— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 26, 2016
The headlines from the latest drama between Donald Trump and Fox News offer a pretty good snapshot into the story of the GOP presidential candidate and anchor Megyn Kelly: Trump Manager: ‘Megyn Kelly Is Totally Obsessed With Mr. Trump,’ Donald Trump refuses to debate, calls Fox’s Megyn Kelly ‘a lightweight,’ Fox News says Donald Trump is afraid of Megyn Kelly.
If you’re a voter, a Trump-watcher, a Fox News-viewer or many other hyphenated things, Donald Trump’s refusal to participate in a debate with Fox News’ Megyn Kelly might be a fun sideshow. But for editors and managers, it offers some big leadership lessons, too. To get some perspective, I spoke with Los Angeles Times Washington Bureau Chief David Lauter, Margaret Freivogel, the now-retired editor of St. Louis Public Radio (and my former boss), Poynter’s Butch Ward, and Robyn Tomlin, vice president and managing editor of The Dallas Morning News. Here are some of the lessons they shared:
First, just listen.
“If you believe in your staff, then you should be able to support them in the face of criticism,” Ward said in a phone interview. “I think the important ingredient is to be willing to listen to the complaints of the public official.”
That doesn’t mean you’re caving to that official, but you’ll gain credibility if you’re willing to listen and check out the complaint, no matter who it comes from.
“Whether it’s a public official or someone who works in the local bakery, when someone calls with a complaint about our coverage, we should listen, we should investigate and we should respond,” Ward said.
Freivogel, who covered Washington for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, agreed.
“You have to listen first with an open mind to complaints that sources make and determine whether a reporter has indeed been fair,” she said in an email. “If there’s a problem, then it must be handled.”
Conflicts between journalists and public figures are inevitable, Tomlin said.
“The first thing I try to do is take a step back, do a little reporting and look at the situation through the eyes of the person who is complaining. Does s/he have a fair point? Is there a way we might have handled a story or situation better? Is the story accurate and fair? If there is a reasonable cause for concern, obviously you have to deal with that directly and diplomatically,” Tomlin said in an e-mail. “In cases where the concern is personality based or patently unreasonable, you have to consider the best way to stand your ground and defend your organization’s work. In the past, I’ve addressed concerns like these in an editor’s column or a blog post. I’ve also tried to meet with the person and talk through the issues directly. Ideally you can de-escalate the situation, but not at the expense of your organization’s reputation and credibility. Failing that, you just do your best to set the record straight for your readers as best you can.”
And Lauter has seen situations where an upset candidate or campaign staffer just wanted the opportunity to vent for awhile, “and you do that, and it blows over.”
Remember, this can be a campaign strategy.
Venting can make things better. But sometimes, candidates and campaigns are looking for a chance to make the media the enemy.
“And when that’s the case, you just have to recognize that that’s what’s happened and not let it get under your skin,” Lauter said in a phone interview. “You don’t want to let them start playing with your head.”
Ride it out, he said. “There’s not really a good option of surrendering to it.”
In the case of Fox News and Trump, the network has stood by its anchor, “which is important for them, and I think that’s the right thing to do,” he said. “It would be pretty damaging for them and for media in general if they were to say ‘oh well, if one candidate objects, we’re going to change the lineup.'”
Most news organizations don’t have the money or clout in the political marketplace that Fox has, he said.
“Fox can go up against even a candidate like Trump and be fairly confident that it’s all gonna be OK. I think for a lot of smaller news organizations, particularly if you’re dealing with a higher-profile candidate, editors can get intimidated. And that’s where you begin to have difficulties.”
If a candidate or campaign refuses access to a reporter or a news organization, you can still cover what’s happening.
“Technology has made it easier,” Lauter said. “Practically every live event at this point is available on a live-stream.”
It’s now possible to keep up in ways that it wasn’t possible even four years ago, he said.
And if they’re blocking you, it probably won’t last for long.
“It’s not usually in their interest to do that,” Lauter said.
So even if they’re publicly posturing, you may be hearing from people associated with the campaign who want to get their message out and preserve the relationship.
Don’t be bullied.
The Los Angeles Times has had several instances when a politician or campaign has attacked the paper and reporters for coverage. Before former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s won a recall election, the paper ran a piece about his history of offensive behavior toward women. The Schwarzenegger camp wasn’t happy and went after both the paper and the reporters, Lauter said.
“I think the most basic advice is you can’t allow public officials or candidates for public office to pick and choose which reporters get to cover them. You just can’t do that. Once you start going down that road, there’s just no end to it.”
Freivogel hasn’t faced a situation like the standoff between Trump and Fox, but she has run into “many instances where people are unhappy with a reporter,” she said.
“In general, the prevailing principle should be that news organizations must make independent decisions about who covers stories and how they are covered,” Freivogel said. “News organizations shouldn’t give in to bullying by sources. This is important for maintaining integrity and trust.”
In the fight between Trump and Kelly, Freivogel is glad to see Fox stand its ground.
“Many politicians complain about how they are covered, but Trump has taken it to an extreme. I’ll be interested to see how the repercussions play out.”
Editor’s note: We’ve added comments from Robyn Tomlin.