In Cincinnati last week, President-elect Donald Trump took an unexpected swipe at reporters covering his rally. Pointing at “the people back there,” and calling them “the extremely dishonest press,” he proceeded to criticize the news media for predicting Hillary Clinton would beat him in the election.
Trump has yet to hold a press conference a month after his election. He has one scheduled for Dec. 15 to talk about a subject of his choosing: his plans to put a firewall between his White House job and his businesses. His last press conference as a candidate was in July.
This is unusual; you’d expect an incoming president to want to establish working relationships with the reporters who will be covering him, to talk about plans and Cabinet picks and whatever else. But Trump has repeatedly declared his dislike for the press, which he claims is biased against him.
During the campaign, he refused to meet with editorial boards of papers, many of whom had been critical of him. He selectively shut out reporters from those media from getting press credentials to attend his campaign events. And he famously picked fights with journalists who anchored presidential debates, including Megyn Kelly, Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz. He continues taking to Twitter to trash some reporters by name.
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Last week that distinction went to CNN’s Jeff Zeleny, a senior Washington correspondent who was once a colleague of mine at The Des Moines Register. We here know him to be a fair, responsible journalist in dogged pursuit of the facts — such a consummate professional, you’d never know what his personal political leanings were.
But after he called Trump a “sore winner” on TV for claiming massive voter fraud had given Hillary Clinton a win in the popular vote, Trump came back at him. In a series of tweets and re-tweets, including from someone who might be a teenager, Trump called Zeleny “just another generic CNN part-time wannabe journalist.”
To which the ever-polite Zeleny, tweeted back: “Good evening! Have been looking for examples of voter fraud. Please send our way. Full-time journalist here still working.”
For the record, The Washington Post has found only four documented cases of voter fraud nationwide this presidential election. Clinton won the popular vote by more than 2 million.
Trump’s habit of tweeting whatever’s on his mind in 140 or fewer characters has complicated the news media’s role. If they report on his tweets, they get backlash from other media, as well as from Trump opponents.
At a Des Moines gathering last week in the home of Democratic state Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, community members of different races, religions and ethnicities who did not support Trump criticized the press for covering his tweets in place of, say, his policies. Some at the Des Moines gathering blamed the press for giving the election to Trump.
It’s not that journalists always get it right. But without direct access to the candidate to ask specifics about his positions, reporters can only rely on what others say or what is on the record from his past, which excludes political office. Plenty was reported about Trump’s past missteps in his personal and business life, but that didn’t sway his supporters the way the same things would have coming from, say, Mitt Romney or Hillary Clinton.
In past elections, the press has been criticized for covering the “horse-race” aspects of an election to the exclusion of substance. This time it’s accused of focusing on trivia or on negativity. But should the media be faulted for reporting exactly what Trump said, if it is offensive or trivial?
Other candidates may have been less willing to appear biased by maligning particular groups like Muslims or Latino immigrants, or speak of women the way Trump did, even privately.
But when a major-party candidate makes broad or inflammatory remarks in speeches, or contradicts his earlier positions, or makes grandiose promises it is hard to imagine him keeping, isn’t the press obligated to report them?
Past presidents have had difficult relationships with the press. Richard Nixon and Watergate come to mind. But all seem to have at least understood that it’s a symbiotic relationship where each has to do its job for the other to succeed.
Until now, the public has been able to count on informed journalists raising important questions to keep our leaders accountable. But as with everything else, Trump either doesn’t understand that or wants to make up new rules based on his ego needs.
If the U.S. president will bypass the press to protect his feelings, while communicating in self-congratulatory one-line quips, it could be the stuff of devastating comedy. It would also put us in league with banana republics rather than leaders of the free world. One can only hope he doesn’t go that route, but maybe it’s not the press that needs to be asking.