How to cover Trump without getting sucked into his war on the media

#TrueNews: A series on Trust in Media

This is the third installment of our series of reports from our inaugural ethics summit in Washington, D.C.

In the latest volleys in an endless war on the media, President Trump plucked arrows this week from his favorite quivers: hardball legal threats, all-CAPS Twitter rants and reality TV’s grab bag of hyperbole and cliffhangers.

Thursday, the president enlisted the lawyer who brought down the media website Gawker to halt publication of an explosive book based on interviews with White House aides, but failed as the publisher moved forward the release. On Tuesday, Trump tweeted gleefully to “stay tuned” for him to announce the “MOST DISHONEST & CORRUPT MEDIA AWARDS OF THE YEAR” next Monday.


The tweet elicited an ironic Times Square billboard from comedian Stephen Colbert, lobbying for victory in imagined categories including “Fakest Dishonesty.” Last week, a Trump campaign email promised the president would crown the “2017 KING OF FAKE NEWS before the end of the year,” which didn’t happen. (Trump first proposed a “FAKE NEWS TROPHY” for TV news excluding Fox in a November tweet; a Rasmussen poll conducted over the next two days found the largest single group surveyed — 40 percent — deemed Fox News the winner of the dubious honor).

No president enjoys the critical gaze of a watchdog media. But no president before Trump has waged war on the press like this, disparaging journalists as “liars,” “peddlers of falsehoods” and the “enemy of the American people” and threatening to limit press freedoms in ways beyond his jurisdiction or contrary to the First Amendment. And no president before Trump has been recorded publicly uttering so many untruths either — an average of 5.6 false or misleading statements per day, according to the Washington Post Factchecker. Trump has made clear that anyone who dares question or truth-squad him is the enemy — which makes the news media enemy No. 1.

During his campaign, Trump cast the press as a foil by penning them at his rallies neither at the front nor the back, as is common practice, but rather in roped-off sections at dead-center, where they were surrounded and ritually booed by his supporters. He riled up loyalists by calling reporters “scum,” “slime” and “sick people,” making with jokes about violence against the press.

Trust in the media has been declining for decades before Trump was elected, and that skepticism has enabled the president’s supporters to dismiss responsible reporting and fact-checking that criticizes their man. Before even taking office, Trump cannily co-opted the term “fake news,” stripping it of its original meaning (hoaxes on the internet) to refer instead to any story he doesn’t like.

For White House and political reporters, a daily challenge of an exhausting job is how to cover the president who goads the media and tries to discredit solid, fact-based reporting without getting drawn into his fight. In a polarized environment where nearly half the country thinks the press makes up stories about the president, according to our recent Poynter survey, it’s more essential than ever that reporters bulletproof their reporting and don’t fall into Trump’s trap of being cast as his enemy.
 
In the third installment of our series drawing lessons from Poynter’s inaugural ethics summit, “The Press and the President: Trust and Media in a New Era,” leading White House correspondents share their thoughts on how to avoid being politicized by the White House; how to effectively convey the truth when politicians don’t; why standing up for press freedoms is not a partisan act; and the dangers of the public losing sight of the role of a watchdog press in a healthy democracy.

On covering the president without getting sucked into his war on the press:

James Hohmann, national political correspondent, the Washington Post: In a lot of ways Donald Trump wants us in the press to be his foil. He wants it to be him versus us. We see our jobs as journalists as helping the American people understand what's going on. Trump wants to portray us as players in the game, because it makes us easier to dismiss when he doesn't like stories that we do.

Margaret Talev, senior White House correspondent, Bloomberg News, and president of the White House Correspondents’ Association: I'll say, as far as the WHCA goes, we have sought to be really careful to not react publicly to every single thing. … We represent members, people who cover the White House, and when we speak, there should be a really compelling reason to make a statement. … If we made a statement every time the president said something provocative about the press, all we would literally be doing is making statements.

Most mainstream news reporters are overwhelmingly focused on just getting the job done and the philosophy is very much the one that you reflected, which is that it's not most of our jobs to be pundits. There are times when it's really important to push back or draw a line. I and my organization have sought to be careful about that.

Eli Stokols, White House reporter, the Wall Street Journal: Every piece of reporting that can be challenged is sort of weaponized against you. You're aware of maybe not being at war, but you're aware of working and covering an administration that is combative and a president who relishes that combat, who's a media figure above everything else and who loves to engage with and spar with us.

You have to be aware of not playing into that. Not antagonizing them or taking the bait every time. But there is this sort of self-fulfilling prophecy to Donald Trump. We saw it during the campaign when he sort of — I mean, he wants these fights. This is a different sort of president and administration. It does require at least a rethinking of the rules that we've always sort of played by, because you have a president who doesn't play by the rules at all.

I think you have to at least have the humility to think about these things as you're doing your job, and in real time, that's difficult to do. Am I getting the tone right? What's important here? How much do I push back? How much is the incoherence of a Trump statement or the mendacity of a tweet, how much is that self-evident? How much do I need to point that out? Those are really difficult things to do in real time. I think that while we have to be aware of not antagonizing and not playing too much into that trap, that trap is already set. Part of it is the fact that look, this is our job to do this. If we step back and say, "I'm not going to engage," we're really not doing our jobs, and I think we have to be really sharp about making sure that the things that we write and say and tweet are important.

On standing up against attacks on press freedom:

Jim Acosta, senior White House correspondent, CNN: We're not supposed to be part of the resistance. That's not why we're here. But if journalism is attacked, we should resist, and that's up to us.

It's not the press who brought that atmosphere in the White House. It's the president of the United States of America, the leader of the free world, calling us "fake news" and "enemy of the people." It does have a toxic, cancerous effect on public attitudes towards the press and towards working journalists in this country.

I'm not going into the briefing room and saying, "You know, canceling Obamacare is a really terrible idea or this tax cut bill is …" We're not getting into political debates over this issue or that issue. I think it's fine for all of us to push back when our profession is under attack. That's not a liberal thing or a conservative thing. It's standing up for what we do.

Margaret Talev: There are more frequent regular calls with the network bureau chiefs than you've seen in years past so that if there is some rhetorical threat [from the president] on Twitter about Comcast or whatever, I would immediately call the bureau chiefs and say, "Is this something you want the board engaged on or are you treating this as a rhetorical threat?” ... These kind of check-ins and conversations ... are happening all the time behind the scenes.

The WHCA also is engaging much more than we have done traditionally before with some of the journalism advocacy groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists, RSF/Reporters Without Borders and the other kind of institutional organizations in D.C., whether it's the correspondents in the [Congressional Press] galleries or the National Press Club. 

The Committee to Protect Journalists has established this tracker database this year. We support that. We refer our members to that if they are getting either personal threats or internet threats. The WHCA in our committee system has created our own new committee this year for reporter security so that if reporters who covered the beat are feeling concerned or threatened, whether it's at a rally or whether it's ... online or in social media, they can come talk to us about it. We can help refer them if they need legal assistance or anything like that, security, that sort of thing. There is a real effort collectively for us to take care of each other and check in with each other about when public advocacy is helpful.

On journalism’s responsibility to tell the truth when politicians don’t:

Eli Stokols: Do we use the word “lie” when there is actual evidence that the president is lying? I think, as a journalist, when I see things that I know to be factually wrong, I may not write a lead that says, "President Donald Trump lied." But I'm going to set up a construction in a story where I'm going to say, "Here's what the president said."

Then as we often do on Twitter when we're sort of pressed into a fact-checking mode, taking Donald Trump tweets, quoting them and saying, "Here's when he said the wrong thing or the opposite thing. Here's why this is incoherent." You have to put that in your story. Pointing these things out, and every day, there are so many things and opportunities to do that.

Jim Acosta: The truth is on fire right now, we're sort of like the firefighters putting out the fire. That's how I feel on a daily basis. The lies, the falsehoods, the twisting of the truth, the warping of our reality, all of that has to be pushed back on, on a daily basis. ... It just sort of feels as though we've allowed the basic standards of being an American to be worn down in this country. I don't know how we teach that in our schools but we probably ought to. Because I do think that we're in a crisis right now in that respect.

On the need for local journalism to rebuild trust in alienated communities:

Margaret Talev: There's a large category of Americans who feel lost, forgotten, abandoned, betrayed by all sections of the establishment including the journalism establishment. I think that the demise or the diminishment of robust local news coverage in communities does have an impact, especially in economically depressed areas on people's sense of trust for the media. I think when you juxtapose that with what they see on TV or read in major national papers, then it's not exactly about what they're experiencing, I think that hurts us too.

On persuading a skeptical public that a free press is vital to democracy:

Margaret Talev: The ability to get information including critical information about the people in power and then to question people in power is completely baked into the American tradition. It is for many of the same people who either distrust the press or just don't like modern news coverage or whatever. I think underlying that is an assumption that you'll always be able to get information about whatever you want to get information about and you can just criticize the delivery method of it.

Whereas I think if you've ever lived in a place where you go to jail for saying something crappy about the guy who's in charge, you view this in a completely different way. I don't know how to teach that. I mean, how can you teach people to be afraid of something that they've never been afraid of? The only way to feel afraid is to be afraid — and by then it's too late. I think it's more complicated than a civics class.

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    Indira Lakshmanan

    Indira Lakshmanan, the Newmark chair in journalism ethics at Poynter and a Boston Globe columnist, has covered coups, campaigns and revolutions, reporting from the US and 80 countries for the Globe, Bloomberg, the International New York Times, NPR, PBS and Politico Magazine

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