In journalism terms, it was a softball question, an easy question to answer.
But instead of showing leadership in an unprecedented time of national and global concern, President Donald Trump went on a vicious rant against a member of the media.
It happened during Friday’s White House coronavirus press conference, a platform where Trump is becoming more and more antagonistic towards the media, as I noted in Friday’s Poynter Report newsletter.
The latest — and most troubling — attack came after NBC News’ Peter Alexander asked what appeared to be an innocuous question. It started with Alexander asking if Trump’s impulse to put a positive spin on things might give Americans a false sense of hope. Trump said he didn’t think so.
“What do you say to Americans who are scared though?” Alexander said. “I guess, nearly 200 dead, 14,000 who are sick, millions, as you witnessed, who are scared right now. What do you say to Americans who are watching you right now who are scared?”
Trump could’ve assured Americans with a couple of empathetic words, something along the lines of “I know you’re scared, but we’re in this together. We’re working hard. Let’s stick together.” And so forth.
Instead, Trump went after Alexander.
“I say that you’re a terrible reporter,” Trump said. “That’s what I say. I think that’s a very nasty question.”
Nasty question? It was a legitimate and fair question. It was a question that every American would want an answer to in these uncertain and frightening times. It wasn’t accusatory. There was no “gotcha” in it, no attempt to make the president look bad or to blame him.
The American people are scared. What would the president say to them?
Trump continued: “You’re doing sensationalism. And the same with NBC and Comcast. I don’t call it Comcast. I call it ‘Con-Cast.’ Let me just tell you something. That’s really bad reporting. And you ought to get back to reporting instead of sensationalism.”
Later in the news conference, CNN White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins asked Trump about his attack on Alexander.
“You see yourself as a wartime president right now, leading the country through a pandemic that we are experiencing,” Collins said. “Do you think going off on Peter, going off on a network is appropriate when the country is going through something like this?”
Trump repeated that he didn’t think Alexander was a good journalist, adding, “Coming together is much harder when we have dishonest journalists.”
Within moments, many in the media defended Alexander’s question and reputation on Twitter.
The Washington Post’s Ashley Parker tweeted, “Asked to perform one of the key duties of the presidency — to reassure the American public during a crisis — Trump instead attacked @PeterAlexander, the v good reporter who asked the (fairly softball) question…”
CNN’s Dana Bash tweeted, “Talk about esprit de corps. Excellent question @PeterAlexander – should have been a layup for the president to make Americans feel better. Good for @CeciliaVega for keeping it going AND not letting POTUS off the hook – & @kaitlancollins for calling him out.”
ABC News Jonathan Karl tweeted, “Let’s be clear: @PeterAlexander is a first-rate journalist and a stand-up guy. It’s outrageous to use the presidential bully pulpit to bully a journalist like Peter — especially at a time like this.”
And longtime New York Daily News columnist Mike Lupica might have summed it up best when he tweeted, “@PeterAlexander, who happens to be a great reporter, is a bad reporter because he asked a question about people being scared? What, they’re not?”
Actually, there was one journalist who criticized Alexander. Fox News’ Brit Hume tweeted, “Legitimate question my a**. It was the kind of bullsh*t gotcha question which hack WH reporters have been asking for decades. But instead of going off on the reporter, Trump should have said the whole briefing in all its particulars was a message to people who are scared.”
On the air after the news conference, CNN’s John King appeared stunned and angry after Trump’s attack. He said, “I sat in that room for just shy of 10 years, it was a perfectly valid question. … What the president did to Peter Alexander is reprehensible.”
He continued, “The American people are looking for answers, they do want hope, they do want support, Mr. President. That was a very fair question.”
He then talked to Collins, the CNN White House correspondent, saying, “Kaitlin, this is a Trump trademark, it was striking that this came, this, forgive me, b——- attack on fake news came just moments after the Secretary of State said the American people needed to be careful about where they get their information, and go to sources they can trust. I get there at times disagreements, there are times of contention between politicians and reporters. That was a 100% legitimate question with no hype, no shade, no bias, he just wanted to attack.”
Later, Alexander put out a statement about the exchange:
I am sure there are plenty of baseball fans watching right now. In TV terms, we call this a “softball.” I was trying to provide the president an opportunity to reassure the millions of Americans, members of my own family and my neighbors and my community and plenty of people sitting at home, this was his opportunity to do that, to provide a positive or uplifting message.
Instead, you saw the president’s answer to that question right now. But it really does go to one of the fundamental concerns, Americans are looking for a sense of confidence in their leaders at this moment as many of them are glued to their TVs or stuck behind closed doors in their homes surrounded by only loved ones right now. I think it does sort of reveal a frustration, perhaps an anxiety of his political prospects, about a situation that is hard to keep in control as we witnessed it continue to spiral at this time.
The bottom line is, this is a president whose experiences in life are very different than most Americans across this country right now. Not a person who likely worries about finances or had, not a person who in the course of his life is worried about his future, not a person who is worried about where to find a paycheck for his bills or for his rent and as evidenced by the president suggesting that an opportunity to provide for American some reassurance about how they should feel right now, the president instead took it out on me.
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