One probable outcome of the Donald Trump administration already seems clear: It’s likely to redefine the relationship between the press and the US presidency.
Tweet by tweet, candidate and President-elect Trump has been building his own direct connection to the nation’s voters. He’s a master at using the media as a foil, mocking it as failing, inaccurate, and out of touch. To Trump, reporters are both a conduit and a prop. It’s no accident they were penned up on the floor of his rallies like zoo exhibits.
For mainstream media organizations, this treatment represents a threat and an opportunity. They’re under tremendous business stress as Facebook and Google take away their old advertising dollars. But Trump is a huge, important subject. He brings in a flood of clicks and viewers. His policy proposals – build a wall, ban Muslim entry, bring back waterboards – would change America’s essence. To many journalists he’s a reminder of why they’re journalists in the first place.
These trends will collide in the White House Briefing Room on Jan. 21. (If President Trump doesn’t kick the press out of the West Wing and end press conferences, that is.) How the media handle the challenge of Trump – and vice versa – could well determine what the media landscape will look like four years hence.
“Trump doesn’t play by the old rules and neither should the media/journalists. It is a different time and requires a very different approach,” ABC News chief political analyst Matthew Dowd wrote Monday in a tweet widely read in official Washington.
Presidents and the press have had fraught relations since the beginning of the US republic, of course. The current structure for their dealings is shaped by a hundred years of experience. It was President Andrew Johnson, the 17th chief executive, who gave the first exclusive newspaper interview. Grover Cleveland was the first to take pity on reporters clustered outside his door and give them a table and a bit of space to work inside the Executive Mansion. Franklin Delano Roosevelt perfected the press conference, gathering reporters in his office and charming them with the savoir faire of a professional entertainer.
Some presidents, irritated by leaks and coverage they deemed negative, have tried to limit press access and even targeted reporters with the power of the US government. President John F. Kennedy, in the name of national security, wiretapped the home phones of several Washington reporters, including Robert S. Allen, a former bureau chief of The Christian Science Monitor. President Richard Nixon’s animus toward the press was legendary. The Watergate scandal mushroomed from Nixon’s formation of a special unit, nicknamed the “White House Plumbers,” to plug leaks of secrets such as the Pentagon Papers.
“With almost every president I’ve studied, from Theodore Roosevelt onward, there have been concerns that the president is using his power to stifle or manipulate the press,” says Rutgers historian David Greenberg, who’s written an award-winning history of the process, “Republic of Spin.”
“Even under Obama, you’ve had people say he’s worse (more secretive, more inaccessible) than his predecessors, which only shows how time flies, because [George W.] Bush was just as bad,” Professor Greenberg continues in an email.
Treatment of the press
That said, Trump’s treatment of the press is at the extreme end of this continuum, and needs to be condemned on its own terms, Greenberg says.
First, there’s the targeting of reporters by name. Trump tweets out his animus for particular journalists and even condemns them from the podium at his rallies. In some cases the perceived offense is just the press doing its job. Trump told NBC’s Katy Tur to “be quiet” when she tried to ask a follow-up question at a press conference in July and accused her of wanting to “save” Hillary Clinton.
Second is his open contempt for media institutions. “Failing” is one of his favorite modifiers for any outlet that annoys him, from CNN to The New York Times. It is not enough that he label them wrong. He seems to feel he must try to destroy them as well.
Last is the way he circumvents them. He uses his own social media feeds, as well as connections to such supportive outlets as Breitbart News, to create, essentially, his own media conglomerate. This is what presidents have long wanted, of course – freedom from the press’s discordant notes.
But Trump has used his media network to promote some false information. Fact-checkers have worked overtime to disprove such Trump contentions as the assertion that he was against the Iraq War prior to the 2003 invasion, or that there are 3 million criminal immigrants in the US illegally. Trump keeps using these “facts” anyway – because he can.
The Pulitzer-winning fact-checking site Politifact deemed 34 percent of the Trump statements it scrutinized during the presidential campaign to be “false,” and 17 percent to be “pants on fire,” meaning blatantly false.
“In some ways I don’t think [the incoming Trump administration] wants to interact with the institutional press, which is a huge problem,” says Roy Gutterman, director of the Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University in New York. “Our independent press is an integral part of our democracy, it has been since the beginning of our country, and the public really needs to know what’s going on.”
Will there be press conferences?
The question is how the press and the presidency will interact in what some are calling the “post-truth” age, when fake news snakes easily into Facebook feeds and the press’s ability to serve as a watchdog has been reduced from pit bull-level to that of a yapping toy poodle.
It seems a given that Trump will interact with the media far differently than does President Obama. He’ll likely issue pronouncements, announce appointments, and otherwise promote policies via Twitter feed, foreclosing follow-up questions.
Will he bother to hold press conferences? After all, the establishment media that gathers at these rituals is greatly reduced in influence and numbers. Press-conference queries are often pointed. (You can translate most of them into “Critics say you’re a jerk and wrong about X. What’s your response?”)
Trump does appear to still want the establishment media imprimatur. He traveled to The New York Times for an editorial board meeting this week, after all. But as his administration progresses, and the questions get harder and the problems crop up and mistakes are made, the temptation to hide behind @realDonaldTrump will become ever greater. Its audience is wide, and its waters pacific.
“People love social media,” says Professor Gutterman, “but it’s not the same as having critical viewpoints or legitimate, in depth institutional coverage of public policy."