Facing the reality of President-elect Donald Trump’s impending inauguration, traditional media outlets can either band together in the face of Trump’s bullying anti-press tactics or risk being steamrolled by the incoming administration.
In interviews with Media Matters, journalists and other media experts argue that reporters need to be ready to recommit to solid, rigorous reporting to hold Trump accountable and to stand together in the face of the Trump administration’s inevitable anti-press crusade.
Since being elected, Trump has continued to lash out at critical media outlets through his Twitter account. At his long-delayed first press conference as president-elect last week, Trump berated CNN reporter Jim Acosta, refused to let him ask a question, and dubbed his network “fake news.” Other journalists who were gathered for the press conference essentially just watched.
Several experts told Media Matters that the Acosta incident highlights the need for journalists to stand up to Trump.
“Part of the problem here is the press is walking into a buzzsaw,” said Ken Auletta, media writer for The New Yorker. “There is a large percentage of the population that don’t believe us. Anytime a Jim Acosta raises his hand and tries to get the attention of the president-elect, there is a sizeable part of the population that says, ‘There they go again.’”
“You don’t get the public to pay attention by caving. We can’t be intimidated,” he said. “The fourth estate has a role to play. That role is we are representatives of the public -- we are supposed to ask the question to better inform the public.”
In an open letter to Trump, Columbia Journalism Review Editor-in-Chief Kyle Pope argued that the days of Trump trying to pit journalists against one another “are ending. We now recognize that the challenge of covering you requires that we cooperate and help one another whenever possible.” He added, “So, when you shout down or ignore a reporter at a press conference who has said something you don’t like, you’re going to face a unified front.”
Pope elaborated on his proposal in comments to Media Matters, writing, “Working together at press conferences could mean not asking a question until a shunned organization has had a chance to be answered; it could mean actually jointly working on stories that are beyond the capabilities of a single news organization, much like ProPublica and the NY Times do now; it definitely means calling attention to good work from our competitors that may not otherwise get adequate notice.”
Adam Clymer, a former longtime New York Times political reporter, said press organizations need to unify and keep tabs on Trump’s anti-press treatment, recalling when the National Press Club once issued a report on President Nixon’s lack of press conferences.
“In a public setting, a little solidarity is probably called for,” he said. “In public, they should not tolerate his picking on one person. That is intolerable.”
Walter Shapiro, a Roll Call correspondent whose experience also includes stints at The Washington Post and Time, predicts, “It is going to be more anti-press. … It is really important for the press to stand together.”
Media Matters president Angelo Carusone recently launched a petition on MoveOn.org calling on news organizations to stand up to Trump’s attempts to blacklist or ban critical news outlets. (As of January 19, the petition has more than 285,000 signatures.)
Lynn Walsh, president of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), told Media Matters that her group has heard from journalists who “feel threatened” by Trump’s behavior, and they are “talking internally about how we respond.”
She also said reporters must support each other, citing Shepard Smith of Fox News' quick defense of Acosta last week. SPJ is one of several journalism groups expected to co-sign a joint letter to Trump that raises concerns about his treatment of the press and his moves and plans to limit access, including possibly evicting journalists from the briefing room in the White House.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) and the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) issued a joint statement of concern last week about Trump’s press treatment following a meeting of 50 such groups last week.
It said, in part, “In discussing top priorities as the Trump administration takes shape, the group agreed that countering legal threats to reporters – such as leaks investigations, libel suits, and a disregard for the Freedom of Information Act – and promoting a public policy in support of the public’s right to know are crucial areas that require a unified response.”
The journalists Media Matters spoke to also highlighted Trump’s regular disregard for the truth and his complex conflict-of-interest entanglements as challenges media outlets need to overcome in order to properly cover a Trump administration.
“I think it is going to be very challenging. We have to develop new ways of getting around” attempts to limit access, said George Condon of National Journal, who has covered the White House since 1982 and served as WHCA president in 1993 and 1994. “We will see how much access we have, how the press conferences are and the daily press briefing. If something becomes a pattern, we’ll react. You have to do your job -- find out what the president is proposing, what it will cost, who it will affect.”
During the campaign, several veteran political reporters and journalists told Media Matters that one of the main deficiencies of media coverage of then-candidate Trump was a routine failure to follow up on important investigative reporting on Trump in favor of latching onto his outrageous comment du jour.
Steve Scully, C-SPAN senior executive producer and political editor and a former WHCA president, urged reporters to pick and choose what is important to cover and not get drawn into the outlandish story: “Don’t necessarily go for the shiny object; cover the substance. Is it harder? It is harder because he is very adept at trying to redirect the news cycle. We’ve never had somebody quite like Donald Trump in the White House. It is a whole set of new standards.”
As Media Matters and others have noted, during the transition, outlets have routinely dropped the ball -- especially in headlines -- by parroting Trump’s spin on current events without providing necessary context.
Lynn Walsh argued that media outlets need to be aggressive about highlighting falsehoods from the administration.
“If he is saying something that is incorrect, we have to say that is not true,” she said. “If it is incorrect or false, we absolutely have to say that is not true. We have to be better than we’ve ever been. We have to be accurate in our reporting and don’t put information out there that is false or misleading.”
“This is, I’m sure, going to be the most difficult administration ever to cover because of Trump, because of the internet, because of his apologists,” said Walter Mears, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Associated Press political reporter from 1956 to 2001. “I don’t think there is any question.”
“All you can do is listen, write down what he says, and be as aggressive as possible in finding out what’s behind it," Mears added. "He’s already demonstrated that he can misrepresent anything by simply saying his version of truth and he’s got a lot of people who will believe it.”
Several major news outlets, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Politico, have already announced plans to increase White House staffing, doubling it in some cases.
David Folkenflik, NPR's media correspondent, said it's going to be “very important to follow his business entanglements and legislation. The important thing is not to let the Trump administration off the hook and keep your eye on the ball. We have not heard a full picture of Trump’s relationship with the Russians.”
He added, “News organizations are going to have to scrutinize and disentangle some of the business relationships, his foreign entanglements, and policy decisions." Given the “combination of the lack of previous scrutiny of Trump and many of his most important figures and the skepticism to contempt he has for the roles the press plays in accountability and transparency,” media will "have to be willing to forgo access in order to serve the larger job.”