On the campaign trail, Donald Trump often shut out members of the mainstream media, barring certain reporters and entire outlets from attending his rallies. During the transition, he would dodge the press pool, once forcing them to stake out his dinner in Manhattan from behind a dumpster.
But a funny thing happened when Trump reached the White House: He quietly cozied up to reporters. Though Trump continues to beat up on the “very dishonest” media, behind-the-scenes relationships between White House officials and the women and men who cover them are surprisingly intimate.
This chumminess is more dangerous for the press than anything Trump ever threatened reporters with. It has encouraged a kind of White House coverage that is high on horse-race drama, but light on real impact.
Before Trump took office, some cheered the prospect of a closed-off White House, expecting that reporters would become scrappier without their usual access to administration sources. The Columbia Journalism Review envisioned the return of “a healthy skepticism of executive power and official sources that has been lacking over a generation of insider-centric reporting.” Sure enough, the election has renewed an interest in investigative journalism, as teams of reporters try to peer into his opaque finances and webs of influences.
But so far, the day-to-day dramas at the White House are grabbing most of the headlines — and policy reporting is being stifled.
Instead of being cut off, reporters are now inundated with tips from inside the White House. The administration leaks tremendously, with high-level staffers regularly texting reporters to register their own version of events, as a recent Politico magazine story revealed in detail. Instead of snubbing the mainstream media, factions of the administration have been actively engaging with it, using the pages of the New York Times and The Washington Post to play out their internal spats.
The administration still places outsized respect in mainstream news outlets. How else to explain why Trump still conducts exclusive interviews with the “failing” New York Times? Or why White House officials fret over which Trump advisers make it onto Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people? Or why, when the House vote on Obamacare repeal was called off, Trump immediately dialed the “false and angry” Washington Post — and not friendlier outlets like Breitbart or the Daily Caller or Fox News?
But the constant stream of scooplets flowing from Team Trump to the biggest outlets in media — Kushner’s up! No, Kushner’s down! Trump wants a border tax! No, a carbon tax! — has inflamed the worst tendencies of political journalists.
Consider the endless coverage of White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, stories all jam-packed with juicy anecdotes from anonymous administration sources. (Did you know that Trump was annoyed at Bannon for making it onto the cover of Time magazine?) It’s worth covering Bannon insofar as his standing in the White House is a sign of whether his anti-immigrant, nationalist ideas are finding favor. But the incredible access granted to reporters lures them into more often covering interpersonal dramas that are not necessarily consequential.
Meanwhile, the soppy climate of leaks and counter-leaks has stymied policy reporters, who struggle to explain what’s really going on in the administration — and even to sort out what’s real and what’s an attempt to manipulate the press.
“If you’re doing anything involving any sort of palace intrigue, they are crazy cooperative,” one anonymous reporter told Politico. “But if you have any sort of legitimate question, if you need a yes or no answer on policy, they’re impossible.”
Trump, for his part, also seems to recognize that his personal squabbles with the media are more of a publicity stunt than an actual duel to the death. (Vox’s Matt Yglesias has dubbed this dynamic a “pro-wrestling style show feud for mutual benefit.”)
Even as he tries to delegitimize the press with his public insults, Trump keeps a keen eye, in private, on his staffers’ media appearances. In a telling anecdote from a Washington Post story this weekend, Trump allegedly praised press secretary Sean Spicer for drumming up TV viewers with his daily scuffles in the press briefing room:
“I’m not firing Sean Spicer,” [Trump] said, according to someone familiar with the encounter. “That guy gets great ratings. Everyone tunes in.”
Trump even likened Spicer’s daily news briefings to a daytime soap opera, noting proudly that his press secretary attracted nearly as many viewers.
The media has reaped rewards from all of this too, of course. The New York Times added hundreds of thousands of subscribers this past year, and the Washington Post, which recently adopted the motto “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” reported a profit at the end of 2016. CNN, another favorite Trump punching bag, said earlier this year that ratings and profits were both up. Vox.com has enjoyed a surge of Trump-related readership, as well.
The unique dramas of the Trump campaign were distracting enough during the election. Harvard professor Thomas Patterson, who analyzed political coverage in 2016, found that “in the overall context of election coverage, issues have played second fiddle.” This is a structural flaw of the media, which tends to focus on what’s new — but policy problems are hardly ever new. “If they came and went overnight, they would not be problems,” Patterson writes.
This bad habit of horse-race reporting — fixating on the blow-by-blow instead of the big picture — usually subsides somewhat after an election. But not this time.
All of this becomes an issue when the drama starts to sidetrack reporters, and readers, from the substantive matters of the day. This is the real risk that Trump poses to the fourth estate. He’s dangerous not because he calls reporters mean names, but because he’s embroiled them in his disorderly world of internecine quarrels and public playfighting.