Jay Rosen on the hazards of journalism-as-usual under the Trump administration

In his 30-plus year career as a professor at New York University, Jay Rosen says he can't remember a time when the relationship between journalists and the White House was more poisonous or fundamentally undemocratic than it is under President Trump.

"I don't think there are many parallels to what we're seeing now," Rosen said. "There's so much about this situation that is completely strange and busts up democratic norms and exists far outside the normal swing of press relations."

Rosen, the director of NYU's Studio 20 program, is one of the most influential press critics writing about President Trump today. In the early days of the Trump administration, he urged journalists to think outside their traditional methods for covering politicians, encouraging them to send junior staffers to the White House briefing room, cover the White House from the outside-in and stop interviewing surrogates like Kellyanne Conway and Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

In an interview for Poynter's podcast, Covering 45, Rosen — a Beltway outsider who had a very brief career in journalism at the Buffalo Courier-Express before beginning his graduate studies — discussed the folly of interviewing President Trump's spokespersons, the ways journalists can cover his tweets, one inventive use for the White House Correspondents' Dinner and the hazards of covering Trump like a conventional president.

On the collapsing notion of the "White House spokesperson"

"In a way, the entire political system is stunned by [President Trump's claim that Barack Obama wiretapped him] and is still trying to get their minds around the fact that he did that. And that would include the White House press, but it would also include people in Congress and people in the justice wing of the government and the people in the White House communications office."

"If you notice, in her interview, Sarah Huckabee didn't do what White House spokespeople normally do, which is to flesh out and provide evidence and backing for what the president actually said. She actually refused to do that. Not only that, but she said, 'You would have to ask President Trump what he meant.' Meaning that she couldn't represent his views at all. Just in that encounter itself — first on Sunday with Martha Radditz and George Stephanopoulos, the whole notion of a White House spokesperson just fell apart."

"Lots of practices that Washington journalists engage in are not only normalized, but they have premises no longer apply. The practice no longer makes sense. Here's an example: Journalists are interviewing Kellyanne Conway or Sarah Huckabee on the premise that they represent the views of the president or the White House. If it is shown in the interview that she doesn't, it's not clear why journalists are continuing with the practice."

On how journalists should cover Trump's tweets

"When you are the president, it's very common for what you say to become important as policy. So when you're the President of the United States, very often, words are deeds. And if we are going to take the president seriously as a figure in power and as a leader, we have to take his words seriously. Otherwise, we have to admit that our system is kind of a joke. And so far, our journalists aren't willing to do that."

"At the same time, it is true that Trump will fire off tweets that don't have a lot of significance and do have certain sensational value. So one has to keep them in proportion. But I don't think it's smart to go all the way and say, what he says doesn't matter, only what he does matters."

"I think it would be really valuable for our leading news organizations to come up with their own hierarchy of the most important issues and problems and shifts and proposals that they are tracking and that they think informed readers or users of their news should be aware of. I should be able to go to CNN.com or Washingtonpost.com and find a list of what they are claiming are the top problems, ongoing stories, long to medium-term narratives. And that should be a live list that changes and evolves as things come in and out of focus."

Why news organizations should "send the interns" to the White House briefing room

"My point was, in a White House that is very reluctant to collaborate with journalists — not to say that it never happens, but it rarely happens — and in a White House that very often spreads disinformation through briefings as with the very first statement Sean Spicer made from the briefing room podium. And in a White House where it's very hard for people to figure out what's going on and frequently the White House communications office itself has no idea or as we saw this week won't even defend the president...my point is, your most talented people are probably more valuable practicing outside-in journalism."

On journalism's tendency to stay the same

"There's a tendency from top to bottom in the press culture to say, 'what we have works.' We can use what we've always used. We can keep using the routines that we used for the previous administration. We can rely on our software. And every day, I think more evidence comes in to suggest actually none of that is useful."

How the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner could be more useful

"They still have to have this stupid dinner in April...Trump's not going to be there. But there are now so many problems and questions about how to cover this White House that what they should do is rip up that event, forget the banquet part of it, forget the celebration, the glamour, and just make it a big unconference about how to cover this White House."

On the predicament that journalists now find themselves in

"The idea of a common world of a fact doesn't exist anymore kind of undermines the project of journalism from the basement, as it were. So it's a complex picture. In some ways, the press is needed more than ever and treasured more than ever. In some ways, it's being pushed out of the frame. And we have to be smart enough to reckon with both of those things at once."

Correction: A previous version of this story misquoted Rosen. He said "words are deeds," not "words are deep."

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    Benjamin Mullin

    Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism innovation, business practices and ethics.

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