The coming storm for journalism under Trump

Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Columbus, Ohio, on March 1, 2016. (Ty Wright / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

For a president who became synonymous with the abuse of executive power, Richard Nixon’s public exchanges with adversarial reporters seem quaint by today’s standards. Take Nixon’s March 1974 news conference in Houston, hosted before a convention for the National Association of Broadcasters. A young, sideburned Dan Rather introduced himself to a mix of cheers and jeers from the crowd, and Nixon responded with a sub-140-character zinger that might play well today: “Are you running for something?”

The room erupted in laughs, and Nixon—knee-deep in the Watergate scandal—revelled in his one-liner. After bowing his head for a moment, Rather looked up: “No, Mr. President, are you?” Nixon’s smile faded.

The soon-to-resign president’s jab at a hard-charging reporter was a tame precursor to some of the tactics employed by President-elect Donald Trump over the past 18 months, including his smack-down of a CNN correspondent at a news conference last week. Indeed, many have counted Trump’s personal animus toward the press as one of several traits he shares with Nixon. But the two differ in their relationship with journalists in one key respect, and it speaks to the unprecedented difficulties ahead for political media under President Trump.

“With Nixon, lying was very much with the intent to deceive—he lied through his teeth that he didn’t lead a criminal conspiracy from the White House,” says David Greenberg, a Rutgers University professor who chronicled presidential PR machines in Republic of Spin. “Trump is not quite the biggest liar [to be president], but he is, in a way, the most open and nonchalant about it. He’ll comfortably lie about something that’s so obviously false. It’s almost like, is it a lie if there isn’t the intent to deceive or expectation to deceive?”

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Related: Check out 10 must-read CJR stories on covering the Trump phenomenon.

This is central to the communications strategy of the man taking power Friday: Whereas all modern presidents have spun information—even lied—the reality TV star actively obstructs a fact-based public debate like no other before him. Whereas all have attempted to take their messages directly to supporters, Trump has a unique gift for using tools that do so almost instantaneously. Whereas all have sought to limit press access to suit their political ends, Trump’s relationship with the truth has called the very value of access into question. And whereas all have railed against the press in the face of negative coverage, Trump has portrayed the media as a political foil he’s actively trying to defeat.

 

Whereas all modern presidents have spun information—even lied—the reality TV star actively obstructs a fact-based public debate like no other before him.

 

Decades-long trends in media and politics have made this moment particularly ripe for a figure like Trump–and particularly precarious for the journalists covering him. Even the most prestigious media companies face an uncertain financial future, and the atrophy of local outlets has diminished coverage of the very regions that comprise the base of Trump’s support. The media’s fragmentation, competitiveness, and increasing partisanship have sapped it of much of the collective political power it held during Watergate. Add in a hyperpolarized environment in Washington, on the internet, and across the country, and the Trump Administration may usher in one of the most challenging environments for the Washington press corps over the past century.

In the weeks leading up to Trump’s inauguration, CJR spoke with political journalists who will cover the incoming administration and reporters and historians who’ve chronicled its predecessors. They collectively painted a foreboding picture of journalism in the Trump era, even if some claimed to hold out hope that journalists will weather the coming storm.

 

Staffing up

Formal appeals to the incoming administration have nodded to this trepidation. In a letter sent Wednesday to Team Trump and co-signed by 60 different journalism organizations, the Society of Professional Journalists framed its call for a more constructive relationship around democratic principles.

“Our Founding Fathers knew the importance of a press that is free to report on the activities of our government and elected officials,” the letter reads. “We urge you to publicly affirm your commitment to transparency, to issue an executive order prohibiting the restrictive public information policies that have been the status quo, and to engage in a public discussion with us about the Trump Administration’s commitment to the free flow of information from the White House and all federal government, to the American people.”

 

The Trump Administration may usher in one of the most challenging environments for the Washington press corps over the past century.

 

The chaotic road ahead will pose immense difficulties for journalists accustomed to the way things work in Washington, but also potential opportunity for those who are quick to adapt. Already, major outlets have begun stockpiling resources in their White House operations, some devising new coverage strategies for the incoming administration. What’s more, the general tenor of media coverage is trending toward a healthy skepticism of executive power and official sources that has been lacking over a generation of insider-centric reporting.

While Trump may be uniquely equipped to humiliate a diminished 21st-century media, the coming era of confrontation he’s ushering in may also provide the bitter pill journalists need to change their work for the better. The question under President Trump—as it always was with candidate Trump—is whether journalists can convince enough of the public to trust them and listen.

They’re unlikely to regain trust by shying away from a principled fight. CNN’s forceful response when Trump berated Senior White House Correspondent Jim Acosta at the president-elect’s long-awaited press conference last week serves as a model. After anchors Anderson Cooper and Jake Tapper offered a full-throated defense of Acosta over the airwaves, the network’s honchos went a step further, directly rebuking the account of the altercation offered by Trump’s incoming press secretary, Sean Spicer. “As we have learned many times, just because Sean Spicer says something doesn’t make it true,” CNN said in a statement.

Among national newspapers, which still drive much of the mainstream news agenda, The New York Times and The Washington Post have beefed up their White House teams to six journalists each on full-time duty, which adds one body to the Times’ team and doubles that of the Post. The latter has also announced the creation of an eight-person “rapid-response” investigative unit to work closely with its National desk. The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, is creating a new group within its Washington bureau “to cover the intersection of business interests and government action.”

Recognizing the unique challenge of Trump, with his seemingly preternatural ability to create news, the Times and the Post both added a second reporter to the daily White House news beat, a role that was filled by a single journalist under previous administrations. And in perhaps its most telling staffing decision, the Times recalled White House veteran and former Moscow Bureau Chief Peter Baker from Jerusalem, adding him to the largest White House team in history for the paper of record. Baker was just months into a Middle Eastern stint, but said that when Executive Editor Dean Baquet called, there was never any hesitation about returning to the beat.

“Going into this, we shouldn’t view it as a normal White House,” Baker says. “We shouldn’t have the expectation that everything is going to operate as business as usual. It’s going to be a very different type of climate.”

To that end, the Times recently announced it is allocating an additional $5 million to pay for its coverage of the new president. Despite the expected obstacles, Baker says, “I’m optimistic until I have reason not to be.” Referencing the cartoonist Herblock, who drew Nixon with a sinister five o’clock shadow before offering a “clean shave” upon his election, Baker says that every president deserves a chance to prove themselves. “We’re going to start fresh, and we’ll see where things go.”

Washington Post White House reporter Abby Phillip strikes a similar note of cautious optimism. While nodding to the charged atmosphere that necessitated an expanded White House bureau, Phillip is careful not to prejudge the president-elect. “I don’t think we really know what’s going to happen when [the Trump team] gets in there,” Phillip says. “I’m hopeful that, at the end of the day, there will be some sort of reasonable agreement that allows the press to maintain access that is part of what they need in order to do their jobs while also respecting the Trump administration’s prerogative to do things the way they want.”

Some outlets don’t share Phillip’s equanimity. In a call-to-arms that acknowledged difficulties with transparency and intimidation of journalists under the Obama administration, NPR’s Senior Vice President of News and Editorial Director Michael Oreskes, who is also a member of CJR’s Board of Overseers, penned a memo to staffers extolling the value of a free and aggressive press. But his main target was clear.

 

The question under President Trump—as it always was with candidate Trump—is whether journalists can convince enough of the public to trust them and listen.

 

“The president-elect has an opportunity to separate his anger over specific coverage (which he is always free to express) from a commitment to fundamental American rights of free press and expression,” Oreskes wrote. “These aren’t partisan questions. They are core values every American owns a share of.”

 

BING BING BING

While the reporters and editors to whom CJR spoke expressed confidence in their abilities to cover Donald Trump fairly, forcefully, and comprehensively, they also acknowledged that the new administration will present challenges requiring rapid adaptation. Some outlets–Slate, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker among them–have either implicitly or explicitly cast their lots in the adversarial camp. Mother Jones, which recently added a big game hunter to its staff in Andy Kroll, also appears to be preparing for battle.

For most in the mainstream press, however, a time of increased polarization and historic distrust of “the media” requires journalists to face the delicate challenge of aggressively reporting on Trump’s actions while avoiding the appearance of partisanship.

This tightrope will likely persist throughout the Trump presidency. And it will no doubt be exacerbated by both established and nascent right-wing outlets like Fox News and Breitbart News, whose strategies center on driving a wedge between mainstream media and conservative politicians and audiences. This front of the culture war is favorable ground for Trump, who as GOP nominee and president-elect empowered such outlets with access and social media flattery they wouldn’t normally get.

Which brings us to the tweets, the method of communication that Trump has mastered with a measure of skill beyond that of any other politician. Mainstream outlets, and particularly cable networks, have continued to chase every 140-character outburst Trump types—what the president(-elect) says is news, the thinking goes. Trump is acutely aware of this salivation for new content, using the medium to both delegitimize journalists and drive the news agenda.

 

A time of increased polarization and historic distrust of “the media” requires journalists to face the delicate challenge of aggressively reporting on Trump’s actions while avoiding the appearance of partisanship.

 

As Trump explained the retention of his personal Twitter handle to the Sunday Times recently: “I thought I’d do less of it, but I’m covered so dishonestly by the press—so dishonestly—that I can put out Twitter…I can go bing bing bing and I just keep going and they put it on and as soon as I tweet it out—this morning on television, Fox: Donald Trump, we have breaking news.”

Trump’s use of Twitter is simply the shiniest tool employed by increasingly PR-minded White Houses over the past century. Theodore Roosevelt, who spoke famously of his “bully pulpit,” was perhaps the first president to actively seek press coverage to mold public opinion. He styled pithy slogans suited for mass-market newspapers of the day, cultivated friendly journalists with access, and blacklisted those who dared print something he didn’t like.

“Roosevelt insisted that he punished only only those who published falsehoods or broke their word,” Greenberg writes in Republic of Spin. “But sincere differences of opinion or interpretation, seen through Roosevelt’s pince-nez, inevitably became matters of truth versus lies. Worse, [Roosevelt] had no qualms about falsely denying that he had said things that he simply wished to disavow.”

The White House press office became institutionalized and professionalized over the following decades, with subsequent presidents mastering media of the time to circumvent journalists. Franklin Roosevelt created a national community of listeners through his fireside chats, while Eisenhower and then Kennedy honed presidential communication via television. Squabbles with the Washington press corps were a constant, and they only intensified as media grew fat off of economic monopolies and were emboldened by the Vietnam-era counterculture and “credibility gap” between the White House and the public.

“Don’t get the impression that you arouse my anger,” Nixon told a reporter at a 1973 news conference. “You see, one can only be angry with those he respects.”

Reagan, a gifted on-air communicator whose team was adept at driving a “line of the day,” largely supplanted routine presidential news conferences with periodic photo ops at which reporters could pose a few questions. “When you were covering the beat, you knew you’d get a chance to look the guy in the eyes—there was a human relationship,” says Ron Fournier, who covered the Clinton and George W. Bush White Houses for the Associated Press, and later became a prominent columnist during the Obama administration.

“We were accountable to each other,” Fournier adds of Clinton. “He was going to answer my questions, and I was going to have to stand in front of him after I wrote my story and listen to his response. Bush would do that as well, but he would do it less than Clinton. Obama hardly did it all….And that, to me, is a better gauge than the number of press conferences.”

 

‘We have to start thinking radically’

All the administrations of the past two decades have explored new media to reach voters—talk radio, cable news, blogs, social media—but those efforts are more visible now given the gradual curtailment of official and unofficial access. Beat reporters have had to work around this trend under Obama, who prefers longform interviews. Meanwhile, federal agencies have developed increasingly strict PR policies, aides have increasingly pushed for “background” briefings, and the Department of Justice has pursued more leak investigations than all of its predecessors combined.

The danger of that precedent came to the fore last week, when Senator Jeff Sessions, Trump’s nominee for attorney general, gave a mealymouthed answer during his confirmation hearing on whether he’d consider jailing journalists during leak investigations. And there have been other ominous signs from the forthcoming administration. Trump didn’t hold a news conference for roughly two months after his election, while the incoming press shop and White House Correspondents Association have publicly tussled over official access such as press briefings and on-site workspaces.

 

If Trump’s unexpected political run is any indication, the past generation of access-driven journalism has neither deepened public understanding of national politics, nor endeared journalists to the public they purport to serve.

 

These recent developments—to say nothing of the long-term trends beneath them—have put the spotlight on a national media weakened by both budgetary cutbacks and a more open marketplace of information. And for Fournier, the White House veteran who recently left Washington, the situation calls for new and potentially uncomfortable tactics.

“If there’s going to be watchdogs, they need sharper teeth,” he says. “Why would a network let Trump on TV when he is not giving the public some information that’s of value? Now, that does raise a lot of questions and potential problems [for the media]. But we have to start thinking radically.”

The argument is easier to make for journalists no longer in Washington—and who no longer rely on access to the White House. If Trump’s unexpected political run is any indication, however, the past generation of access-driven journalism has neither deepened public understanding of national politics, nor endeared journalists to the public they purport to serve.

One outlet with experience with diminished access is BuzzFeed, which was barred from attending Trump events in an official capacity for months during the campaign. While acknowledging the challenges the ban presented, BuzzFeed’s DC Bureau Chief Kate Nocera sees value in the outside-in approach to covering the president-elect. Indeed, the outlet’s decision last week to publish unconfirmed details of an alleged Russian attempt to compromise Trump suggest that it’s comfortable with this approach.

“We were part of the blacklisted crew [during the campaign], and I don’t think it affected the way we covered him,” Nocera says. “Our position is always going to be that more access is better. But looking at Trump’s businesses, looking at how each agency is going to function within a Trump administration–those are all going to be huge stories, and they’re not coming from the Brady Briefing room.”

Detangling the news cycle from Trump’s Twitter outburst du juor, rethinking whether spin doctor aides deserve to be quoted, and scaled-back access may all combine to reduce the amount of Trump-centric content news organizations can produce. But at a more fundamental and important level, it’s worth asking how valuable that content actually is.

Even as journalists preach a gospel of open-mindedness and optimism, the staffing boom and increased focus on the new administration signal preparations for the battles to come. “Even in normal times, even with an everyday president, it’s an extraordinary challenge to try to keep on top of so many issues and to try to understand the nuances and complexities of all these different things going on at once,” the Times’s Baker says. “And this is not a normal circumstance.”

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David Uberti and Pete Vernon are CJR staff members. Uberti is a staff writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow and can be followed on Twitter @DavidUberti. Vernon is a CJR Delacorte Fellow and can be followed on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.