In a December 2 tweet that rattled embassies on the other side of the world, President-elect Donald Trump shredded nearly four decades of U.S. diplomatic protocol when he announced he had accepted a congratulatory call from Taiwan’s president. Seen as a public slight to China, which views Taiwan as a breakaway province, Trump’s move set off a flurry of international speculation and concern about America’s relationship with China, which boasts one of the most important economies in the world.
The next day, The New York Times heralded the news on the front page: “Trump Muddies China Relations With Taiwan Call.” What was so odd about the article -- yet what’s become such a hallmark of Trump transition coverage to date -- was that the Times was unable to provide any insight into why the president-elect had made such a baffling move. “Mr. Trump's motives in taking the call, which lasted more than 10 minutes, were not clear,” the paper conceded.
The Times didn’t publish a single quote, either on or off the record, from any Trump aides or advisers shedding light on the diplomatic controversy. Instead, the Times was left to quote Trump’s tweets on the topic of Taiwan tweets which, of course, are public and anyone can read.
That’s extraordinary. Yet sadly it’s also become the norm during the one month since Election Day. It wasn’t as if the Trump team, by its own standards, was being unusually secretive about Taiwan. It’s simply been unusually secretive about everything, leaving the press with few avenues of information. (Remember the time, days after the election, when the caught-in-the-dark press corps didn’t know where Trump was?)
Recall the Times’ front page on November 22, when the paper touted as the day’s biggest news offering a newly released YouTube clip from Trump in which he discussed the goals of his first 100 days. There again, locked out from any advisers with insights, reporters were reduced to transcribing the two-and-a-half-minute infomercial and treating it as breaking news (i.e. “Mr. Trump offered what he called an update on his transition”).
Question: Isn’t that more how monarchs and figureheads are covered, not presidents of the United States? I kept asking myself that question last Wednesday when CNN’s daytime coverage for hours revolved around the image of Trump’s plane sitting on a runway in preparation for his trip to Ohio. Is the nation that eager to catch a glimpse of Trump, who lost the popular vote in November and boasts a miserable favorable rating for a newly elected president?
Soon after the election, I warned that if journalists’ game plan in dealing with Trump was wishing and hoping that he’d change, then they’d be doomed, and so would news consumers. One month after the election, the doomsday appears to be looming larger.
And yes, the stakes are that high. “The Trump transition has put in stark relief the very foundations of the profession of journalism in modern America,” writes historian Rick Perlstein.
From Politico, here’s a quick reminder about how Trump openly disrespected the press this year, and will likely continue to do so:
He did not allow the press to travel with him on his plane, which meant they were not in his motorcade and often, because of travel snafus, were left behind. He’s banned outlets for months at a time and called out specific reporters he didn’t like. And despite the years of tradition that the White House allows journalists into the building, has them travel with the president in a protective pool and that the press secretary holds a daily briefing, none of that is guaranteed in any sort of law. It is just tradition, and not many believe a Trump White House will keep that going.
And don't forget, Trump hasn't held a press conference since late July.
Instead of Trump’s historic lack of access prompting the press to be even more aggressive and vigilant in its coverage, we seem to be entering Stockholm Syndrome territory, where too many battered journalists seem to think that if they’re nice to Trump and paint him as a success -- as taking on big business and scoring a big Carrier jobs victory -- that he’ll stop bullying them. They hope he’ll grant them access and won’t shred all White House press protocols starting next year.
But that ship has sailed, my friends. The best way for journalists to cover Trump moving forward is to assume they’ll never have any access. That means news organizations can, and should, stop fretting about possibly offending Trump. That opens up possibilities for detailed reporting on his sprawling web of conflicts. (Even if it arrives a bit late.)
And they should stop dancing around the fact that he constantly tells bald-faced lies. When Trump pushed out his fantasy that if it weren’t for “millions” of people who voted “illegally” he would’ve won the popular vote, way too many news outlets simply typed up the assertions without properly stressing that Trump’s claim was categorically false. (Even Trump’s attorneys don’t believe it.)
If the press can’t swiftly and collectively knock down this nonsense, journalists are opening the door to every conceivable crackpot claim in the near future. Is the press really prepared to play he said/he said with Trump and his surrogates about whether the earth is flat, or the moon is made of cheese? Because that’s the direction we’re heading in if Trump’s team is allowed to advance its preferred “post-truth” presidency, where there’s “no such thing” as facts.
Meanwhile, the timid press corps really needs to stop normalizing the outlier and radical nature of Trump’s transition and the people he’s appointing. During the first month of transition coverage, when not erroneously tapping Trump adviser and white nationalist Steven Bannon as a feel-good “populist,” journalists for weeks turned away from the dark, hateful rhetoric of retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who has been tapped to become Trump’s national security adviser.
One week before Election Day, Flynn, a high-profile Trump surrogate in the press, tweeted out a fake news article claiming Hillary Clinton was linked to “sex crimes with children.” That, of course, is insanely irresponsible behavior for any adult, let alone a retired general, let alone Trump’s soon-to-be national security advisor.
But for weeks, while profiling Flynn, the press politely looked away from the specific instance of him hyping a rancid allegation about Clinton. Instead, in long articles about Flynn, news consumers were told about Flynn’s “outspokenness,” his “fiery temperament,” how he throws “sharp elbows,” and isn’t afraid to “ruffle feathers.” Those were some ways that The Washington Post, CNN, the Times and NPR categorized Flynn’s erratic behavior. Yet none of those profiles mentioned his “sex crimes with children” tweet, which seems like a glaringly obviously example of Flynn's at-times shocking behavior.
Right after the election, the Post’s Margaret Sullivan rightfully urged her colleagues “to keep doing our jobs of truth-telling, challenging power and holding those in power accountable.”
Raise your hand if, over the last four weeks, you’ve been awed by the Beltway media’s tireless drive to hold Trump accountable.