On CNN’s Reliable Sources this week Trump’s “contentious relationship with the press” was said to be back in the spotlight because of the upcoming marker of the First Hundred Days on April 28. Host Brian Stelter asked if there had been “some softening of the president’s anti-media position” since Trump’s inauguration in January, citing as evidence a recent interview he gave to Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush of the New York Times.
Thrush said: “I never bought the shtick in the first place, that he hated the media.”
The “slap and tickle” approach, as Thrush called it, has been standard operating procedure for Trump from the days when they were coming up together in the New York tabloids: Haberman, Thrush and Trump. Stelter came back to the question: “Could we make the case that things have not been as bad as they could have been between the press and the president?” After all, Press Secretary Sean Spicer conducts daily on camera briefings. And Trump gives interviews to news brands other than Fox. Not the war that we thought was coming, right?
That same day Politico posted a more in-depth version of this argument, based on more than 35 interviews with members of the White House press corps, most of whom would not let their names be used. Politico’s lengthy account, by Ben Schreckinger and Hadas Gold, is a kind of status report from inside the castle on how the people who are there to inform the public feel about the “slap and tickle” style of press relations.
It is a fascinating document, well worth reading for what it reveals about the operation of the Trump White House. Also hugely dismaying for what it does not say, and for what the people inside the castle apparently cannot see. Since this is also the week of the White House Correspondent’s dinner (April 28) I thought I would annotate Politico’s report: talk back to it, and to the people who are speaking to us through it.
The main theme of Politico’s account is that in public Trump is always having bitter clashes with the press. But the real story — the inside story — is quite different. Oh, the irony!
On the campaign trail, Trump called the press “dishonest” and “scum.” He defended Russian strongman Vladimir Putin against charges of murdering journalists and vowed to somehow “open up our libel laws” to weaken the First Amendment. Since taking office, he has dismissed unfavorable coverage as “fake news” and described the mainstream media as “the enemy of the American people…” Not since Richard Nixon has an American president been so hostile to the press— and Nixon largely limited his rants against the media to private venting with his aides.
But behind that theatrical assault, the Trump White House has turned into a kind of playground for the press. We interviewed more than three dozen members of the White House press corps, along with White House staff and outside allies, about the first whirlwind weeks of Trump’s presidency. Rather than a historically toxic relationship, they described a historic gap between the public perception and the private reality.
It’s a “playground” because starting with the man at the top they all care desperately about how they are depicted in the news media, because the different factions are always knifing each other by going to the press, because the leaking is like nothing anyone has seen before, and because they’re incompetent at almost everything they try to do. Put it all together and you get a fount of juicy stories: palace intrigue, constant backstabbing, spectacular screw-ups by clueless amateurs, and no end of sources because so much of the action in the Trump White House flows through the news media.
To which I say:While you’re enjoying your playground, what are you doing about this chart? This is what Glenn Thrush (“I never bought the shtick in the first place, that he hated the media…”) doesn’t seem to understand. Trump’s hating-on-the-media posture is not supposed to convince Thrush. It’s binge-worthy programming for core supporters of the president, catnip to their confirmation bias, extra insurance that anything damaging uncovered by the Times and its peers will be dismissed out of hand by 25 to 40 percent of the electorate.
That Trump is insincere in his hate speech about journalists is not the most important fact — for journalists — about that way of speaking. But you wouldn’t know this from Politico’s account, which fixates on the irony of a president who says he despises the press when actually he craves its approval. (His narcissism would explain that.) Trump’s hate speech about journalists matters because it is part of a program to substitute his reality for reality itself, word of which doesn’t seem to have reached the playground.
Politico further reports that Trump is cordial to reporters in person. (Oh, the irony!) Steve Bannon even sends “crush notes to journalists to let them know they’ve nailed a story.” Sean Spicer maintains bonhomie with many of them. Meanwhile, the staff is “too divided and too obsessed with their own images” to really crack down on the media. “And for all the frustration of covering an administration with a shaky grasp on the truth and a boss whose whims can shift from one moment to the next, reporters have feasted on the conflict and chaos.”
It is indeed a feast. But let’s remember why those reporters are there. They are not there to stuff themselves with story. The White House press corps is supposed to be part of a reality check upon the executive. By asking inconvenient questions, digging up dirt, cultivating diverse sources, and revealing what’s going on behind scenes that are arranged for public consumption, the press screws with the president’s effort to present to the country an image of perfect mastery and pleasing consistency, which of course can never be real.
By answering difficult questions and trying to repair the breach between what’s in the news and what’s said from official podiums, the White House is willy-nilly — and always imperfectly — brought into better contact with an observable and shared reality. That’s the hope, anyway. That’s the logic of the system. That’s what legitimates the permanent presence of the press within the White House. Politico seems to have forgotten all of this. It ignores questions of civic purpose to focus instead on the delicious irony of a press that is publicly despised and privately cultivated:
The great secret of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is that Trump’s war on the media is a phony one, a reality show that keeps his supporters fired up and distracted while he woos the constituency that really matters to him: journalists.
We get it. His pose of complete contempt for the press is largely fake. Like everything else he does. But what matters to the nation is not whether Trump has a neurotic crush on Maggie Haberman and hate watches CNN late at night, it’s whether anything journalists do forces the president or the White House to become a little more reality-based, a little more accountable, a little more likely to give reasons for its actions, or to explain what it’s actual policy choices are. On this score, has the press corps had any success at all? It appears not.
“If you’re doing anything involving any sort of palace intrigue, they are crazy cooperative,” said one reporter, voicing a common observation. “But if you have any sort of legitimate question, if you need a yes or no answer on policy, they’re impossible.”
So it’s a feast for journalists if the story is about who’s up and who’s down inside the castle. But if it’s about decisions that might affect the lives of Americans, no feast. “They’re impossible.” Notice how — according to Politico — Trump’s real constituency is journalists, but not to the extent that their questions about policy would get answered. Not to the extent that speaking truth to the American people makes any difference to the Trump government:
One reporter said he has been surprised to find that background information from Trump White House officials is more reliable than what they say on the record, a reversal from previous administrations that he has covered. Especially unreliable is anything said on camera, as it is most likely to be seen by Trump, who watches television religiously. By the end of March, according to a Politico Magazine analysis, Spicer had uttered 51 unique falsehoods or misleading statements in his press briefings, on topics ranging from voter fraud to Obamacare to Trump’s Russia ties.
“Especially unreliable is anything said on camera.” In other words, the more likely it is to reach the public, the greater the chances that it’s false. “Through it all, Spicer has been unfailingly loyal— defending all of Trump’s most risible lies and baseless contentions despite the snickering of his frenemies in the press corps.”
Great job, guys. You’re snickering. Sean’s lying. (But you have access!) And if the president says it, it’s likely to be false. Who’s the bully on this playground?
“Media companies, meanwhile, have been laughing all the way to the bank. In the weeks after the election, the New York Times reported it was adding new subscribers at 10 times the normal pace. The Wall Street Journal reported a 300 percent spike in new subscriptions on the day after Trump’s victory… According to CNN, the network’s total audience in the first quarter of 2017 is the highest it has been in any first quarter since 2003, when the United States launched its invasion of Iraq. As for Trump’s preferred network, the first quarter of 2017 was the best three months Fox News has ever had.”
Turns out “slap and tickle” is a commercial hit. The irony!