Not since Vietnam has an American president conducted such a pointless and ultimately self-destructive war—that is, the escalating hostilities that Donald Trump and his White House staff have been waging against the Fourth Estate.
The president’s designation of The New York Times as “evil” in a hot stone massage of an interview published Tuesday by Breitbart News’s sycophantic Washington political editor, Matthew Boyle, is only the latest broadside in a series of attacks that began in 2015, when the former reality television star regularly called journalists “scum” and “the lowest form of life,” and frequently incited his wrathful campaign crowds against individual reporters on the press stand.
Even Jon Stewart, a severe critic of what he perceives as journalists’ laziness, superficiality, and self-aggrandizement, has leapt into the fray. During an antic appearance on Monday’s Late Show with Stephen Colbert, the former Daily Show host admonished the media: “I say stop your whining.”
The question is: Can or should members of the news media do anything collectively to answer Trump’s weaponized words?
“No, I think it’s hard to get a consensus on anything when you have a hundred reporters working the story,” said National Journal contributing editor Tom DeFrank, who began covering the White House for Newsweek magazine when Lyndon Johnson was president in 1968. “Trump is my 10th president. I think his attacks are part of a political strategy, which is unfortunate, because it’s ultimately divisive. Reporters should never give advice to presidents, but he’s better off being a uniter than a divider.”
DeFrank added: “What I’d like to see is this war dialed back to a ceasefire and maybe we can get to détente. And the press should report on the president as fairly and as honestly as it can and shrug off the epithets, although sometimes it’s hard.”
Former CNN Washington bureau chief Frank Sesno agreed that collective action is not in the cards. “I’m not sure what the White House press corps can do to rectify the situation. They don’t control it,” said Sesno, director of the school of media and public affairs at George Washington University. “What the White House Correspondents Association can do is advocate both privately and publicly for equitable treatment of legitimate news organizations, especially if there is systematic harassment or selective access to events that should be open-coverage…
“What won’t work and shouldn’t happen,” Sesno told The Daily Beast, “is the media getting into a public food fight with the White House. That’s not appropriate. The media shouldn’t make themselves the story.”
The battle reached DEFCON 1 last Friday when Trump declared journalists “the enemy of the American people” to ecstatic cheers at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
His embattled White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, then put teeth in that accusation by barring half a dozen major news organizations from an off-camera briefing in his office.
That move drew a “strong” protest from the WHCA, which released a statement “encourag[ing] the organizations that were allowed in to share the material with others in the press corps who were not.” The statement added: “The board will be discussing this further with White House staff.”
WHCA president Jeff Mason, a Reuters correspondent, told The Daily Beast: “It’s challenging to navigate the needs of the press corps while maintaining a tone that makes us on the WHCA board an honest broker with the White House… I think we have achieved significant results from our robust advocacy, although not everything has gone well.”
Mason—who was critiqued as not tough enough and possibly a “weenie” in a column this week by Poynter Institute media writer James Warren—has a nearly impossible job, dealing with a press secretary with a famously short fuse and trying to extract cooperation from a White House staff that takes its marching orders from the Leader of the Anti-Media World.
“Jeff Mason is a saint,” said Tom DeFrank, himself a former WHCA president during President Ronald Reagan’s first term.
Mason cites as victories the fact that Spicer holds near-daily briefings—something that was by no means assured in the days leading up to Trump’s inauguration. And in contrast to last Friday’s debacle, Tuesday’s “gaggle,” as an informal off-camera Q&A is called, was held not in Spicer’s office but in the James S. Brady Briefing Room, where there was plenty of room for all.
But in his column, Warren warned: “Friday’s outrage over the gaggle in Spicer’s office is a hint of things to come. It was a toe in the water. It’s like, as a friend puts it, ‘The Trump administration is basically boiling the frog, and the frog is better off not being tepid when the water turns lukewarm.’” (Mason declined to comment on Warren’s fault-finding.)
Warren also was dubious about the prospect of a news organizations banding together against the White House assaults.
“People in that place can’t even get an agreement on bullshit background briefings,” he told The Daily Beast, citing the age-old irritant of the White House insisting that reporters who attend certain policy briefings must agree not to use the briefers’ names, even if they happen to be members of the Cabinet.
Warren, a former top editor at the Chicago Tribune and an ex-Washington bureau chief of the New York Daily News, added that competitive pressures would likely discourage mainstream media outlets from boycotting background briefings, to say nothing of gaggles from which their counterparts had been barred.
“What happens when The Daily Caller gets this little nugget and beats us on it?” he told The Daily Beast, adding that perhaps a positive outcome of the toxic tension at the Trump White House is that fewer reporters will depend on access. “It’s especially egregious in Washington; too many journalists make a priority of getting access and end up being captives of the folks they’re reporting on. You might get a little morsel here and there, but you also get neutered, and too often in D.C., reporters are seeking access to get lied to.”
Spicer, a longtime Republican operative who was widely liked and respected by the Washington media, seems to have departed from protocol—and perhaps taken leave of his senses—by planting an apparently false derogatory item about Politico reporter Alex Isenstadt, who helped break the story of Spicer demanding his staff’s cellphones and giving them to the White House counsel’s office in order to examine and identify leakers.
According to Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple Spicer threatened Isenstadt with planting the nasty item during a phone interview—claiming that the reporter laughed about the death of Navy SEAL Ryan Owens (a claim Isenstadt denies), and then followed through with his threat, giving the story to the right-leaning Washington Examiner, which published it late Sunday.
“Here we have a White House official threatening to go to extreme lengths in an apparent effort to quash a pending story, or at least a component of it,” Wemple wrote. “That’s hardly a surprise given what that story itself documented about this man’s attempts to stifle leaks.”
Spicer couldn’t have been thrilled Tuesday when President Trump gave an interview to Fox & Friends in which he nit-picked the way the press secretary handled the cellphone incident.
“I would have done it differently,” Trump said. “I would have gone one-on-one with different people.”
The president added that Spicer is “a fine human being”—language similar to the words he used after firing then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
Spicer didn’t respond to a text message from The Daily Beast.
As for collective action against the White House machine, Kyle Pope, editor and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review, is a rare advocate of limited journalistic togetherness.
“I’m a fan of a bit more collaboration in support of people who get frozen out or shut out of briefings,” he said. “Reporters who are there should ask their [the outcasts’] question. It’s all one of the upsides of the White House’s attack on the press: It’s given journalists a renewed sense of their common purpose and mission, which is to report the news regardless of what this administration has to say about it.”
Meanwhile, as the president was trashing the Times as a spawn of Satan, the Trump-endorsing National Rifle Association reinforced that message, in what looked very much like a coordinated pincer movement, by posting a video Tuesday parodying the Times commercial that aired during the Oscar telecast.
The NRA’s spot claims that now that Trump is president, the truth doesn’t matter to the Times, which allegedly gave short shrift to Chicago crime and the attack in Benghazi because such stories would upset liberals and injure President Obama.
The Times fired back at the NRA: “Our commitment to the truth isn’t new, it dates back 166 years. And each and every story mentioned in their video, from Benghazi to crime in Chicago, was covered in deep and rich detail by Times reporters who in some cases—Libya, for instance—risked their lives to get at the truth.”
Jon Stewart, for his part, exhorted the media to stop “worrying about whether Trump is un-American or if he thinks you’re the enemy, or if he’s being mean to you or if he’s going to let you go back into the briefings. Do something for yourselves. Self-improvement. Take up a hobby. I recommend journalism.”