The Mar-a-Lago meeting and journalism’s worst impulses

December 19, 2016
Photo by Historic American Buildings Survey in Florida project

Even the photos were anachronisms: The 1980s-era gold leaf. The overflowing basket of Lay’s potato chips. The piles of roast beef.

The images, posted on social media on Sunday, were souvenirs from an off-the-record holiday party for the press at Mar-a-Lago, soon to be Donald Trump’s winter White House. And the money shot was a group photo, with a grinning Trump in the middle, surrounded by nearly two dozen of the people who soon will be tasked with covering the most press-hostile American president in modern history. 

So much for the prospect of a new journalistic golden age. 

In the weeks after Trump’s election–capping a campaign in which he ridiculed and taunted the press, threatened to loosen the nation’s libel laws, and encouraged his supporters to confront the traveling media pool–there has been much talk about how the press will cover Trump. Some have envisioned a dark era of Nixonion secrecy, or worse.

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But others, including CJR, saw the potential for a needed reckoning, especially for the White House press corps. The access journalism and Washington coziness that have infected national political coverage in recent years would necessarily disappear, given Trump’s clear disdain and antipathy for the people who would be covering him. In its place, we hoped for a new aggressiveness and a return to journalism’s more raucous roots.

None of that was on display in the photos from Mar-a-Lago, which seemed a throwback not just to 2015–before Trump had demonized the media and worked to turn a good chunk of the country against it–but to Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America,” the unofficial kickoff of the media lovefest with the White House establishment that would culminate, three and a half decades later, in the press’ epic misread of the electorate and its failure to grasp the fact that an outsider like Trump, who was entirely beyond their field of vision, could win the White House.

And right there, at the front of the new pack, was Mike Allen, formerly of Politico, tweeting out photos of the champagne and the food line and shilling for his high-priced new subscription news service, Axios, which will need to sign up as members the very people the new site will be tasked with covering. The wheel turns, and we end up right back where we started.

Related: Journalists too easily charmed by power, access, and creamy risotto

It’s reassuring, in a way, that the response to the Trump party photos has been swift and negative. Many reporters, who note that the president-elect has yet to hold a formal news conference, have taken to Twitter to catcall the Florida party and the discredited approach to journalism it represents. Media organizations whose reporters were there (including Bloomberg, CNN, BuzzFeed, and NBC News) will be forced, at the very least, to defend their decision to join in the president-elect for his thumbs-up photo op.

The responses will be familiar: Would it have been better not to have gone, and thus get zero access? Do you really think it’s that easy to taint our coverage? A little jealous you weren’t there?

That we’re back here again, only months after journalism was supposed to have learned some important lessons, is disheartening. Old habits, even those that got us nowhere, are harder to kick than we thought. Especially when they come with free food and some Trump-branded champagne. 

Kyle Pope was the editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review. He is now executive director of strategic initiatives at Covering Climate Now.