“The Trump White House has turned into a kind of playground for the press.”

More than 35 White House correspondents spoke to Politico about what it's like for them. They want you to know they're having a blast.

24 Apr 2017 12:41 am 23 Comments

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!

The comment thread is open.

23 Comments

Richard Aubrey says:

Inside baseball is fun for the baseball obsessed. They even have some radio talk shows. But not many people, even those who like baseball, actually care. Some even think Seinfeld was right when he said that in the end, you’re rooting for laundry.

That was a metaphor. The journos may be having a ball, but only a few of the desperately obsessed bother with the inside WH stuff. It’s the outside stuff that matters to the rest of the nation. Which should not be a surprise.

In an ideal world, news organizations would have mission statements. What is the experience of the ones that do, does it help to clarify?

Savoy Cabbage says:

Having a Mission Statement won’t do anything unless it’s punchy, relevant AND observed. The vacuous waffle that serves all too frequently as a Mission Statement won’t help anyone.

I’ve worked for a news outlet that had a perfectly good mission statement, and it worked great right up until the publisher decided that a 20%+ pretax profit margin was more important than the mission even when it was clear to anyone that such margins were no longer sustainable. And that happens even when the money people actually care a little about journalism. I have no reason to think that’s the case at places like Politico.

I depend on your media reporting, on the media.

Unconscionable what is going on, really, but perfectly reflective of how free-market privatization of agencies charged with a public good, can not stand alone in a democracy. Public goods MUST be owned by the public with public missions.

Otherwise though, and until then, we at least have READABLE AND RELEVANT coverage like yours.

Thornton Hall says:

New Deal happened when unobjective media hustled for circulation.

The problem is that employees for profit companies *think* they work for public good. NYT destroys the candidates of their readers (HRC, Gore) because they must eat their vegetables!

The First Amendment was written when the press consisted of lie-filled scandal sheets. Vegetables are killing us.

t1gerlilly says:

I’m in a profession that tends to attract journalists when they leave media. I’ve heard variations on a theme for years about low pay, censored stories (on the working class and labor unions as one example), and the increasing effects of lowered profit margins. So I may be a bit biased in thinking that those in the press must be clueless, compromised, or willfully blind not to see why people have difficulty trusting them
Just take the reporting on the economy in the last ten years. The press NEVER talked to people who wanted more effective relief for Americans for the housing crises. Their POV was never the average person, it was the banks.
Or take for example all the rosy reporting on the economy in the last ‘recovery’. Do you really think working people – whose relatives have been swept up and ruined in the endless wars of the last fifteen years, who lost their family farm to agribusiness or their shop on Main Street to WalMart, then lost their house in the housing crises and their jobs to globalization and automation and whose faith in the American Dream is dying – you think they BELIEVE it when the reporting says the economy is going great?
I mean, I’m pretty comfortable and I can’t watch the news without nausea, because the cognitive dissonance is so great. It’s like all these reporters talking about Jared, the son-in-law, as though it’s not absolutely insane, corrupt and dangerous to have him handling complex diplomatic negotiations without any State Department involvement. In this cheerful “well, let’s see what he can do. Next up, the apocalypse – ten day forecast. Over to
you Bob” patter that makes me feel like I’ve woken up in a Strangelovian nightmare where my beloved country has turned into a Bannana Republic. It’s revealing how complicit the press is in normalizing the destruction of the state. It’s terrifying.

Jay, here’s a theory: It’s not just the president who’s a narcissist, so are all the journalists, and other people in the White House. As are the CEOs of the tech companies the journalists want to bail them out. Journalism is one big festival of narcissism. And the most effective narcissist, the one who succeeds at getting everyone to write about them gets to be POTUS.

Marc Lajoie says:

I wonder if the who’s-up-who’s-down tone of the piece comes from Politico (and their selection of quotes), not necessarily the WH correspondents. Politico can usually be relied upon to miss the forest for the trees. I get the sense that there was more said about the quality of the information reaching the public left on the cutting-room floor.

Possible. In that case they should speak for themselves instead of giving anonymous quotes to Politico.

Anonymous quotes to Politico are collateral exchanges and 100% transactional.

This is the lifestyle of the WH correspondent. Focused more on Cafe Milano sightings and FNC nightly ratings than the world outside 202. Not anything new. Still, it sucks for news consumers

Easy to do: write about what you see every day, process stories, palace intrigue.

Difficult: make anyone serious care about Trump’s serious activities.

Some people (notably Vice News) make the serious stuff actually palatable in the Internet age. Somewhere in that direction lies the future of serious journalism — if they can get their heads out of their asses regarding being participants in the White House game of charades.

Paul Bamford says:

Big shouty message to all the journalists in the White House playground: when someone says he despises you in public but tells YOU he respects you, he really does despise you. You’re his bitches.

This. ^^^

Trump is essentially the embodiment of or our media age. Trump and the media are entwined in a symbiotic relationship.

Sorry I have to pull this out but the media is the message. The thing is that the message has now become the reality for most people. The other thing is that the message is bullshit. The world of the message is a bubble and very few have any inkling that there are larger frames of reference. The bubble will pop in a year or 10 and then it will become obvious, as it become terrible.

Chris Carrington says:

Speaking truth to power SHOULD be every journalist’s mission! You are definitely onto something Jay, pay no attention to the naysayers less you get caught up in their Jr High like behavior.

This is natural consequence of believing that the role of the press is to “serve truth.” This leads to two confusions:
1. Too vague to lead to specific rules, and therefore gives license to any and all behavior.
2. Noble and altruistic purpose, plus low salary, plus elite eduction, plus cult of First Amendment leads to a *group of people who identify Democracy with themselves.*

If Democracy itself is allowed to roam the White House and see everything with perfect transparency (the ideal of do-gooders who have no idea how anything works), then truth MUST BE Winning. Right? How do you argue with democracy itself?

Mark J. McPherson says:

A complicit press might as well be Trump cronies. The essential bargain was struck well before the first primary, when CNN broke into its actual news coverage to live-stream a Trump campaign stop. And it’s never stopped since. Trump pretends to loathe the press, as he showers and nurtures them in his ratings. The press pretends to be tough on Trump, as they wallow in the ghastly, reflected light. It is pretend on the part of the press because the premise of the original bargain turned on the mutual delegitimization of the press and ultimately the office Trump was running for. The “tough” reporting about Trump has been preemptively invalidated. For Trump and his supporters, the press are malleable scum; they aren’t worthy of not being conned and cowed. There is an ongoing onslaught of contempt and studied and often mutually repugnant misrepresentations. The attempts at earnestness and straight communication are rare and appear mostly as still another temporizing lurch in some other direction (any will do).

Trump lives to provoke, distract, confuse and confound. He plays a series of roles: the bully, the buffoon, the dealmaker, the tough guy, the celebrity, the salesman. There is a deliberate randomness to the affectations he takes on. There is no rhyme or reason to his dealings with the press, other than to portray them as an untrustworthy rabble. The outlandish statements of extreme prejudice against the press were simply Trump’s plain-sighted cover for his open manipulation and use of the press. He is the story, but not the point. The inept, under-qualified and fractious cabinet are a sideshow to further distract.

Covering this freakshow is easy and remunerative; the stories write themselves. Only they don’t; they are written by the Trump Administration. Sobriety in the face of spectacle doesn’t come naturally to a press primed to preen for ratings. Stop reporting on the staged playground fights and feuds and start focusing on the real effects across the country and the world.

Lit3Bolt says:

This is why any investigation of Trump will go nowhere. The MSM will protect their golden calf to the death, even as his corruption spreads and his cognition declines. It’s Reagan II. Soon it will be “unfair” to ask Trump questions about anything other than jellybeans, because if you do you have no respect for the office of the Presidency or something.

Treason and corruption will be Savvy, and anyone concerned about those issues will be called unbearably naive.

andy liotta says:

celebrities getting cozy with celebrities. patriotism be damned. trump has figured out how to overwhelm the news with blather, incompetence and reality tv. he’s successfully distracted from the traitorous campaign and his destruction of the state dept for his pal putin.

i wish there was a new press that focused on the importants instead of the news. that press would have stayed on theme in the election focusing throughout on the danger of a candidate that was clearly going to do exactly what he’s been doing.

the only show coming close is maddow, who stopped covering his meaningless words and has kept the spotlight on russiagate, which is by far the most important story. he was elected by putin, and putin has evidence. the president is in his pocket with a goal of weakening the US. a goal he is highly successful at.

still the media likes to attack maddow as a conspiracy hawk as she points out their fecklessness through the courage of her alternative news strategy.

and btw, glenn thrush is a tool, who celebrates how the trump admin is so available, always lurking around, unlike that unfriendly obama team who was always hiding away (and working slavishly to better the lot of the american people).

Trump supporters may not care about quality reporting, but there remains at least a significant portion of the population that does. It can’t be made any more clear that the “playground” should be left to interns while the veterans get out and dig.

t1gerlilly says:

So the White House press core has been turned into gossip columnists. They must love that – no actual work beyond ‘he said – he said’ and lots of stories. Trump knows how to feed the beast. Keep ’em busy, flatter their egos by making them feel like insiders, give them a nice, warm glow of accomplishment for crumbs of actual information, and then use negging to keep them interested. It’s almost funny how easy they are to con.
But the press is happy to report breathlessly on the horse race, instead of laying out the issues in the election and the qualifications of the candidates. They’re happy to squeal over infighting instead of looking at what’s going to happen when the train wreck that is this administration finally comes off the rails.