Donald Trump’s precedent-breaking refusal to allow a small pool of journalists to cover his travels as president-elect has revealed some common ground in our otherwise fractured republic.
Good, Trump supporters tell me. The press deserves to be treated badly after being against him.
Good, Hillary Clinton supporters tell me. The press built Trump up and obsessed over her emails.
As the news media emerges from a round of post-election self-flagellation—some deserved, some excessive—this shared antipathy toward the press’s concerns shows that journalists have some work to do in convincing a skeptical public that their goal isn’t to destroy or promote the president. It’s to have enough access to comprehensively cover him on the public’s behalf.
Not everyone’s going to be swayed. My Twitter feed is clogged with Trump fans convinced journalists are essentially “dishonest scum”—to borrow from the incoming president—and armed with so much misinformation that it’s impossible to have a good-faith, fact-based debate about the Fourth Estate. But for others across the political spectrum who believe the press, though flawed, still serves a valuable function in our democracy, there’s an opportunity.
Take the “protective pool,” for example.
Most Americans, and many journalists outside Washington, don’t know that a “protective pool” of reporters traditionally follows the president when leaving the White House (and ideally the current president-elect when departing Trump Tower). It’s not necessarily a glamour assignment, with pool reporters, at times, waiting hours outside a golf course while the president hits the links. But if assigned to ride in John F. Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas on November 22, 1963 or to cover George W. Bush reading to Florida schoolchildren on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, there’s the potential to write the first draft of history.
Even as polls show Americans viewing the news media about as favorably as Vladimir Putin, I’d still expect many to immediately turn on CNN or Fox News, or head to a local or national newspaper site, in times of crisis. So, in this case, journalists should explain that what may look like whining—“Trump didn’t take us to the 21 Club!”—is actually the press advocating for access to best serve the public. And without them, the government’s word is all there is.
Some journalists recently mined their own experience to make the press’s case before a skeptical public. Yahoo’s Olivier Knox recalled his own experience flying aboard Air Force Two and how he and other pool reporters clarified for the larger press corps (and by extension the public) that the Vice President was safe after an unexpected landing. The Wall Street Journal’s Byron Tau wrote a clear-cut Q&A on the topic of press pools and other journalists responded to questions on Twitter.
News organizations aren’t bound any more by old constraints like column inches in print. So when press access issues bubble up into the mainstream, journalists have social media and unlimited space on the web to quickly explain the significance. Whether the public gets on board or not is up to them.
The recent release of emails stolen from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s inbox was a moment when I—as someone who’s covered the intersection of politics and the press spanning three election cycles—could’ve done better. As a media reporter, I dug through the WikiLeaks material in search of journalistic malfeasance, even plugging in the names of specific news outlets and reporters. I was looking for breaking news when what might’ve been most useful is an explanation of whether these exchanges were unusual, and especially, if they were journalistically unethical.
I found several instances of journalists catching Clinton’s team flat-footed with their reporting, forcing staffers to hash out our statements in hopes of tamping down a controversy. Of course, these weren’t the emails Trump supporters and conservative outlets tended to amplify in making the case that the media is corrupt and in cahoots with the Democrats. The most damning media-related emails, to me, featured former CNN pundit and then-Democratic National Committee vice chair Donna Brazile sending primary debate questions to the Clinton campaign. But Brazile isn’t a journalist.
Some pushing the collusion theme seized on instances of obsequiousness. Though unseemly, it’s not unheard of for reporters to cozy up to high-ranking officials of either party. That didn’t seem particularly newsworthy. Some also highlighted journalists sending pre-publication copy to sources, which is a violation of journalistic protocol. It’s an issue worth covering, as I’ve done before, but just didn’t seem like a pressing concern in the waning weeks of the election and certainly not evidence of any far-reaching conspiracy
I also didn’t write about emails showing reporters had a private dinner at Podesta’s house before Clinton launched her presidential bid. That’s because I first reported on the Podesta dinner 18 months before the WikiLeaks emails dropped. I also didn’t write on a New York Times reporter’s off-the-record arrangement with Clinton because I already did in July 2015. I clearly believed such behind-the-scenes dealings were in the public’s interest when covering them last year, but failed to seriously readdress when a much broader audience was learning about them for the first time.
If journalists don’t engage in such discussions, they’re ceding the debate to those looking to vilify and delegitimize the press at a dangerous moment in history when the soon-to-be-most powerful person in the world has already laid the groundwork for doing just that.