So now we know: This is how it’s going to be after Inauguration Day, too.
When coverage falls afoul of Donald Trump, the soon-to-be-president will feed the media itself into the news grinder. As Matthew Continetti wrote in the Washington Free Beacon, the new administration is going on permanent offense; Trump will invert the usual equation to subject individual journalists and their employers to scrutiny and slashing attacks of the kind usually reserved for public officials.
Trump started Wednesday’s cyclone of a press conference with a warning sheathed in seeming compliments: Thanks for the restraint in holding off on all those salacious and unproven allegations about my personal behavior, and the claims of collusion between my associates and the Russians! And don’t tick me off if you want any more of these press conferences.
It had, after all, been a half-year since Trump last held one — a hiatus which he ascribed to his displeasure with reporting about him.
Standing at a lectern in the atrium of the Trump Tower in midtown Manhattan, Trump went on to denounce CNN (“Your organization is terrible. … You are fake news!”) for editorial decisions made by BuzzFeed (which he called “a failing pile of garbage”).
CNN had reported that senior U.S. intelligence officials took the allegations seriously enough to brief President Obama and the president-elect — a story that sparked a firestorm but proved uncontroversial among most journalists to publish. It was unquestionably newsworthy.
BuzzFeed, by contrast, had sparked industrywide debate in deciding to post the full file of unsubstantiated claim — compiled, apparently, by a former British intelligence officer working on behalf of Trump’s political foes in both parties. The site’s rationale was that posting allowed readers to make up their own minds, even as reporters raced to determine which allegations, if any, held up to scrutiny.
Trump shouted down CNN’s Jim Acosta as the reporter repeatedly sought to ask Trump a question in response to his pointed critique. Afterward Sean Spicer, Trump’s incoming White House press secretary, strode briskly up to Acosta and admonished him.
Spicer later told me Acosta had been “disgraceful, rude and inappropriate” in pressing Trump. Spicer also said that he had told Acosta “if he did it again, I’d have him thrown out.”
Trump’s rhetorical jujitsu and verbal attacks at times overshadowed the meat of the stories that drew his ire, including his camp’s alleged ties to the Russians and his business entanglements.
Some of Trump’s aides ginned up some hollow stagecraft for the event: Trump stood near a table loaded with unmarked manila folders filled with sheets of paper as his lawyer explained why he would give control of his companies to his sons rather than sell his enterprises. Reporters never saw what the folders contained or learned what information they purportedly held.
Even so, the question of conflicts of interest surfaced unexpectedly in the Trump Tower atrium, effectively a high-end mall.
“The blue curtain behind Trump didn’t quite obscure the booth where Ivanka Trump sells her fine jewelry,” the Daily Beast’s Olivia Nuzzi noted minutes after the event wrapped up. “You could see the mannequins where they normally have these diamond necklaces that Ivanka Trump is selling in Trump Tower.
“Even in their staging, they couldn’t quite get rid of the idea that Ivanka and all of the children — and Donald Trump — will have a massive conflict of interest,” Nuzzi said afterward.
On Thursday morning, Trump picked up on Twitter where he left off: “CNN is in a total meltdown with their FAKE NEWS because their ratings are tanking since election and their credibility will soon be gone!”
Actually, CNN’s ratings are flying high right now — thanks in no small part to the controversy and conflict engendered by the president-elect in the past year. And as for fake news, Trump himself has been a leading purveyor of false claims, from hoaxes over Obama’s birth to unfounded allegations of widespread voter fraud.
Some press critics have publicly wrestled with the need for new strategies and rules on how to cover this administration.
I don’t think Trump’s arrival requires new strategies, but perhaps new tactics. Yes, reporters might benefit from standing by one another more, as some commentators have advised. They could reiterate questions posed by competitors who are frozen out, or, in the case of Acosta, who never did get to ask the question he sought, yielding time back to him.
At minimum they could call out Trump and his aides on the practice — as Jake Tapper, then with ABC News, publicly did in sticking up for Fox News reporters and Washington bureau chiefs did in private exchanges with Obama aides.
The media could benefit from adhering to first principles that probably should have been observed more attentively all along: Access matters less than hard-nosed reporting away from the camera. And the press must recognize it can’t rely on other institutions to raise the right questions. (One congressional committee chairman, instead of serving as a check on the president-elect, suggested he would investigate a federal ethics official who said Trump’s moves to manage possible business conflicts were insufficient.)
Away from the event, reporters joked nervously about what retribution their news organizations might experience in the future. The Trump campaign created blacklists of reporters and news organizations barred from interviews. (BuzzFeed figured prominently.) And yet Trump wants the media’s attention and craves its respect.
Trump’s favorite media outlets depend on the vagaries of his mood. Among them one will likely find Breitbart News, the hard-line conservative site which heavily favored Trump during the GOP primaries. The site’s former chairman, Steve Bannon, will be a top White House adviser to Trump. And Trump called on a Breitbart reporter during the news conference.
Other likely Trump favorites include the New York Post (to which he has given myriad scraps about his personal life over the years); Fox News (which has named Trump fan Tucker Carlson to replace Trump antagonist Megyn Kelly); the National Enquirer (its parent company is run by a close Trump friend who authorized a $150,000 payment to a former Playboy model to quash the story of an affair, according to the Wall Street Journal) the New York Observer (owned by his son-in-law Jared Kushner until this month); perhaps even Trump-friendly RT, the Russian propagandist network which had a correspondent cheerfully bellowing its initials a few feet from me on Wednesday in hopes of being called on. As it happens, Trump did not call on him.
Yet Trump wants the established media’s attention and craves its respect. He gives interviews to The New York Times, even when rejecting the premises of their questions. And he monitors cable coverage more than any TV news agent.
On Fox News Thursday evening, former New York City mayor, Fox News commentator and Trump adviser Rudy Giuliani hailed a new media age ushered in by Trump: “It is refreshing and it is very good for our democracy that we have a president that is trying to get us back to a free press.”
Free to do what, one wonders.