Photo by Karla Ann Cote (Creative Commons).
On Monday, the world got a glimpse of what journalism will look like during Donald Trump’s presidency. Trump invited a group of television anchors and executives to Trump Tower for an off-the-record meeting. Thinking that the meeting would be about the days ahead as Trump prepares to take office, some of the most influential people in TV showed up. But instead of talking about their working relationship, Trump berated the journalists, criticizing reporters for the way they covered his campaign, giving right-wing outlets like Breitbart fodder to proclaim “Trump Eats Press.” This was a media stunt, through and through. The only thing unusual about it is that journalists were the ones being hoodwinked.
Trump has gotten a lot of applause from supporters for railing against the press. On the campaign trail, he attacked both individual journalists—calling them “sleaze,” “dishonest,” “pathetic”—and media in general, dismissing journalism as “disgusting and corrupt.” At Trump rallies, reporters were kept in little media pens so he could single them out as a group for the audience to boo. As writer Seth Stevenson noted after Election Day, “We were a vital element in Trump’s performance. He never once failed to invite his crowds to heckle us. He was placing us on display like captured animals.” But even as he’s ragging on reporters to promote the idea that he’s a misunderstood martyr in some way, press coverage has helped Trump, not hurt him. During the campaign, he got mountains of free publicity, his ever-incendiary statements, racist antics, and wildly unreasonable policy ideas edging more critical issues off the front page. Even now, the news of him settling a $25 million lawsuit for students who were defrauded by Trump University isn’t getting as much air time as his tiff with the cast of Hamilton.
In addition to that, the efforts of media outlets to be neutral leads to a journalistic cognitive dissonance. A story saying Trump disavows right-wing extremism and promises to refuse to hire racists runs right alongside a story about how his pick for national security advisor has promoted Sharia law conspiracy theories. During the campaign—and now—reporters striving for neutrality instead paint Trump in a softer light than he appears in reality, describing him as a “controversial outsider,” for example, instead of “bigoted.”
All of this is a lesson in what journalists’ roles need to be under Trump, or any president: to be critical. Instead of just reporting each new missive from Trump at face value, media outlets need to weigh their truth and present them with context rather than as stand-alone promises and remarks. Some outlets are certainly wising up. When Trump demanded an off-the-record meeting with the New York Times on Tuesday, the paper’s editors said they would be happy to meet, but not off-the-record. Trump petulantly cancelled the meeting, then reinstated it and talked publicly. Playing by Trump’s rules—signing his nondisclosure agreements and standing in his media pens—is extremely dangerous. It allows him to control the narrative. And in Trump’s narrative, he always knows best.