November 22, 2016

An invitation from the president-elect was enough to send a star-studded cast of TV journalists scurrying to Trump Tower on Monday.

CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer. CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker. CBS News host Charlie Rose. Although the meeting was off-the-record, it appears Donald Trump used the session to slam broadcasters for what he perceived as unfavorable coverage during the runup to the election.

One source told CNN that there was “real progress,” during the meeting regarding Trump’s record on press access.

But regardless of any assurances from Trump’s team, TV executives did the public a disservice by agreeing to hold an off-the-record meeting with the president-elect while he continues to stonewall other reporters.

Consider: In less than two months, Trump will be sworn in as president. Since the election, he hasn’t held a press conference with reporters, heading off important questions about how the federal government will be run. He has ditched reporters on multiple occasions, breaking with longstanding traditions of press access.

Meanwhile, Trump is reprising a tactic used to great effect by the Obama administration: leapfrogging reporters at every opportunity. He released an informercial-style announcement on YouTube about his presidential agenda, preferring the comfy environs of his office to tough questioning behind a podium. Updates on the presidential transition are made on Twitter, and he shares often-inaccurate information with the public on social media.

All of that makes the stakes for scrutinizing Trump higher than they have ever been. To agree to an off-the-record meeting — even to secure greater access for reporters — stands in opposition to the values journalists everywhere are supposed to embody. The public needs answers to hard-hitting questions in public, not a closed-notebook bull session in the privacy of Trump Tower.

That’s not to suggest all off-the-record meetings are inappropriate, of course. Sometimes, reporters need to go off-the-record to persuade press-averse sources to go on the record. Some off-the-record discussions are preliminary get-to-know-you chats. Some off-the-record stories are too important to pass up and impossible to get otherwise. But none of those conditions apply here.

A more steely response to Trump’s media outreach was exemplified by The New York Times today. Trump initially agreed to a combo off- and on-the-record session with The Times, meeting in private with the publisher and in public with reporters and editors. Then he canceled the meeting in an early-morning tweetstorm, saying that The Times violated the “terms and conditions” of the sitdown.

Greeted with news of Trump’s cancellation, The Times responded that it was actually Trump who tried to move the entire session off-the-record, a gambit The New York Times refused outright. Within two hours of The Times’ response, Trump agreed to an on-the-record conversation and abandoned his claims of a last-minute switchup.

The Times showed backbone, and Trump blinked. A man who simultaneously cultivates, threatens and cajoles the media will be grilled by people with the knowledge and means to do the grilling. Meanwhile, the publisher and Trump will have an opportunity to broker a truce or vent in private. Win-win.

This episode is reminiscent of a 2013 exchange between former Attorney General Eric Holder and America’s major media organizations. Then, as now, a public official proposed a private meeting to hammer out important issues with journalists. Then, as now, the subject was press-government relations — in that case, the Obama administration’s response to national security leaks. Then, as now, The New York Times refused to attend the meeting, calling the off-the-record session “inappropriate” (others, such as The Washington Post and the New York Daily News, had no problem attending).

But unlike today, several TV news outlets, including Fox News, CBS News and CNN followed suit in declining the invitation, sending a unified message that the public’s business should not be discussed in private. That was the correct response then, and it’s the correct response now.

Bravo to The New York Times for insisting that the public be given access to their president-elect. And shame on TV executives for allowing Trump to make yet another end-run around the press in a misguided attempt to repair relations they never broke in the first place.

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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