As Independence Day arrives, the fireworks continue between President Donald Trump and the news media, as Mr. Trump spent another day on Monday lobbing social media jabs at the press, delighting many of his supporters who see reporters as “the enemy of the American people,” a description the President first used back in February.
“At some point the Fake News will be forced to discuss our great jobs numbers, strong economy, success with ISIS, the border & so much else!” Mr. Trump tweeted at one point on Monday.
In a speech in 1970, Vice President Spiro Agnew labeled the press, “nattering nabobs of negativism” – Republicans embraced that view during the Watergate scandal, and have kept it up as a political drumbeat ever since – and that’s very true today.
Let’s step back and see where we are on July 4, 2017:
1. Don’t look for the President to back off on the press. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again, blasting the news media is part of the President’s strategy – whether you like it, or whether you think it is the right thing for a President to be doing in office is not really part of the question. If you are surprised by how the President and his supporters have taken aim at the press, you shouldn’t be, because it hasn’t been a secret. Mr. Trump made anti-press remarks a staple of his campaign rallies, and there is no reason to think that he is going to give up on it as President. The last few days showed that again.
2. Does making the press “the enemy” work? While the President certainly has the right to go after the press, to raise questions about their stories and more, I will say again that yelling “Fake News” might make you feel good, but it doesn’t result in bills getting passed in the Congress. But for many of his supporters – who have voiced their anti-press sentiments via Fox News and conservative talk radio for a number of years, there is nothing better than seeing the President give it to the news media.
3. How should the news media respond to the President? This is where the President and the White House have an advantage. The news media is not one giant amorphous blob. There is no central office for “the press corps.” Instead, there are dozens of publications, thousands of reporters, and all sorts of suits who decide how to deal with the pugnacious tweets from President Trump. It seems to this reporter that the tweets deserve to be reported, but it also seems obvious that Mr. Trump wants a back and forth with the news media, so any “response” by the news media may give him exactly that. It could also be that these ‘fights’ help both sides, as evidenced by good ratings for “Morning Joe” on MSNBC.
4. As a reporter, there is a downside here as well. From my time on conservative talk radio over the last 30 years, I have received more than my share of ugly messages from listeners and readers. Death threats, nasty things said about me, my family, my parents, flat out lies about what I have reported and more. I do worry about someone going too far when it comes to the news media. We already saw a Republican candidate for Congress physically attack a reporter last month for asking a question about health care – not only did Rep. Greg Gianforte attack reporter Ben Jacobs, but Gianforte was also forced to admit in court that he initially put out a version of events that wasn’t backed up by the facts.
5. I’m not looking for anyone to feel sorry for the press. Believe me, I am not looking for sympathy about press relations with the Trump Administration. I know from social media that many on the Left and the Right think I don’t do my job the right way – sometimes they complain about the same story, coming to totally different conclusions. During the Bush years, liberals accused the press of being stenographers. Then in the Obama years, conservatives complained we were stenographers. What I think listeners, readers and viewers really want is a press that echoes their own personal beliefs. Sometimes the complaints about what I tweet or report are sort of comical. But I get the frustration.
6. Skirmishes over briefings by the Trump White House. We have seen in the last month a move by the White House press team to hold fewer on-camera briefings. I guess my bottom line on this is simple – they can do what they want. When I started reporting in Washington, D.C. during the Reagan Administration, the White House briefings were still mainly dominated by the print press – when a briefing was televised, you knew it was ‘big’ news. Back then, the first five minutes of the briefing was open for television and radio – but once that time was up, the lights went out, the microphones went off, and it was back to being only for written quotes, what we like to call “pen and pad only.” Many might forget that it was that way for a while in the Clinton Administration as well, after they at first televised all of the briefings, and then retreated a bit. If the Trump White House wants to seriously restrict the briefing, they can certainly do that. They run the show.
7. But if you limit the press briefing, it can limit your message, too. One thing to remember about the White House Press Briefing – it also offers a venue for the White House to make its own arguments about various issues. If you take that off camera, you limit the impact of that message. I’m a radio reporter – I know that the printed word is a big deal, but if I have audio tape of an event it sounds more important, and if there is a video, it can be a huge deal. So, if the White House wants to go to mainly “pen and pad only” briefings – with no TV – they can do that. But it also makes it more difficult to get out their own message. Audio only doesn’t have the same reach. TV is louder. What would look better in the below video – this graphic, or an actual Trump Administration official in video?
8. From “NOT REPORTABLE” to “FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE.” An interesting change took place in the White House Press Office this past week, as the President’s schedule – which had been routinely restricted by the Trump White House – suddenly went from being ‘not reportable’ by journalists to being okay to have reporters talk about it immediately in public. I never quite understood why the White House wanted to restrict reporters from saying that President Trump would sign a bill the next day, or meet with top administration officials, or sit down with his Cabinet – restrictions like that just got in the way of simple news about the President, and worked against White House public relations efforts. Now, that has been changed.
9. What’s next? I don’t think this battle ends soon. Republican attacks on the news media are nothing new, and I wouldn’t expect they will go away during a Trump Administration, as he eagerly tries to make the press his own personal pinata. Again – whether that’s the right strategic choice is for someone else to decide. It clearly is a winner with many of his supporters on social media and talk radio. Over the years, I’ve been verbally insulted, yelled at, spit on, intentionally tripped, pushed around, had people put out cigarettes on my tape recorder and leave full drinks sitting on my equipment, and more – pretty much all of that from Republicans – as people have tried to intimidate me in person, and in recent years over social media. It doesn’t need to be part of my job, but it has been.