When Donald Trump emerged from gold-plated elevator doors into a Trump Tower lobby Wednesday morning, so many of the journalists arrayed before him thrust their smartphones upward that us poor souls in the back could hardly catch a real-life glimpse. The content gods require constant offerings, after all, and even grainy iPhone pics will temporarily suffice.
Likewise, when the mercurial president-elect stood behind the lectern, eyes wandering over a room with marble walls broken up by ads for the Gucci store next door, the raised hands were too numerous to count. “Mr. President-elect!” the horde of journalists seemed to plead in unison, each hoping to be bestowed with a prized question-asking opportunity. Only a few would be so lucky.
If the soon-to-be leader of the free world’s long-awaited press conference taught us anything, it’s that he’s the same Trump who whipped up crowds against a monolithic “crooked media” on the campaign trail. The event was seen by journalists as a long-awaited chance to hold Trump’s feet to the fire. The president-elect, ever the showman, had his own plans.
In the front row of this scrum sat Jim Acosta, the well-coiffed senior White House Correspondent for CNN, one of the news organizations Trump has portrayed as a sort of political foil. The night before, CNN published an anonymously sourced report claiming that both Trump and President Obama had been briefed on Russian efforts to compromise the reality-TV-star-turned-president-elect. BuzzFeed followed soon after by posting a set of memos revealing unverified details of this alleged effort. Though Trump faced the press on Wednesday in front of a row of 10 American flags lined before a navy blue curtain, the supposed bombshell reports comprised the news conference’s real backdrop.
Acosta wasn’t satisfied as just another hand-raising face in the crowd, particularly given that a good part of the event was dedicated to bashing the unfavorable coverage from the previous day. “Mr. President-elect, since you’re attacking our news organization, can you give us a chance to ask a question?” Acosta cried after Trump criticized CNN in an answer.
“Not you,” Trump squawked, waving a hand as if to get the CNN correspondent out of his hair. The pair continued talking over each other for maybe 20 seconds. “Don’t be rude,” Trump finished. “I’m not going to give you a question. You are fake news.” Acosta finally relented as another member of the ravenous press corp proceeded with their own ask. And why wouldn’t they?
The media has crusaded against fake news since Trump’s election, and now Trump is turning the buzzword into a politicized monster outside of journalists’ control.
The tense moment was notable in a few respects. For one, it provided a snapshot of the broader collective-action problem for a fragmented and hypercompetitive media as it faces a particularly bellicose politician. What’s more, Trump’s singling out of Acosta served to lump together CNN’s conservative approach to the Russia allegations with BuzzFeed’s more controversial tactics. The “fake news” charge, meanwhile, nodded to the incoming administration’s apparent strategy for responding to any negative coverage going forward. The media has crusaded against fake news since Trump’s election, and now Trump is turning the buzzword into a politicized monster outside of journalists’ control.
That’s a point worth underscoring. Team Trump launched rapid-fire broadsides on the reporters and camera crews in the room, who were cramped against long tables as if lined up for target practice. It made for easy shooting, and Trump supporters on the sidelines cheered loudly when each putdown found its mark.
BuzzFeed is a “failing pile of garbage,” Trump said. BBC News? “That’s another beauty,” he crowed. When a journalist pushed Trump on how his refusal to release tax returns broke decades of precedent, the president-elect retorted, “Gee, I haven’t heard that before.” Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign strategist and now one of his lead spin doctors on cable programs, cackled in the shadows. Even a few journalists could be heard snickering at the insults.
Incoming Press Secretary Sean Spicer set the stage for Trump’s media criticism early on, opening the event by criticizing BuzzFeed as a “left-wing blog” that conducted a “sad and pathetic” attempt to get clicks. Incoming Vice President Mike Pence went a step further, adding: “The American people are sick and tired of [media bias]….Today, we get back to real news.” I counted Trump and his aides use the term “fake news” eight times in denouncing the press wholesale, though PEOTUS also shared a few compliments for outlets that didn’t report on the chilling revelations. Such mixed messages are a fixture of Trump’s communications strategy, if it can be called that.
Perhaps more importantly, given pent-up questions from months without a news conference, Wednesday’s event oscillated among so many disparate topics that it seemed to buffer Trump from pointed questions on any one of them. Meanwhile, positioned next to Trump were teetering stacks of manila folders, which the Trump camp claimed proved the official transfer of his business interests to his sons. It’s unclear what was actually in those folders, though they surely made it into much of the photographic and TV coverage of the event.
After Trump ended the event with his signature catchphrase—“You’re fired”—the din of clamoring journalists momentarily waned as the room exhaled. “Mr. Trump, this is RT!” a reporter near the back offered in one parting potshot. Trump didn’t seem to notice as he scurried past a tailcoat-wearing elevator attendant and into a lift. The gold-plated doors closed on the president-elect and his press conference, reflecting a roomful of journalists in a particularly Trumpian hue.David Uberti is a writer in New York. He was previously a media reporter for Gizmodo Media Group and a staff writer for CJR. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.