If Donald Trump achieves nothing else as the nation’s chief executive and Leader of the Free World, he will be justified in claiming credit for casting the media establishment into a yawning abyss of fear and chaos.
“I think Trump has created his own parallel media universe,” said Frank Sesno, CNN’s former Washington bureau chief and now director of the school of media and public affairs at George Washington University. “And it’s a parallel media universe that exists in defiance of the mainstream media—and, in fact, has declared war on the mainstream media, and in the process has a lot of citizens believing that the mainstream media is not merely adversarial but an enemy state.”
Trump communications adviser Jason Miller, who is pursuing constructive engagement with reporters during the presidential transition, put a more benign spin on the situation.
“It’s never about going around the media. It’s all about communicating our message to voters,” he told The Daily Beast. “Mr. Trump has dealt with the press over decades in New York, and he’s led one of the most visible public lives our country has ever seen…Our goal is: How do we communicate to folks in the most direct fashion?”
Yet Trump’s anti-media strategy, like much else about him, is nothing if not contradictory. He followed up a reportedly savage session Monday with network and cable television executives and anchors—who breathed the oxygen of endless airtime into his longshot campaign—with a cordial lunch Tuesday with editors and reporters of the New York Times, who ran damaging story after damaging story about Trump’s personal history, policy positions, and business practices.
The erstwhile Apprentice star and real estate mogul—who spent decades using the Times, celebrity mags, tabloid gossip columns and reality television to build his surname into a valuable business brand, with journalists (including this one) his willing accomplices—spent much of the 2016 campaign successfully demonizing the Fourth Estate, regularly inciting anger at his rallies against a profession populated, he insisted, by “dishonest…despicable…scum.”
What’s more, Trump has also worked to delegitimize the once-trusted journalism institution in the minds of millions of Americans who get their news (some of it fake) from Twitter rants and Facebook feeds.
Powered by messaging and data-mining technologies that were simply unavailable to his predecessors, even the tech-savvy Barack Obama, it’s a strategy that Trump is likely to take into the White House, according to people who toiled on his campaign and know him well.
“The narrative that the president-elect was able to use to get elected and win voter support was to tout this antagonism against the mainstream media,” said Republican policy analyst Sam Nunberg, who was fired from the Trump campaign last year amid controversy over racially charged Facebook posts. “I think he’s going to have to continue that narrative.”
A second former Trump campaign adviser predicted: “They will get around the national media with social media, and they will do it in ways that will shock everyone.” This person, who asked not to be further identified, noted that Trump’s utterances on social media—where he boasts more than 35 million combined followers and “likes” on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter—regularly attract not millions but billions of impressions (the term of art for the times an item is viewed online).
“We’re in for another seismic shift of your industry”—which has suffered with the advent of the Web from falling advertising and subscription revenue, as well as plunging circulation and balkanized viewership—“and this one is driven by something much more powerful. Trump is much more powerful than the forces of nature,” the former adviser said.
For instance, Trump’s data-analysis operation, with the goal of micro-targeting potential voters in swing states and finding the best ways to persuade them, was catastrophically underestimated by Hillary Clinton’s campaign, possibly because Trump famously dismissed the importance of spending money on data and polling (even though his campaign ended up spending tens of millions on each).
“They drilled down to ridiculous levels,” said the ex-adviser, referring to the Trump campaign’s San Antonio-based digital operation that employed astrophysicists and data scientists from Cambridge Analytica, the London-based company owned by right-wing billionaire Robert Mercer and his Trump-backing daughter Rebekah, also major investors in the Trump-friendly Breitbart News Network from which sprang Stephen K. Bannon, the freshly anointed senior presidential adviser with ties to the so-called alt-right. “They could tell you how many dog-owners there were in Portland, Oregon, who drank lattes.”
Directly communicating with millions of Americans via email, Facebook and Twitter—and without the intercession (or perhaps even the awareness) of journalists— “I think Donald Trump is going to alter the way media covers the president,” the former adviser predicted. “We have seen him blackball reporters and outlets because he can get his message out there, and go around NBC News, go around the New York Times and the Washington Post, and go directly to the citizens.”
All modern presidents have chafed at their coverage by an often skeptical press corps, and all have tried with varying degrees of success to bypass through calibrated messages and images the media middlemen who interpret, rebut, deride and otherwise filter the White House’s efforts to convince the citizenry.
Frank Sesno, who covered Ronald Reagan’s White House back in the last century, recalled that the media was always viewed as a “biased adversary.”
“But Mike Deaver knew he needed the media to get the message out, and he once told me, ‘My job is to like the press,’ ” Sesno recalled, referring to Reagan’s closest aide and image-protector. “He needed the media to light the president. But Trump can light himself. Deaver needed the networks. Trump knows he doesn’t need the networks anymore. He can light himself—and that’s what he does.”
As president-elect—having won a brutal contest that journalism’s elite confidently predicted he would lose, and lose badly, to someone far more qualified and better suited—Trump has continued to pursue a political communications strategy that’s been at once confoundingly unpredictable and stunningly effective.
Trump’s lunchtime visit Tuesday to The New York Times—a publication he constantly derides as “failing” and “unfair”—demonstrated his talent for keeping otherwise self-assured reporters and editors uncomfortably off-balance.
In terms of gamesmanship, it was of a piece with the president-elect’s reportedly acrid Monday afternoon session in Trump Tower with three dozen television news executives and on-air personalities—which a source described to The New York Post as a “fucking firing squad” with the president-elect dressing down his guests and singling out CNN President Jeff Zucker for special abuse, declaring, “I hate your network, everyone at CNN is a liar and you should be ashamed.’”
New Yorker editor David Remnick reported that an attendee told him “that Trump’s behavior was ‘totally inappropriate’ and ‘fucking outrageous.’ The television people thought that they were being summoned to ask questions; Trump has not held a press conference since late July. Instead, they were subjected to a stream of insults and complaints—and not everyone absorbed it with pleasure.”
Remnick’s report continued: “ ‘I have to tell you, I am emotionally fucking pissed,’ another participant said. ‘How can this not influence coverage? I am being totally honest with you. Toward the end of the campaign, it got to a point where I thought that the coverage was all about [Trump’s] flaws and problems. And that’s legit. But, I thought, O.K., let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. After the meeting today, though—and I am being human with you here—I think, Fuck him! I know I am being emotional about it. And I know I will get over it in a couple of days after Thanksgiving. But I really am offended. This was unprecedented. Outrageous!’ ”
The next morning, Trump abruptly cancelled his on-the-record appointment with the Times, using his preferred medium, Twitter, shortly after 6 a.m., claiming inaccurately, if not dishonestly, that he did so “when the terms and conditions of the meeting were changed at the last moment. Not nice.”
“We were unaware that the meeting was cancelled until we saw the President Elect’s tweet this morning,” the Times responded in a statement, noting that it was Trump’s representatives, not the Times, who tried the day before to rescind the deal and keep the meeting off the record. “We did not change the ground rules at all,” the Times added, “and made no attempt to.”
A mere four hours later, Trump tweeted that he’d had a change of heart, and ultimately showed up in the Times Building’s 16th floor boardroom with future White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, campaign manager Kellyanne Conway and other aides for a wide-ranging Q&A, over a largely untouched meal of salmon, beef tenderloin, squash and cupcakes.
If all that were not perplexing enough, Trump—who couldn’t resist trashing the Times right before lunch, tweeting that its reporters “continue to cover me inaccurately and with a nasty tone!”—left the apparently cordial session by telling his doubtless baffled hosts, including Publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., that their “failing” newspaper is “a great, great American jewel—world jewel.”
Machiavellian antics? An attempt to sow confusion? Mere whim? Only the 45th president knows for sure.
So, how are working reporters going to meet the unprecedented challenges of the coming Trump White House?
“I think journalists should keep being journalists,” Josh Marshall, editor and publisher of the Talking Points Memo, told The Daily Beast. “I think we need more and better journalism. I think our job is to find news and report it and do those jobs well, which of course we haven’t always done. Getting people who are reading fake news or tendentious news sources to believe it is another story. Getting it to have an effect is another story. But I see those things as largely the domain of the political realm. My sense is we get off track if we depart from that core mission.”
Kyle Pope, editor and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review, actually sees a silver lining in the 45th president’s attitude.
“I think that there is a clarity in this moment. For the first time in a while, the relationship between the political reporters and the presidency is not murky,” Pope said. “There was an era of access journalism where you could argue that maybe journalists got a little too close to the people they were supposed to cover. This is not that moment. It’s a very clear oppositional setup. There can be no doubt what Trump thinks. He doesn’t like the press. He wants to antagonize and threaten reporters. And I think it will serve the media well going into it, knowing what that relationship is.”