sensibly told host Don Lemon that scathing anti-media criticism from the President's aides is a "war on information" – and the media's duty in response is simply to provide information.
On MSNBC, former Barack Obama adviser Anita Dunn pointed out that the Obama administration had always seen Fox News as "an opponent and treated it as such" – but without bellyaching about it.
All of this has made for terrific TV. Bannon is correct, but it might be that acknowledging the media's status as the opposition is his mistake. It emboldens a U.S. media that is unaccustomed to that role. Saturday Night Live hasn't been this much fun for years. Late Night with Seth Meyers is essential viewing, invigorated by fact-checking the Trump administration nightly. Oppositional TV is good TV. Enjoy it while it lasts.