Pricing access to the Trump White House: the strange case of the Times social media policy

"Any semblance of a political opinion must be squashed, with the appearance of neutrality and balance preserved at all costs."

12 Nov 2017 9:56 am 35 Comments

Follow these events with me. Then I will share my view of what is going on here.

On Sep. 17, Glenn Thrush, White House reporter for the New York Times, posted this on Twitter:

Here is what the leader of the free world was then re-tweeting: a crudely doctored video clip showing Donald Trump hitting a golf shot and the shot knocking over Hillary Clinton. Hashtag #CrookedHillary:

Thrush had an aggressive style on Twitter. He said what he thought. He was abrasive and entertaining. He fought with critics when he felt they were wrong. (Including me.) He liked to tell people he had come up through the world of the New York tabloids and retained that brawling spirit, in contrast to the more genteel style of his current employer, the New York Times.

The day after the acidity of his “classy retweet by the leader of the free world” comment, Thrush announced he was quitting Twitter:

He later decided not to delete his account, but he did sign off. His last post was Sep. 18.

Twenty-four days later, Dean Baquet, executive editor of the Times, was asked about Thrush quitting Twitter. He didn’t mourn the loss of voice. “I’ve spent full days policing our social media,” he complained.

Baquet said he wants it to be clear to the public that the paper’s motivation is “journalistically sound” and not part of “a vendetta” against the president. “I can’t do that if I have 100 people working for the New York Times sending inappropriate tweets,” he said. Baquet said the Times is “going to come up with a tougher policy.”

The next day the new policy appeared, a published document. It called on Times journalists to “take extra care to avoid expressing partisan opinions or editorializing on issues that The Times is covering.” It said that social media “plays a vital role” in Times journalism, but also presents risks. “If our journalists are perceived as biased or if they engage in editorializing on social media, that can undercut the credibility of the entire newsroom.”

Under “key points” these warnings were found:

• In social media posts, our journalists must not express partisan opinions, promote political views, endorse candidates, make offensive comments or do anything else that undercuts The Times’s journalistic reputation.

• Our journalists should be especially mindful of appearing to take sides on issues that The Times is seeking to cover objectively.

• These guidelines apply to everyone in every department of the newsroom, including those not involved in coverage of government and politics.

Here the Guidelines swerved to include the voice of Peter Baker, senior White House correspondent for the Times who is not known for his dexterity on social platforms. (Thrush has three times as many followers on Twitter, Maggie Haberman 6X.) Baker spoke not about social media but his concern for what the White House thinks:

It’s important to remember that tweets about President Trump by our reporters and editors are taken as a statement from The New York Times as an institution, even if posted by those who do not cover him. The White House doesn’t make a distinction. In this charged environment, we all need to be in this together.

You not only had to watch what you say but what you linked to. To stay on the right side of the policy, you had to be aware of where your links were headed, and distribute the destinations around.

• If you are linking to other sources, aim to reflect a diverse collection of viewpoints. Sharing a range of news, opinions or satire from others is usually appropriate. But consistently linking to only one side of a debate can leave the impression that you, too, are taking sides.

“Ask yourself these questions,” the Times told its journalists.

1. Would you express similar views in an article on The Times’s platforms?

2. Would someone who reads your post have grounds for believing that you are biased on a particular issue?

3. If readers see your post and notice that you’re a Times journalist, would that affect their view of The Times’s news coverage as fair and impartial?

4. Could your post hamper your colleagues’ ability to effectively do their jobs?

5. If someone were to look at your entire social media feed, including links and retweets, would they have doubts about your ability to cover news events in a fair and impartial way?

The typical reaction of Times reporters to the new policy was supportive— and minimizing. No big deal. The guidelines were said to be “common sense” and a mere codification of what smart journalists already do. (Tech columnist Farhad Manjoo: “It’s mostly fine. It could have been worse?”)

Among journalists who do not work at the Times other points escaped. David Uberti, formerly of Columbia Journalism Review, wrote in Splinter:

Any semblance of a political opinion must be squashed, with the appearance of neutrality and balance preserved at all costs. The new policy reads less like a covenant with readers who view the paper as a trustworthy news source than a response to bad-faith critics who never will—providing a playbook for trolls to attack journalists at the Times and elsewhere. The policy, which was created by a team of reporters and editors in the newsroom, puts a high premium on the appearance of objectivity.

Here’s Matt Pearce of the Los Angeles Times, who, unlike Peter Baker, is a force on Twitter:

Nick Baumann, an editor at the Huffington Post, said: “NYT’s new social media rules, like many of its policies, start from the idea that it’s important to hide reporters’ true views from readers. As a loyal subscriber, I’d like to know more, not less, about the views + biases of the reporters I’m reading.”

Jump cut to last week. Dean Baquet is speaking at Temple University in Philadelphia. Joseph Lichterman of the Lenfest Institute is there and tweeting out nuggets from his talk, including this:

Mustn’t make things hard for Maggie. If the White House staff is complaining, ‘you don’t like us,’ then we’ve got a problem, folks!

Now let us pull our chairs closer to the fire so we can see what we’re saying. And let me add: these events can support different interpretations. I am pretty sure people at the Times will disagree with mine. (UPDATE: they do.) A week ago I posted this on Twitter:

I think all these things are connected. The Times is slipping behind its longtime rival, the Washington Post, because it is reacting more from fear of criticism than strength of insight. Responsibility has to return to Dean Baquet, the top editor, who is leading the charge, so to speak, toward caution and phony consensus.

I say “phony” because while almost everyone can agree that an entirely gratuitous opinion (snark) deserves to be edited out of the social feeds of Times reporters, there is no agreement at all on whether Glenn Thrush’s acerbic “classy retweet by the leader of the free world” is 1.) fair comment by a White House reporter objectively aware that no previous president would have endorsed such vulgar imagery, or 2.) a clear example of anti-Trump animus, likely to be seized on by the President’s supporters to show there’s a vendetta by Times reporters against their guy.

“Classy retweet by the leader of the free world” really means “no previous president would have done this, because it’s sophomoric and tarnishes the office.” This is a fact, a true statement, the very thing the Times is officially committed to upholding. But it’s a fact that reflects poorly on the current occupant of the White House, which means the White House is likely to push back on it. The newsroom of the New York Times is supposed to be constructed to resist such pressures.

But when it comes to social media, Dean Baquet has inexplicably chosen a different path. His view: The newsroom should be disciplined and guided, not by what’s true or verifiable as fact, not by what Times journalists believe in their bones, but by the things hostile critics might say upon discovery of a voicey tweet. This decision is a disaster, not because the right to commit snark is vital to preserve (it isn’t…) but because the Times, to be great, has to be great on all platforms, and there is no way that will happen if social media policy is grounded in impression management and conflict avoidance, rather than truthtelling, leveling with readers, and the flicker of magic in the human voice.

The New York Times and the Washington Post are known to keep a close watch on each other. Dean Baquet should be asking himself: why isn’t the Post choking and wheezing on its social media policy? Why is he spending entire days trying to discipline his troops? Is Marty Baron investing his time that way? I doubt it. Baron and the Post exude confidence— in their reporting and the voices that bring it to life on other platforms.

Meanwhile, the Times seems more concerned that Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman will lose access to… well, that’s the problem. Access to what? If it’s this kind of journalism — and stenography would be a fair and accurate term for this text — then something is very wrong in the hierarchy of the New York Times. And that again returns to Baquet, who is being outplayed by his rival, Marty Baron at the Post.

I keep coming back to these words: If our journalists are perceived as biased… that can undercut the credibility of the entire newsroom. Dean Baquet — who approved these words and made them law — doesn’t seem to realize that if the perception of critics can edit the actions of his staff then he has surrendered power to enemies of the Times, who will always perceive bias because it is basic to their interests to do so. This is part of a larger problem in mainstream journalism, which is unable to think politically because it is constantly accused of acting politically by hyper-partisan critics peddling fixed ideas.

Phrases like “be especially mindful of appearing to take sides” (emphasis on appearing) are paralyzing and stupid in an asymmetrically polarized climate where journalists are treated as a hate objects by the president of the United States and honest reporting is dismissed as fabrication by Trump and his supporters.

Finally, if how to kindle trust in the mainstream press is today a hard case, I have to question any theory of the case that seeks to center the reputation of the New York Times on the viewlessness of its reporters and the neutrality of their takes. I think it far more likely that trust will in the years ahead be earned through some creative combination of “here’s where we’re coming from,” very high standards of verification, “show your work,” and “what did we miss?”

Trust production along these lines would treat social media not as a threat to the appearance of neutrality, which is how Dean Baquet sees it, but as a vital skill that top journalists have to master in order to support the mother ship. Instead of lecturing the rest of the staff on how hard they are making it for Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman to gain access to a hostile White House, Baquet and his deputies should be figuring how to get Glenn Thrush back on Twitter so he can level with us about the Trump regime.

UPDATE, Jan. 2, 2018

There is a new publisher for the New York Times: Arthur Greg Sulzberger. In his inaugural note to readers he declares his allegiance to usual gods:

The Times will hold itself to the highest standards of independence, rigor and fairness — because we believe trust is the most precious asset we have. The Times will do all of this without fear or favor — because we believe truth should be pursued wherever it leads.

What he does not do in this short note is say anything like, “objectivity is our highest virtue,” or “we must prove to everyone how neutral we can be,” or “we must be especially mindful of appearing to take sides on issues that The Times is seeking to cover…” The whole question of how Times people appear to those in power does not come up— and for good reason. Because it is not fundamental. Independence, accuracy, fairness, courage: these are basic. “If our journalists are perceived as biased…” (that’s a problem) is not basic.

A remarkable but true fact. Current policy of the New York Times considers it a problem if people in the White House perceive bias in the social media postings of Times journalists who, say, review books or cover science, but it is not a problem if the social media staff trolls the core readership of the Times on Twitter.


Normalizing Trump: An incredibly brief explainer

A conflict in the journalist's code was created by a president wholly unfit for the job.

17 Sep 2017 1:12 am 107 Comments

Most every journalist who covers Trump knows of these things:

1. He isn’t good at anything a president has to do. From the simplest, like pretending to help out in flood relief, to the hardest: making the call when all alternatives are bad. (We’re told he can be charming one-on-one. So maybe that’s his one skill.)

2. He doesn’t know anything about the issues with which he must cope. Nor does this seem to bother him.

3. He doesn’t care to learn. It’s not like he’s getting better at the job, or scrambling to fill gaps in his knowledge.

4. He has no views about public policy. Just a few brute prejudices, like if Obama did it, it was dumb. I do not say he lacks beliefs — and white supremacy may be one — but he has no positions. His political sky is blank. No stars to steer by.

5. Nothing he says can be trusted.

6. His “model” of leadership is the humiliation of others— and threat of same. No analyst unfamiliar with narcissistic personality types can hope to make sense of his actions in office.

It’s not like items 1-6 have been kept secret. Journalists tell us about them all the time. Their code requires that. Simultaneously, however, they are called by their code to respect the voters’ choice, as well as the American presidency, of which they see themselves a vital part, as well as the beat, the job of White House reporting. The two parts of the code are in conflict.

If nothing the president says can be trusted, reporting what the president says becomes absurd. You can still do it, but it’s hard to respect what you are doing. If the president doesn’t know anything, the solemnity of the presidency becomes a joke. That’s painful. If they can, people flee that kind of pain. In political journalism there is enough room for interpretive maneuver to do just that.

This is “normalization.” This is what “tonight he became president” is about. This is why he’s called “transactional,” why a turn to bipartisanship is right now being test-marketed by headline writers. This is why “deal-making” is said to be afoot when there is barely any evidence of a deal.

What they have to report brings ruin to what they have to respect. So they occasionally revise it into something they can respect: at least a little.

His campaign to discredit the press is a permanent feature of Trump’s political style

It’s all they know. They aren’t prepared for anything else.

16 Jul 2017 10:26 pm 31 Comments

Donald Trump’s so-called “war with the media” is a good example of what philosophers mean by an over-determined effect: multiple causes, any one of which would be enough to support it.

Which is to say this “war” (terrible term, clumsy and lazy) will almost certainly continue, despite the periodic discovery by journalists that Trump loves to banter with reporters, and that he lives and dies by the very media coverage that he poisonously calls fake.

The campaign to discredit mainstream journalism is thus a permanent feature of Trump’s political style. Why? I have some ideas. But I probably missed a few. If you point them out in the comments (or by social media) I will add the best ones to this post, with credit.

1. Because it’s a base-only presidency with a niche, not a broadcasting strategy. I wrote about this two weeks ago:

We are used to candidates who, when they win the nomination, try to bring the party together by embracing those who supported the losers. We are used to nominees who, when they win the White House, try to bring the country together by speaking to voters who did not support them in November. This is normal behavior. This is what we expect from presidents of both parties. Trump rejects all that. His idea is to deepen the attachment between himself and his core supporters so that nothing can disturb that bond.

Attacking the national press corps makes good sense, what with the Republican base in a permanent state of rage at “cognitive elites.” It makes even better sense for a President with a base-only strategy, a decision reflected in the polling data. About a third of the country is with him: 2. Because this is what they have; they don’t have much else. The Trump presidency is a shambolic mess. As Charlie Warzel and Adrian Carrasquillo of Buzzfeed observed, hating on the media is its most consistent theme.

Trump has been clear on one issue: the untrustworthy “fake news” purveyors of the media. As he’s struggled to even put into motion the kind of sweeping legislation he promised on the campaign trail, Trump’s relentless focus on the media has been the only constant amid the disorganization. Six months in, it seems clear that Trump’s only real ideology — and the only true tenet of Trumpism — is to destroy what he believes is a deceitful mainstream media.

3. Because Trump is a creature of media— and its creation. Josh Marshall recently pointed this out: “For all the purported hatred of ‘the media’, the main Trumpers are almost all fundamentally media creatures. They think in media terms. They are media creations.” He’s right about that.

Trump himself is a self-creation of the 80s and 90s New York City tabloid culture. His comeback in the early part of this century was driven more than most people understand by the success of The Apprentice. Why else do you think people in the Philippines or Kazakhstan paid millions to license Trump’s name? It was the brand driver of the licensing empire which allowed Trump to become the 45th President.

Steve Bannon was a publisher. Before that he was a movie producer. Jared Kushner bought a newspaper and used it to fight his battles in the press. On down the list they are all media people. They don’t hate the media. Indeed, they can only understand most battles in media terms.

In a word, it’s all they know. They aren’t prepared for anything else.

4. Because people in the White House think “media” warring is governing.

When CNN fired three journalists and retracted a story about the Russia connection, White House staffers were said to be “elated.” By something CNN did. This is weird.

As he escalates his attacks on the “failing media,” Trump and his allies are increasingly convinced that recent evidence, including the retracted CNN piece on an aspect of the Russia investigations, will prove to skeptical voters that the mainstream media has a vendetta against the administration.

It’s one thing to strut about calling the news media the opposition party. That’s good theatre. It’s another to think you’ve banked a win when the press corrects itself. From the Washington Post:

Some White House advisers said they were frustrated that the Brzezinski feud — which continued to unfurl throughout the day Friday with accusations and counteraccusations — overtook the president’s fight with CNN, which seemed in their eyes to have clearer villains and heroes.

The Republican health care bill is in peril on Capital Hill. But inside the White House they’re frustrated that their preferred story line in a “war” with the media is getting eclipsed by another one the president himself introduced. Only tinker-toy strategists could be consumed by such things, but that is what we have at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW.

5. Because turning reporters into ritualized hate objects is easy to do, supporters love it, and it meets Trump’s need for public displays of dominance.

The press is not popular; we know that. Attacking journalists is a freebie: no price is paid. These things were true long before Trump announced. What he adds is a specific-to-Trump neuroses: his need to dominate others, which was visible in his only full-on press conference as President. Josh Marshall again:

We’ve collectively been living in Donald Trump’s house now for more than two years. We know him really well. We know that he sees everything through a prism of the dominating and the dominated. It’s a zero-sum economy of power and humiliation. For those in his orbit he demands and gets a slavish adoration. Even those who take on his yoke of indignity are fed a steady diet of mid-grade humiliations to drive home their status and satisfy Trump’s need not only for dominance but unending public displays of dominance. He is a dark, damaged person.

Warring with the news media over freedom and access caters to this need of his. As Josh writes:

Trump’s treatment of the press is really a version of the same game, a set of actions meant to produce the public spectacle of ‘Trump acts; reporters beg.’ ‘Reporters beg and Trump says no.’ Demanding, shaming all amount to trying to force actions which reporters have no ability to compel. That signals weakness. And that’s the point.

If part of this so-called “war” with the press is about the terms under which journalists will be allowed to report on the White House, there will never be peace. Because only by squeezing access can Trump produce the whining and pleading he requires to feel that temporary jolt of pleasure and mastery. Of course, it doesn’t fill the hole in his soul, which is why it must continue.

6. Because it’s the one campaign promise he can definitely keep. He’s not going to build a wall and get Mexico to pay for it. He’s not going to bring back coal or revive American manufacturing. He’s not going to be the master negotiator before whom the leaders of sovereign nations cave. None of that will ever unfold.

But smack around the hand-raisers in the press corps? That he can do. It requires no finesse. There is no act of Congress involved. He doesn’t have to master the issue because there is no issue, only a despised “other.” In a sense this is what he came to Washington to do, and he’s going to keep doing it. Virtually the first act of his administration was this: Sean Spicer’s put-down of the press over crowd size at Trump’s inauguration. As I wrote the next day (“send the interns!”) the message was:

It’s not a problem for us if you stagger from the room in disbelief. We’re not trying to “win the news cycle,” or win you over. We’re trying to demonstrate independence from and power over you people. This room is not just for briefings, announcements and Q & A. It’s also a theater of resentment in which you play a crucial part. Our constituency hates your guts; this is the place where we commune with them around that fact. See you tomorrow, guys!

And every day they show up. Which is another reason the “war” will continue.

7. Because with the Federal government in Republican hands there is an “enemy gap.” Hillary Clinton has been vanquished. Obama is in sunglasses, shopping and playing golf. They don’t make plausible opponents any more. But CNN does.

Listen to Trump’s remarks at the Kennedy Center July 1.

“The fake media is trying to silence us, but we will not let them. The people know the truth. The fake media tried to stop us from going to the White House, but I’m president and they’re not.”

8. Because it binds him to the base, which has been tutored in this resentment since 1969.

The Washington Post:

For Trump and his legions of loyalists, the media has become a shared enemy. “They like him, they believe in him, they have not to any large degree been shaken from him, and the more the media attacks him, the more it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy on the side of the Trump supporters who fervently believe the media treat him unfairly,” said Tony Fabrizio, the chief pollster for Trump’s campaign. “It’s like, ‘Beat me with that sword some more!’ ”

9. Because they know a lot of bad news has yet to emerge. Especially about Russia. A more competent White House with a more normal president might try to get ahead of the investigation by releasing what is surely going to come out. This White House is incapable of that. Back-up plan: discredit the carriers of the most damaging reports before the reports are carried. Which amounts to an attack on truth via the expected tellers of it.

10. Because the sheer ugliness of the spectacle repels the uncommitted, persuading them that there’s no point in paying attention. The president lacks the political skills needed to both hold on to his most committed supporters and simultaneously make nice with those who are neither core Tump voters nor the resistance. He’s not dexterous enough to manage any of that. What he can do is “depress turnout” by making things as ugly and confusing as possible for the neither-nors— not just on election day but every day.

Continuous culture war with the media serves that end. It depresses daily turnout in the political public sphere. If the only ones who show up are hard core Trump supporters on one side and the committed resistance on the other, the White House will gladly accept that. Unending war with the media is thus a demobilization tactic. As I said, the sheer ugliness of the spectacle repels the uncommitted.

Is this a conscious strategy? Probably not. But it’s still part of the “logic.”

11. Because his fantasy claims during the campaign pre-ordained critical coverage if Trump won. For example: You will have great health care. We will take care of everybody at a fraction of the cost. He actually said this! Philip Bump:

“We’re going to have insurance for everybody,” Trump told The Washington Post’s Robert Costa and Amy Goldstein during an interview less than a week before his inauguration… The plan would have “lower numbers, much lower deductibles.” The “philosophy in some circles that if you can’t pay for it, you don’t get it”? Trump insisted that “that’s not going to happen with us” — implying that there would be universal coverage regardless of income. What’s more, people could “expect to have great health care” that would be “in a much simplified form. Much less expensive and much better.”

There was never a chance that any of that could happen. There was always the certainty that the press would point this failure out. Inherent in the fact-free fantasyland where Donald Trump dwells is conflict with the news media when “we will take care of everybody at a fraction of the cost…” meets the text of an actual bill before Congress. Any bill.

Trump doesn’t know he lives in a fact-free fantasyland; that’s one of the facts he is blissfully free from. No matter how much he enjoys bantering with reporters, no matter how desperate he is for positive coverage from “the fake news,” as he calls it, the irreality at the heart of his presidency guarantees that this conflict with journalists will go on and on.

Why the White House daily briefing is in such trouble.

"Wake up: Trump is not trying to win the support of anyone who is not naturally aligned with him."

30 Jun 2017 2:00 am 28 Comments

First, read this update that CNN’s Brian Stelter included in his nightly newsletter this week:

In the past 24 hours…

 — President Trump went after two of the nation’s biggest newspapers, The New York Times and the Washington Post, with “fake news” tweets.

— The White House told reporters they could cover Trump’s first re-election fundraiser, but then made an abrupt change, “closing the event to media in a break from past precedent.”

— The W.H. prohibited TV cameras at the daily press briefing again.

— The president posted James O’Keefe‘s anti-CNN videos on his official @realDonaldTrump Instagram page, promoting the videos to millions of followers.

— Trump allies in the media continued to attack. O’Keefe’s videos were a top story again on Fox News, with Tucker Carlson at 8pm, “The Five” at 9pm, and Sean Hannity at 10pm all leading with it

— The W.H. confirmed that Trump and South Korean president Moon Jae-in aren’t planning to hold a joint news conference when Moon is here on Friday. Joint pressers are customary when heads of state are visiting. But the W.H. didn’t schedule one when Indian prime minister Narendra Modi visited on Monday, either.

The Pentagon gave a non-answer when asked why Secretary of Defense James Mattis decided to travel this week without the usual contingent of TV journalists.

— Journalists were told to leave a Justice Department event marking Pride month, which was taking place in an area normally open to press.

Now add to Stelter’s list these items…

* The damaging retraction by CNN of a wayward report about the Russia investigation that led to the resignation of three top journalists at the network. We still don’t know what was wrong with it; we just know that it did not pass through CNN’s checks and balances.

* Politico’s report that “Donald Trump and his allies believe he’s gained a tactical advantage in his war with the media… Some Trump allies suggested that the recent misstep at CNN is enough to justify drastic changes to how the White House deals with the press, including moving reporters out of the West Wing entirely.”

* Trump’s spectacularly hateful and misogynist tweets about MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski, “the latest of a string of escalating attacks by the president on the national news media.”

* The recommendation by Mike Allen of — the most insidery of all Washington journalists — to “stop going to the White House press briefings.”

* Josh Marshall’s analysis that, though the press has shown courage and enterprise in standing up to Trump, “trying to shame the President or demand he change his behavior” is a futile game. Marshall points to “Trump’s need not only for dominance but unending public displays of dominance.”

Trump’s treatment of the press is really a version of the same game, a set of actions meant to produce the public spectacle of ‘Trump acts; reporters beg.’ ‘Reporters beg and Trump says no.’ Demanding, shaming all amount to trying to force actions which reporters have no ability to compel. That signals weakness. And that’s the point.

With all that as provocation, I want to pull the camera back a bit, and offer these thoughts: Why is this happening?

We are used to candidates who, when they win the nomination, try to bring the party together by embracing those who supported the losers. We are used to nominees who, when they win the White House, try to bring the country together by speaking to voters who did not support them in November. This is normal behavior. This is what we expect from presidents of both parties.

Trump rejects all that. His idea is to deepen the attachment between himself and his core supporters so that nothing can disturb that bond. The substitution of depth (of attachment) for breadth (of appeal) is confusing and disorienting to those who believe in consensus politics. This includes many of our most prominent journalists. They are stunned and confused by this exchange.

Among the consequences is that persuasion drops out of the calculus of success, meaning: Trump is not trying to win the support of anyone who is not naturally allied with him. This is abnormal behavior in an American president. Common expectations for the occupant of the White House simply assume that a case will be made for why the country as a whole should support the person in power. Sitting on high, the press is accustomed to judging how strong or weak that case for support is. Opinion polls provide the proof, especially the president’s approval rating. But if strength of attachment matters more than breadth of appeal, then approval ratings are a misleading metric.

But it’s worse than that. Once you remove persuasion from the equation many things tumble out of place. Plausibility itself becomes superfluous. Adjusting the claims of the White House to any common measure of reality breaks down as a discipline. What matters is the strength of the bond with core supporters, not the ability of the Administration to answer questions, parry doubts, or mount a convincing case for its program. This is one reason that lying has become a White House routine.

And this is why the daily briefing is in such trouble. The whole premise of that event is that the White House ought to make a credible show before reporters because reporters are a rough proxy for the unconvinced. But what if the people in power don’t care to convince the unconvinced? And what if reporters are seen, not as any sort of proxy for the voting public, but as avatars of an elite that has already been put down by the prior year’s election returns?

The field of possibilities widens. Once persuasion drops out of the calculus, journalists seem less threatening as judges and more useful as foils. Peering out over the assembled press corps, the White House briefer has a choice of convenient hate objects. Shall it be Glenn Thrush or Jon Karl today… April Ryan or Hallie Jackson? Those called upon may think themselves empowered to put tough questions to the people in charge, but if the people in charge care only about the reactions of core supporters their task is all too simple: put down the liberal media. An easy win. And the one campaign promise the president seems able to keep.

The whole premise of the daily briefing is that the White House has to grapple with tough questions. That is the test. But what if the White House cares not if it fails this test? More access, more toughness, and more on-camera briefings are no answer to that. This is where we stand today. The Trump government isn’t trying to persuade its doubters. There is no form of toughness that can redress this fact. Forget the briefing. It is already gone. A dead form, killed by the president’s approach to politics. It doesn’t even go out to the country in the way a normal White House communique would. It runs through the press to the president’s core supporters in a kind of closed loop.

Time to start planning for unforeseen events. When all forms of access and all avenues for questioning are choked off, journalism can still thrive. But it needs to become smarter. This is why I have been saying since January: send the interns. Redirect your most experienced people to outside-in reporting. They cannot visit culture war upon you if they don’t know where you are. The press has to become less predictable. And it has to stop volunteering as a hate object.

UPDATE July 1: A reporter in the current White House briefing room responds to what I wrote here, saying he respects the argument but disagrees. He defends the briefing and the importance of being there in the White House. Read what Hunter Walker of Yahoo News has to say. Bonus: The CBC in Canada covers this post.

Getting granular with the claim that Trump is some media wizard

That our President is a master of media manipulation is a view commonly expressed by American journalists. I doubt it.

28 May 2017 11:27 am 25 Comments

I have written about this before, but it keeps coming up. So here I take a more detailed look at it. I show you ten versions of the same claim so you can gain a more rounded view of what I am talking about. After each one I comment. At the end I make some concluding points. (Or you can skip to my conclusions first, then read the analysis. Some readers recommend this.)

Date: Nov. 6, 2015
Headline: The Master of Manipulation
Jounalist: Mary Kate Cary, contributing editor, opinion section, US News and & World Report

When Trump insults war heroes, women, immigrants, his fellow candidates, Congress, members of the media – the list goes on and on – those are not one-off spontaneous outbursts where Trump is just popping off. Those are carefully planned “outrageous,” “sensational” stories used as bait to get the press to write about him – by his own admission. And it’s working. He’s become a master at manipulation.

My read: This is a very basic version of the claim in question. Trump says outrageous things that trigger eye-catching headlines (McCain got captured; what a doofus!) This is supposed to show he’s a “master” of media manipulation. Alternative view: it’s easy to generate headlines by being a colossal jerk in public. This takes no genius. It takes gall. And a press willing to amplify.

Date: January 5, 2016
Headline: Donald Trump’s free media bonanza
Journalist: Hadas Gold, media reporter at Politico

Donald Trump reserved nearly $2 million for a seven-day ad blitz in Iowa and New Hampshire this week. But the billionaire real-estate mogul and master media manipulator also got hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of free airtime on Monday — and even more in seemingly endless coverage and discussion of what amounts to a glorified press release touting his candidacy.

Trump’s new 30-second spot, released Monday morning, was played in its entirety 40 times on the cable news networks between Monday and Tuesday morning, according to POLITICO’s count. Using hour-by-hour prices provided by ad tracking firms for 30-second ads on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, POLITICO estimated that the 40 airings would have cost Trump $330,000.

My read: Here the occasion for calling Trump a “master media manipulator” is that he got free advertising by releasing a nasty ad that was replayed and discussed as news. But any reporter familiar with political advertising knows that this in no way special to Trump. One of the most famous spots ever aired on behalf of a candidate, the “Daisy girl” ad intended to raise doubts about Barry Goldwater, ran exactly once. “And yet the ensuing media discussion — and re-airing of the ad on news broadcasts — gave the ad tremendous impact.” (Link.) “Consultants now know that attacks can draw significant attention in the free media, which gives them more incentive to produce and to air negative ads than they had 25 years ago,” wrote one political scientist in 2010. Ads have been covered as news for a long time. There is simply nothing here that is unusually masterful— or characteristic of Donald Trump.

Date: March 22, 2016
Headline: How Trump became a master of manipulating the media
Journalist: Emily Jane Fox, reporter for Vanity Fair.

Trump’s rise can best be explained as a successful marketing campaign. To voters, he has branded himself as the anti-politician politician. He says what some people want to say but feel they can’t. He wins, all the time, constantly; in fact, he is the most successful person to ever walk the earth. Despite multiple high-profile, ugly divorces, he has painted himself as the consummate family man.

The electorate slurps this all up…. By all accounts, Trump has the nation rapt and the media wrapped around his short fingers. But Trump has been successfully and self-servingly manipulating the press for decades, long before he entered the political arena. As The Washington Post reported Monday, for a decade starting in the 1980s, Trump sometimes assumed a fake name and pretended to be a spokesman representing himself when the media pressed him or he wanted to craft a deliberate message without connecting his name to it.

My read:  The sentence, “Trump has the nation rapt and the media wrapped around his short fingers” is empty hype. It asserts; it does not attempt to convince. But here’s the tell: “The electorate slurps this all up.” That is an expression of contempt. Trump’s use of a fake persona shows you can fool reporters with fraud, but is that mastery? The internet has a name for the practice: sock puppetry. Practitioners of it are not normally seen as masters of anything. They are regarded as slightly pathetic.

Date: May 6, 2016
Headline: Trump a master media manipulator in his prime
Journalist: David Zurawick, media reporter and columnist, Baltimore Sun.

In August, I wrote a piece headlined, “TV may be too timid to cover Trump.” In it, I mapped some of the ways Trump was outsmarting and intimidating TV interviewers.

One of the people I interviewed was CNN’s Chris Cuomo who called Trump “The Great Deflector.” The morning-show host explained how Trump deftly deflected his questions about misogynistic comments.

“So, I ask him, ‘What about those things you said about women?'” Cuomo said. “And he says, ‘I’ll tell you who has real trouble with women: Jeb Bush.'”

And Trump was off and running, pivoting away from the question of misogyny to attack Bush.

My read: Trump is here said to be a wizard at media manipulation because he changes the subject. Deftly! As if a determined reporter could not change it back.

Date: January 12, 2017
Headline: As Trump Berates News Media, a New Strategy Is Needed to Cover Him
Journalist: Jim Rutenberg, media columnist, New York Times

There were two big lessons in the Wednesday morning melee.

1. Mr. Trump remains a master media manipulator who used his first news briefing since July to expertly delegitimize the news media and make it the story rather than the chaotic swirl of ethical questions that engulf his transition.

2. The news media remains an unwitting accomplice in its own diminishment as it fails to get a handle on how to cover this new and wholly unprecedented president.

My read: These two items are connected. One way for the press to avoid facing the “accomplice in its own diminishment” part is to testify about what a master of manipulation the guy is. If he’s awesomely great at it, then maybe being an accomplice isn’t so bad… We were tricked into participating by a master of trickery!

Date: January 11, 2017
Headline: Do Press Conferences Still Matter?
Journalist: Jeff Greenfield, writing in Politico Magazine.

To say that Trump does not have a traditional relationship with the press is a sure front-runner for Understatement of the Year… He gave more interviews to more media outlets than any other candidate—he was also far more in demand than any other candidate—and has spent countless hours on the phone with reporters, columnists and analysts. He has also shown himself to be a master of manipulation, using tweets as a symphony conductor uses his baton, all but compelling the press to cover his rant of the hour.

My read: Trump tweeted outrageous and politically risqué stuff. The press gave it crazy coverage because normally candidates are risk-averse. They’re afraid of earning high negatives. Masterful it would indeed be if Trump tweeted outrageous things and escaped high negatives. But of course he didn’t. Getting the press to cover you by saying shocking and irresponsible things does not seem that hard to me. I think I could do it. I think you could do it. The internet has a name for this practice: trolling. Everyone knows it can be effective. But it is not thought to be particularly difficult.

Date: January 17, 2017
Headline: Trump literally holds the world’s attention in the palm of his hand
Journalist: Abby Phillip, reporter, Washington Post

With Twitter, Trump — known as a master marketer in the real estate and entertainment world — has met his medium. Just as he stamps his buildings and properties around the world with his name, each Trump tweet is branded with his name and likeness and sends a clear signal to the political world about what he wants them to know.

Trump has thrown out the traditional social media handbook and replaced it with his own unmistakable flair. There are few hashtags or photos to catch the eye, only outrageous statements and exclamation marks. Trump rarely vets the content he retweets, largely ignoring established brands, preferring instead to amplify the voices of real people.

My read: Wanna know what a genius the man is at marketing his message? You’re not gonna believe this. “Each Trump tweet is branded with his name and likeness.” Amazing. And you know what else? He retweets random people who agree with him! Yes. But that’s not all. He doesn’t care if what they’re saying is true. No fact checking! Would you have thought of that? Admit it: you wouldn’t. Learn from the master, people.

Date: March 1, 2017
Headline: Trump Moves to Become Master of His Own Messages
Journalists: Maggie Haberman and Michael M. Grynbaum, reporters for the New York Times

All presidents lunch with major news anchors. But this week’s White House gathering was different. The president kept his guests 30 minutes beyond the allotted hour, was gracious and spoke so much that he left his peekytoe crab salad untouched — a recognition, those close to him say, that he must sell himself to the Washington news media because he believes the people who work for him cannot….

A master media manipulator and storyteller, Mr. Trump went without a traditional press secretary during the presidential campaign, preferring to field queries on his own. Now he is increasingly taking command of his administration’s message making, and privately expressing frustration with a White House press office under siege amid leaks and infighting.

My read: I don’t know how to evaluate this claim: “master media manipulator and storyteller.” It seems to refer to interactions between Trump and the newspaper reporters who interview him. These moments are normally unavailable to us. In a Twitter exchange about this very thing, Maggie Haberman advised me: “I’ve covered Trump periodically for 20 years. He is actually better at this aspect than traditional pols.” Better how? I do not know. When I told her I hadn’t seen the evidence of his mastery she replied: “Maybe your criticism should allow for things you don’t know first-hand.” Fair enough, Maggie! Dear readers: I have never interviewed Donald Trump. So I have not seen first hand his wizardry in manipulating reporters. Still: something makes me doubt the blinding brilliance of it. Maybe it’s the fact that he’s gotten more negative press than any candidate or president ever. Which leads us to…

Date: May 12, 2017
Headline: “The Subject Is the Proper Noun Donald Trump”
Journalist: Glenn Thrush, reporter, New York Times on WNYC’s On the Media
Context: Thrush was discussing an interview he and Maggie Haberman had done with Trump. It was supposed to be about infrastructure spending. Trump made an evidence-free accusation that Susan Rice broke the law “by seeking to learn the identities of Trump associates swept up in surveillance of foreign officials by United States spy agencies.” Glenn comments:

“We’re former tabloid reporters from New York. We went in with a very broadsheet mentality: to discuss infrastructure. He knows we’re tabloid folks. And he knows he can make news any time. I was annoyed personally by the fact that he chose to use the interview to kind of go off on Susan Rice. We had to report it… It was in the middle of a news cycle. We couldn’t have buried it, that’s not our function. That he why he is so effective. He understands the fact that we have a dual function: to break news, to get scoops, and to provide insight. We’d prefer to have those two halves of our being fused seamlessly together. Donald Trump — and this is his genius — understands how to cut us in half. He gets between us and our imperative. That is a very, very sophisticated thing that he does.”

My read: We’re supposed to believe it was effective, and an act of genius, for Trump to float an evidence-free charge against Susan Rice, and get Glenn and Maggie to feature it, when they had other ideas for the interview. But was it? A week later this is what CNN reported:

After a review of the same intelligence reports brought to light by House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers and aides have so far found no evidence that Obama administration officials did anything unusual or illegal, multiple sources in both parties tell CNN.

Their private assessment contradicts President Donald Trump’s allegations that former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice broke the law by requesting the “unmasking” of US individuals’ identities. Trump had claimed the matter was a “massive story.”

Summing up: The New York Times reporters wanted him to talk about something positive he could do for the American people that was squarely on his governance agenda and has bipartisan support: infrastructure spending. But Trump cleverly diverted the conversation to a baseless charge about the previous administration that was soon shot down by his own party, after which the story sank. And the Times reporters were helpless, because the baseless charge was news. Genius!

Date: May 14, 2017.
Headline: Does Trump watch too much TV?
Journalist: Michael Scherer, reporter for Time on CNN’s Reliable Sources

“The president has always been an enormously sophisticated consumer of media. If you go back to the campaign, when he called Jeb Bush ‘low energy’ or Marco Rubio ‘little Marco,’ those were punditry moves. He was commenting on television, not on them as politicians, but on how they came across on television. And he still consumes his own presidency very much as a television show.” [Brian Stelter: when you went for your interview, he was watching TV with you, right?] “Not just was he watching it with us, we walked into the Oval Office, he said: ‘Come on, I want to show you something.’ He had queued it up for us, and he wanted to show it to us, and he wanted to do color commentary, which was actually rather vicious.”

My read: “The President can watch himself on TV and play pundit at the same time. I know that sounds impossible, but he gave us a live demo. In the White House. It’s real, folks. And let me tell you: the man is a champion television watcher. He’s incredible at it. Enormously sophisticated…”

Conclusion: To the claim that Trump is a master of media manipulation — which I doubt — I offer these alternatives:

1.) He cannot be shamed. Trump does not care if he is shown to be a liar, idiot, ignoramus, clown, or monster. Most people are not built like that. Therefore he can generate media attention without caring about the consequences. Most people are not built like that, either.

Trump is exceptional, but this is different from saying he is a masterful. In fact, he’s a compulsive. Which is the opposite of mastery. Everything explained by attributing to Trump some genius for the media arts is better explained by his utter shamelessness, his malignant narcissism— and his indifference to being the clown figure.

2.) He is risk-friendly in a field where nearly all practitioners are risk-averse. This follows from what I just said. Enormously risky behavior is routine for Donald Trump, because he simply doesn’t care if he is shown to be a liar, idiot, ignoramus, clown, or ethical monster. Therefore he can accuse a previous President of the United States of a devilish crime without any evidence… and feel fine about it. It’s true that by these methods he dominates the news agenda and forces attention to his groundless charges, but “master media manipulator” is a poor description of the man who would do that.

3.) If you have opened yourself to manipulation, it’s less bad if a master of it did this to you. Think about it. If it takes a wizard to manipulate me, I must be pretty smart… right? When journalists testify to Trump’s genius as a mover of media they are bragging in a way they don’t quite realize. For they are implicitly saying: genius is required to manipulate us. Sorry, it’s not. Anyone in a position of power willing to float a false accusation can get you to cover it— and subvert your intention to cover something else. Anyone eager to make a spectacle of himself can create lurid headlines. Anyone smashing to bits norms of democratic governance will dominate the news agenda.

If you are a man, and you bite a dog, that does not make you a master of anything. But it does make of you news.

“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!