President Donald Trump and his top aides have spent the first weeks of his tenure at war with the press, viciously lashing out at journalists and seeking to delegitimize outlets that produce critical reporting.
But Trump doesn’t consider every reporter a dishonest member of the opposition party. As he has sought to make clear over the past few days, it is only the “fake news” outlets that he considers to be “the enemy of the people.”
Such outlets include The New York Times, the broadcast networks, and CNN, among others -- in reality, Trump uses “fake news” as a broad term to cover any report that paints him in a negative light.
But Trump has his favorites as well. And yesterday he rewarded Breitbart.com’s Matt Boyle and the hosts of Fox & Friends with exclusive Oval Office interviews prior to tonight’s speech before a joint session of Congress.
It’s no secret why they would be granted such an honor -- Boyle and the hosts of Fox's morning show are known as major Trump fans, and they have provided him with overwhelmingly supportive commentary for years. It is that brand of fervent support and obsequious shilling that Trump appears to expect from journalists.
Indeed, Trump made a point of praising them all during the interviews, to their obvious pleasure.
Fox’s Steve Doocy began their interview by thanking Trump for “the shoutout you gave at your press conference” on February 17 (amid more than 30 attacks on the press, Trump called the Fox & Friends hosts “honorable people” who run “the most honest morning show”).
Trump responded, “That’s true -- you have treated me very fairly,” and said that the other networks “know it’s true.”
Breitbart’s transcript omits any introductory chitchat, but at one point Trump tells Boyle that “there are some great reporters like you,” citing him and one other journalist as “honorable reporters” who are not part of what he termed “the fake media, where they make up everything there is to make up.” The comment was prominently highlighted in Boyle’s write-up.
When Trump singles out Boyle and the hosts of Fox & Friends for praise and access, he makes clear that work like theirs is what he expects from journalists. Those who do not fall in line and behave in the same way risk becoming the victim of one of the president’s attacks.
Based on the interviews Breitbart and Fox produced, all journalists need to do to gain the respect of the White House is become propagandists for the administration. Here’s what that takes:
Find Time To Praise Trump On Issues He Cares About
Donald Trump is the world’s most powerful snowflake.
Perhaps because he has spent his entire life in a wealth and power bubble that has shielded him from criticism, his ego requires careful attention and management.
“The key to keeping Trump’s Twitter habit under control, according to six former campaign officials, is to ensure that his personal media consumption includes a steady stream of praise,” Politico reported last week. “And when no such praise was to be found, staff would turn to friendly outlets to drum some up — and make sure it made its way to Trump’s desk.”
Interviewers who want to remain off of Trump’s “enemy of the American people” list can help their cause by piling on the praise.
During the Fox & Friends interview, both Doocy and Brian Kilmeade sought to feed Trump’s ego by stressing his popular support. Kilmeade claimed that tonight’s speech will have the biggest audience of any “State of the Union-like address” ever. Doocy told Trump that there are “people who are counting on you all across the country and all around the world.” “The love is great,” Trump replied.
Doocy even made a point of complimenting Trump’s “beautiful hotel.”
Boyle avoided this sort of direct praise in the transcript. But given that he literally appeared at Trump’s election victory party in a “Make America Great Again” hat, he probably didn’t need to offer any more.
Give Trump Space To Bash The Media -- And Join In If You Can
If you want to avoid being one of the journalists Trump hates, you better not show solidarity with outlets he’s criticized.
That means that when Trump starts ranting about the press during an interview, you cannot defend your colleagues. The hosts of Fox & Friends put on a clinic this morning on how to do nothing while the president is lashing out at the “dishonest media.”
Boyle went even further during his interview, siding with Trump to attack the Times for what he called a “pretty embarrasing story,” and even raising the question of whether Trump should retaliate against “CNN’s pretty bad behavior” by opposing its parent company’s merger. Trump responded to this explicit call for authoritarian action by refusing to rule it out.
BNN: “Right and that’s what I wanted to zone in on with you because I know you made that very clear in your CPAC speech. Can you kind of more clearly define what standards and quality we should expect from those who are doing reporting?”
POTUS: “It’s intent. It’s also intent. If you read the New York Times, if you read the New York Times, it’s—the intent is so evil and so bad. The stories are wrong in many cases, but it’s the overall intent. Look at that paper over the last two years. In fact, they had to write a letter of essentially apology to their subscribers because they got the election so wrong. They did a front page article on women talking about me, and the women went absolutely wild because they said that was not what they said. It was a big front-page article, and the Times wouldn’t even apologize and yet they were wrong. You probably saw the women. They went on television shows and everything.”
BNN: “Yes, it was pretty embarrassing for the Times.”
POTUS: “[They said] ‘we really like Donald Trump and he [the Times reporter] totally misrepresented us. He said he was going to say good and it was absolutely bad.’ This was a front page article, almost the entire top half of the New York Times, and it was false. It was false. Did they apologize? No. I call them the failing New York Times and they write lies. They write lies. Nobody would know that. For instance, when people read the story on the women—first of all, the reporter who wrote the story has a website full of hatred of Donald Trump. So, he shouldn’t be allowed to be a reporter because he’s not objective. It’s not all, but it has many negative things about Donald Trump. But he shouldn’t be allowed to write on Donald Trump. And, he writes that story. But that’s one of many. So, when you read the Sunday New York Times, it’s just hit after hit after hit. And honestly, I think people are wise to it because if you look at the approval rating, you see it’s down. You know, it’s gone. There’s very little approval.”
BNN: “Now, during the campaign, one of the things you and a lot of your campaign guys like Peter Navarro talked about was breaking up some of these oligopolies in the media. If you look at the media, part of the problem seems to be that a vast majority of the media companies are owned by just a handful of different companies. Obviously, there’s a looming merger between AT&T and Time Warner. I wanted to see what your thoughts are on that and if CNN’s pretty bad behavior over the course of—they really don’t seem to be making an effort to get it right—does that give you hesitation in terms of approval of the deal?”
POTUS: “I don’t want to comment on any specific deal, but I do believe there has to be competition in the marketplace and maybe even more so with the media because it would be awfully bad after years if we ended up having one voice out there. You have to have competition in the marketplace and you have to have competition among the media. And I’m not commenting on any one deal, but you need competition generally and you certainly need it with media.”
Provide An Open Platform For Trump To Lash Out At His Enemies
Trump has a lot of perceived enemies outside of the press. He appreciates it when interviewers give him an open-ended chance to attack them, and don’t follow up.
Here’s Brian Kilmeade doing that with regard to President Obama, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and the protestors who are resisting Trump’s agenda.
Boyle similarly asked Trump what his “thoughts are on the new Democratic chair.”
Don’t Question Trump’s Facts
Trump lies constantly, on matters great and small, for political reasons or for none. It’s nearly impossible for an interviewer to keep up with the sheer volume of falsehoods Trump spews.
And if they want to stay on Trump’s good side, they won’t try.
The Fox & Friends and Breitbart interviews were both characterized by a dearth of fact-checking -- or even follow-ups. The toughest question in either encounter was probably Doocy’s inquiry about how Trump intended to pay for additional defense spending -- and Doocy completely rolled over as Trump offered some pablum about how economic growth will fill in the gaps.
Dubious statements from Trump on immigration policy, Obamacare, and a raid in Yemen that the president ordered were all treated with aplomb. Trump wants interviewers to give him a platform to get his message out without impediment, and these three provided that chance.
Stay Away From Difficult Topics
Trump-friendly interviewers know to skip pesky questions about topics the president would rather avoid.
While both Breitbart and Fox & Friends made time to discuss the Oscars ceremony, neither mentioned mounting concerns about the new revelation that White House chief of staff Reince Priebus asked the FBI to publicly rebut reports that Trump campaign officials had been in contact with Russian intelligence agents.
There was no mention of retired Lieut. Gen. Michael Flynn, who stepped down as national security advisor when it was revealed that he had lied about a phone conversation he had with the Russian ambassador to the United States late last year. Other Trump nominees who have stepped down amid controversy also didn’t come up.
Neither interview featured discussion of Trump’s unprecedented conflicts of interest, or the floundering executive order targeting refugees and travelers from majority-Muslim countries, or the wave of anti-Semitic attacks that have occurred during the first weeks of Trump’s presidency.
The best thing journalists can do to curry favor with Trump is to ask him only about topics he wants to be asked about.
Or they can do their jobs.