To say that during his roughly year and a half long campaign, Donald Trump had a less than civil relationship with the media would be a gross understatement. On the campaign trail he would frequently revoke certain news organizations’ access to his events if he didn’t like their coverage, going so far as to single out reporters he despised. He never let the press enter his campaign plane and hasn’t held a legitimate press conference since July. And even after taking office, Trump has ditched his standard White House press pool to among other things go out to dinner with his family. None of these actions have instilled any degree of confidence in reporters, especially those whose beat is the White House.
As a member of the press myself, I was keenly interested in the news Monday that president-elect Donald Trump took a meeting with some of the biggest names in TV news, from anchors like Lester Holt and George Stephanopoulos to major executives from all the networks. The meeting unsurprisingly enough consisted largely of Trump disparaging the representatives for coverage he deemed “deceitful, dishonest.” The whole proceeding was established beforehand as off-the-record, but not even a few hours later miraculously the New York Post had a story about the meeting and how much Trump had reprimanded the TV news elite. Media columnists from the Washington Post Erik Wemple and Margaret Sullivan explain just what happened very well here:
While it could never be proven that it was the Trump administration who provided the leak, the provision for off-the-record nevertheless gave Trump a chance to control the story the way he wanted, thoroughly berate the reporters he had despised since the campaign’s initiation and there was nothing they could do about it. Once again Trump used the media to his advantage in order to further his own interests.
Then just a day later Trump had scheduled a meeting at the New York Times to presumably have a discussion with a similar flavor. At first Trump actually cancelled the meeting, tweeting this:
And then not even 30 minutes later:
In fact, the Times staff actually only learned that the meeting was off from Trump’s tweets. But Trump did finally agree to meet and luckily this time the media had learned its lesson because their conversation was not off-the-record and Times reporters were live tweeting the whole time. While Trump eventually delved into his stances on issues and took important questions from the staff, he did begin the talk just like the one on Monday, by thoroughly rebuking the reporters for their coverage:
“I have great respect for the New York Times. I have tremendous respect,” Trump said, according to the Times’ Mike Grynbaum. But, he added, “I think I’ve been treated very rough… I will say the Times is about the roughest of all.” According to Grynbaum, Trump also said, “You could make the case the Washington Post was bad, but every once in while I actually got a good article.”
The Times then published an in-depth article describing exactly what was talked about, giving them a chance to control the story in this instance and providing full transparency to the public. While some of the discussion was productive, a lot of the time Trump defiantly refused to waver on certain criticisms, such as the one I wrote about earlier this week regarding possible conflicts of interest in the White House.
Both of these meetings demonstrate a dangerous possible precedent for the Trump presidency moving forward. Press access to the president is one of the greatest checks on power for the executive branch – in many situations the media is the sole watchdog on presidential authority and providing that level of transparency is a key public service. But even more worrisome as this BBC article explains, is that the public does not seem to hold this role in as high a regard as they did in the past:
“[Trump] uses the media as a punching bag. He fights dirty, unleashing tirades and bashing reporters on Twitter. This puts journalists in a bad spot. When it comes to covering Trump, it seems, they can’t win. They report the facts – or try to – but people still don’t like them.”
This puts the press in an increasingly impossible situation, faced on one hand with a president notorious for secrecy, blatant lies and an eagerness to control the message, and on the other a country that is growing steadily more tired of their coverage of Trump (even when they call him out on the lies). It remains to be seen exactly how reporting will work moving forward: will Trump continue to demand more meetings be off-the-record? Will Trump keep tweeting angry messages to the press once he assumes the Oval Office? Will there even be a press corp in this White House? All very important questions to consider.