“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right. And were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”
It is worth pointing out when he wrote that, newspapers were being used as mouthpieces by partisan factions to advance the policies of their respective political parties.
It would take more than a century for the White House press to start to develop a resemblance to what we know today, and for that we can thank William “Fatty” Price, reporter for the Washington Evening Star. In 1896, during President Grover Cleveland’s presidency, Price stationed himself outside the North Portico, interviewing those who met with the president: The first White House correspondent.
Thanks to technological advances like the telegraph and telephone, newspapers had become big business, and soon other outlets were sending reporters. William McKinley’s administration brought those reporters into the White House, and his secretary established the first press briefings. The first press room was established in the Executive Office Building during Teddy Roosevelt’s years.
By the 1950s, Harry Truman had moved press conferences out of the Oval Office, and in 1969, Richard Nixon had a new press center built over FDR’s pool (with instructions that it could be converted back if so desired). This is the room we know today.
That’s a lengthy lead into the role of the press and how it should function in the age of Trump. It is no secret that he has used the media as a pawn in drumming up support for his agenda, and his press secretaries have moved away from the practice of holding regular press briefings. Whether one feels ok with that or not has a lot to do with what box they checked at the polls.
Thus, it was all a little surprising last week — a short one due to the holiday — when press secretary Sarah Sanders called a surprise briefing late in the day which turned out to be an in person appearance of President Donald Trump, his first in the briefing room. What followed was truly spectacular.
There were no questions. It was basically a stump speech, setting the tone moving forward with Democrats controlling the House, championing the border wall while assuring he was in it for the long haul on the government shutdown. The whole deal lasted eight minutes.
CNN's Brianna Keilar rightly called the appearance a “stunt,” and she’s right. But that’s not the point, is it? It worked. Trump got what he wanted, and the media, particularly those in television, who don’t have the benefit of time to objectively think about coverage, played right into it.
The following day, following meetings with Democrats Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi to attempt to work out a deal on the shutdown, Trump held a news conference in the Rose Garden, where he did take questions. But these are far rarer occasions.
The simple fact of the matter is, Trump has always been a master manipulator of the media. His most successful business — really his only one — has been branding. From the early, “Art of the Deal” days to “The Apprentice” years, Trump has worked the media to his benefit. It’s not clear if he realized people knew it was him when his alter ego “John Baron” called to brag about Trump’s exploits, but it didn’t matter. Because it worked.
Trump meant quotes, and that translates to ratings, headlines and dollar signs. And as Trump began to realize the best road to the White House meant aligning himself with people who had lost faith in the media, it was easy for him to turn that relationship into a contentious one. He was still producing the goods, so it would still get reported. And the zanier, the less “presidential,” the better. It assures response. Twitter has made that even easier. Now, he can spend a few minutes a day on the john and have global media eating out of his hand. If only I could be so lucky.
From a purely business sense, it has been a winner all around. Television “news,” or, primarily, the commentary portion of it, is thriving. In print, the Trump-labeled “failing” New York Times made a profit due to digital subscriptions. Jeff Bezos’s Washington Post is hardly in bad shape, either. But there is far too much commentary masquerading as journalism, and it weaves its way into reporting. Whether that is a result of young journalists trying to be crusaders, or the disappearance of good copy editors, it supports the argument of those whole claim the media is comprised of “liberal elitists” biased against the president, and “conservatives” in general.
Take the case of CNN’s Jim Acosta last fall. There was plenty of grandstanding on all sides. Acosta has taken a bombastic, “Sam Donaldson” approach to covering Trump. Sanders and company had enough. The administration looks good for punishing the “liberal media,” CNN looks good in its crusade for press freedom. It’s a circus act, and what benefit do we get?
From a journalistic standpoint, this is not a good place to be. There’s still good journalism happening, but the model, and climate, do little to support it. The best of journalism challenges our beliefs. We come out of the experience reinforced in our thinking, or we modify it based on what we have learned. That’s still possible, but we, the consumer, have to do the work. We have to get our news from multiple outlets: Liberal, conservative, foreign, etc. Unfortunately, ideological television sources, websites, social media and slanted newspaper editorial boards make it far easier to create an echo chamber than a learning environment.
Which brings us back to how to cover Trump. I believe the greatest benefit of a Trump presidency will be to in shaking journalism to the core, purging it of the old routines, and forcing it back to more a more objective role. “We report, you decide” was a great moniker, even if it was baloney.
I don’t begrudge the White House Correspondents' Association for having a dinner, it’s nice to get out and celebrate with colleagues. Dropping the comedian, however, was the right choice. Eliminating the celebrity guests, the “nerd prom” image and flying under the radar for a little while would go a long way to promote better optics, as well.
Should Trump decide to banish the press corps from the White House, so be it. There are plenty of ways for good reporters to get the story without being on the privileged list who get access to the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room. The press conference is nothing but a glorified spin zone anyway, an opportunity for the Administration to shovel its PR to the press. Watchdogs do their best work when they are forced to shine a light from the outside, not from within. It’s motivation.
And press briefings, no matter how rarely they occur, should be reported on for their substance, or lack thereof. They should not be used as an opportunity for reporters to stand on soapboxes to present personal agendas.
We live in a world where the consumer can’t tell the difference between commentary, an editorial, a news story or a letter to the editor. Not all of that lies at our feet, but we must not be responsible for helping blur the lines.
As I have told colleagues on many occasions, the moment we allow ourselves to become the story, we are doing something wrong. It is not our job to put personal opinion — to crusade — in our reporting. Save that for the Op-Ed page.
It means getting back to the basics. Research. Interview. Objective reporting. We ask, they talk, we write. It’s a pretty simple formula. Point out each fallacy, site the source when you do so. It isn’t about prestige, television appearances, fame or fortune. It’s about the same old hard work, grit and determination it always has. If being called names gets us back to those roots, so be it.
Enemies of the people? No. Enemies of people trying to get away with something? Always.
Journalism 101. That’s how you do your job in the age of Trump.