The relationship between Donald Trump and the national press isn’t actually a relationship. It’s war.
Some say the gloves came off last August, when he tangled with Megyn Kelly, then of Fox News, at the first GOP debate with allusions to her menstrual cycle. He then threw Univision anchor Jorge Ramos out of a press conference, and mocked Serge Kovaleski of The New York Times, who has a disability.
Earlier this month, just days before being sworn in as America’s 45th president, he shouted down Jim Acosta, CNN senior White House correspondent, ending the news-conference dustup with “You’re fake news!” before moving on to tweet insults at NBC News (likely a target because of the network’s caricatures on Saturday Night Live).
Trump has pushed for looser libel laws, and has variously called the media “crooked,” “fake,” “dishonest,” “garbage” and conspirators in a plot to defeat him. And now the press corps is nervous it will physically be booted from the White House.
For all the agita created by the incoming president, the feeling is mutual for many in the media. “There’s a double-barreled hostility,” Ari Fleischer, former press chief for President George W. Bush, said on a recent episode of Meet the Press. “This press corps can’t stand Donald Trump, and Donald Trump is happy to return the favor. And he uses it to his advantage.”
Especially for the TV news business—the media segment that profited most from broadcasting Trump rallies and ginning up lackluster primary debates, only to see the Republican long shot upend all expectations—the main question is this: How should a candidate who harbors unprecedented press hostility be covered?
Uncertainty following Inauguration Day is nothing new. Whenever a new president moves into the Oval Office, questions arise about access to the most powerful person in the world. But with President Donald J. Trump, that anxiety has given way to a full-blown panic attack.
“Journalists have a series of assumptions when they cover the president,” says Dr. Jeffrey Jones, director of the Peabody Awards and a veteran media critic and author. “But the person who will be president has no rule book, so journalists will have to figure out what to do with that. It’s an enormous, enormous challenge.”
Adding to the angst is the fact that Trump’s ascendancy comes amidst budget cuts at media outlets and the emergence of fake news—social media serving up journalism-free “facts” to a public that’s often just gullible enough to take the headlines at their word. With a shortfuse president who has logged ample time in boardrooms and private jets but zero time actually governing, never before has the nation demanded a more vigorous press corps and degree of transparency in the White House.
That presents reporters with a Herculean task. “Journalists need to clarify, clarify, clarify—they’ve got a vital role as sensemakers,” says Al Tompkins, senior faculty for broadcasting and online at the journalism think tank Poynter Institute. “2017 will really need to be different than ‘he said, she said.’ Reporters need to be truth-tellers and clarify everything.”
As much as the media preens its image as an objective observer, for many viewers, the campaigns have largely been an echo chamber. Fox was the main source of news for 40% of the voters who put Donald Trump into the White House, while Hillary Clinton’s supporters were spread over a number of outlets, with none getting more than 20%, according to a Pew Research Center survey. Only 3% of Clinton supporters said Fox was their main source of news.
There is considerable unease among White House reporters, and their bosses in New York, about how their jobs will change with the new president. “It’s just unfortunate that the most powerful person in the world is trying to delegitimize journalism and an organization that plays such a vital role in our democracy,” said Jeff Zucker, president of Trump’s favorite media punching bag, CNN, in New York magazine. “I think he’s entitled to his opinion, but it’s—to use one of his favorite words—sad.”
But with all the obstacles in the way of getting the story for the next four years, there are as many opportunities to invigorate the mission of journalism in democracy. In his final White House press conference on Jan. 18, President Obama didn’t mince words in highlighting the stakes. Democracy “doesn’t work if we don’t have a well-informed citizenship,” he said. “America needs you, and democracy needs you.”
At this time of transition, B&C spoke with many journalists and executives in the TV news trenches and identified the key priorities in covering the new administration. Among the biggest:
✓ IGNORE (SOME) TRUMP TWEETS
Despite the fact that 7 out of 10 Americans are troubled by a tweeting president, Trump won’t likely curb his Twitter addiction right away. An NBC/WSJ poll found that 69% of respondents said that tweeting from the White House was a bad idea given that “in an instant, messages can have unintended major implications without careful review.” Only 26% backed Trump’s tweets as a way to “directly communicate with the people immediately.”
Trump has tweeted more than 34,000 times since signing up in the spring of 2009. Monitoring his Twitter feed will be somebody’s job at every news outlet, but putting tweets in context is crucial.
Much has been made of how much the media should cover the tweets, which offer a glimpse inside the president’s head, and also allow no forum for follow-up questions. Poynter’s Tompkins believes the Trump tweets will lose their “headline-generating power” as he eases into his new role.
But Charlie Rose, anchor on CBS This Morning, says the social missives can’t be flatly dismissed. “These stories are so much deeper than tweets,” he says. “But you have to be aware of them because it’s the most powerful person in the world tweeting.”
Even in this direct-to-consumer era, some say the president still needs a symbiotic relationship with the traditional media. “In every one of [Trump’s recent] interviews, the important message was, ‘People out there, trust me. Don’t trust what you read or you see,’” said Joe Lockhart, former press secretary to President Bill Clinton, speaking on Meet the Press. “And the problem is that there’s going to be a point at which, in a time of crisis, that he does need a free and strong press to get his message out.”
✓ NO ACCESS? NO PROBLEM
As reporters continue to report unflattering poll numbers or bring up his refusal to release tax returns, the Trump camp appears to be making a list of who’s nice and who’s naughty. “The Administration is willing to ice out dissenters, and punish them to some extent,” says one former White House correspondent speaking without attribution. “Viewers should keep an eye on news organizations to make sure they’re not caving, not pulling punches to keep access.”
The optics were unfortunate when several networks, NBC and Fox News among them, sent reporters to Trump resort Mar-a-Lago for a holiday season getaway. They were photographed with the president-elect during an otherwise off-the-record session.
Losing broad access to the president may be bad, but it’s hardly where real reporters stop—in fact, it might be where they start. Newfound status as an outsider can be liberating, forcing journalists to go beyond Twitter and Facebook posts and make lasting sources deep in the federal bureaucracy, which is where many meaty scoops start.
As Zucker recently told New York magazine, “I think the era of access journalism as we’ve known it is over. It doesn’t worry me that Donald Trump hasn’t done an interview with CNN in eight months. I think our credibility is higher than ever, and our viewership is higher than ever, and our reporting is as strong as ever.”
✓ JUST GIVE US THE FACTS
Whenever the president or his administration says or tweets something inaccurate, which has been fairly often, it’s incumbent upon media outlets to doggedly and fairly report the facts. While Trump will have tight control of news emanating from the West Wing, he can’t control the massive bureaucracy where all the policies of his new administration will be carried out. Still, regard leaks with more than a few grains of salt and be prepared to inspect the motives of everyone.
If the facts are not nailed down, it becomes an opportunity for the president to heap more invective on journalists. Never fear the consequences of solid reporting, but be very afraid of the consequences of not having done due diligence. One thing that Trump’s campaign did with sobering consistency is highlight the widespread distrust among the public of the media.
Bring your armor to presidential press conferences (infrequent as they may be), and don’t sheath your sword. The president-elect has shown himself willing to launch ad hominem attacks, but journalists must steel themselves and ask the tough questions, while avoiding dipping down in the gutter.
Finally, go deep on real issues, because chances are your competition isn’t. With so many reporters chasing clicks with Trump’s every tweet and tantrum, a journalist can stand out by covering the same things he or she covered at town meetings as a cub reporter. Infrastructure. Education. Taxes.
Yes, boring old policy stuff. “Lost in the coverage of Donald Trump’s tweets was a rich discussion about national security, education, the Supreme Court,” Norah O’Donnell, CBS This Morning anchor, told B&C.
✓ STICK TOGETHER
Scooping the competition is much of a journalist’s raison d’être. But be wary of the “divide and conquer” strategy, deployed by Trump in the Jan. 11 press conference in which he praised the journos who didn’t report the story about an unverified dossier alleging misdeeds, and savaged those who did, chiefly BuzzFeed and CNN. (He also drew no distinction between the two, despite the fact that CNN merely reported the existence of the dossier, whereas BuzzFeed actually posted the entire document.)
Media Matters for America says it has received more than 287,000 signatures on a petition calling on journalists to stand together against blacklists or exclusions. In today’s hyper- competitive marketplace, looking out for one’s rival is never exactly easy, but it could make a real difference now that something far more consequential is at stake. When CNN’s Acosta was denied a question and his network belittled during Trump’s press conference, fellow journalists were “stepping over his body” to get their own sliver of the president-elect pie, quipped Bob Garfield on WNYC’s On the Media. Trump advisor Newt Gingrich told Fox News anchor Sean Hannity that he would advise the president to suspend Acosta for 60 days “as a signal to all the reporters that there are going to be real limits, and when you get beyond those limits, you ain’t gonna be there.”
But there were more hopeful signs. Shepard Smith, anchor at that same Fox News, said: “It is our observation that its correspondents followed journalistic standards and that neither they nor any other journalists should be subjected to belittling and delegitimizing by the president-elect of the United States.”
Jake Tapper, CNN chief White House correspondent, told Late Night host Seth Meyers that competing news organizations have to stick together in this new era of presidential reporting. “If you’re with an organization that’s not CNN,” he said, “and you watch them just destroy us or try to destroy us, just because they don’t like the story, which is, again, proven to be completely true, then you’re next.”