Right before the scheduled Cabinet meeting, the press was, well, “pressing” the President.
“Mr. President, Mr. President, Mr. President,” they shrieked in unison. What they all wanted to know was when they could expect decisions on important national security issues.
“Actually, it’s getting close. So, I’ll have quite a bit to say about that very soon,” was the evasive answer from the most powerful man in the world. “And with that, I’m going to kick you all out.”, which he did to universal grousing.
At a subsequent meeting with the media, the President was asked when he would be making a long-awaited appointment. “If I appoint somebody, I’ll let you know,” he answered dismissively. To which one anti-Administration reporter took the confrontation up a notch, challenging the President on Russian sanctions in particular and criticizing his foreign policy in general.
“Well,” responded the obviously irked Commander in Chief, “I doubt that I’m going to have time to lay out my entire foreign policy doctrine. And there are actually some complimentary pieces as well about my foreign policy, but I’m not sure you ran them.”
Just a snapshot of the testy relationship between the White House press corps and President … Barack Obama.
Now, compare these tentative, cat-and-mouse confrontations with this most recent scrum that typifies the current relationship between the media and the current White House occupant.
Reporter: “Are you concerned you could be called to answer on what Mr. Mueller said today about the connection between Wikileaks and your administration?”
Trump: “Wikileaks is a hoax, just like everything else … It was a witch hunt, a total witch hunt. And you saw Robert Mueller’s statement correcting himself in the afternoon testimony. And you know what that correction was, and you still ask the question. And ya’ know, why? Because you’re fake news.”
Reporter: “Are you saying his answers weren’t generally truthful?”
Trump: “I don’t know whose answers weren’t. If you look at the whole report, some of the things he didn’t even know about. The performance was obviously not very good. He had a lot of problems. But what he showed more than anything else was that this whole thing has been three years of embarrassment and waste of time for our country. What else?”
Reporter: “Did your son, Donald Trump, Jr., talk to Mueller?”
Trump: “I don’t know. Frankly, whether or not he did wouldn’t matter to me, because he did nothing wrong. Yeah, go ahead.”
Reporter: “But he said the meeting at Trump Plaza was questionable.”
Trump: “No, he didn’t say that. Again, you’re fake news, right at the top of the list also. Let me just tell you, read his correction. If you read his correction, you’ll find out. That’s why people don’t deal with you, ‘cuz you’re not an honest reporter. Next.”
Welcome to the most media-friendly President in the history of the Republic.
Oh sure, he despises the press and labels most of them “enemies of the people.” And, of course, most of the media, openly and defiantly, despise him right back.
But in terms of accessibility and candor and willingness to answer every question in any context that any reporter cares to ask, there’s never been a more accommodating President than Donald J. Trump.
In the more than half a century since John F. Kennedy was President—and best buddies with reporters like then Newsweek’s D.C. bureau chief Ben Bradlee—the relationship between the President and the press has become more distant. Democrats like Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Obama and Republicans like Richard Nixon and the two George Bushes were notoriously suspicious of the media. Even presumed press darlings like Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan studiously kept their distance from prying media eyes. Reagan—the so-called “Great Communicator”—was, in fact, a master of staged events, dealing with print and television reporters strictly on his own terms to his optimal benefit.
All of these Presidents used their press secretaries to serve as a buffer and do most of the daily heavy lifting with the media. That’s why the best press secretaries—Larry Speakes, Tony Snow, Ari Fleischer, Robert Gibbs and Josh Earnest, among them—enjoyed great power and fame, becoming the most powerful public relations professionals of their time.
But all that has changed under President Trump. The press secretary in the Trump Administration has become a diminished functionary for one simple reason. Trump requires no “buffer” with the media; he’s his own chief spokesman.
Rather than daily press briefings or periodic press conferences, Trump makes himself “available” virtually every time he leaves the White House. His regular press scrums, with Marine One helicopter looming in the background, have become must-see TV, rollicking reportorial slugfests, with journalists screaming out impolitic questions and Trump answering all comers.
Meanwhile, the media’s daily agenda is set by early morning Presidential tweets, many of them callous, offensive and embarrassing in their lack of decorum. The media lap up the tweets like catnip. And thus, President Trump regularly manages the news cycle.
For their part, the media, consumed as most of them are with contempt for their White House adversary, have proven little match for the Tweeter-in-Chief. Respect for journalists continues to decline, with the most recent Pew Study reporting that more than half of all Americans expressing “little” or “no” confidence in the media and 61 percent believing “the news media ignore important stories.”
Accordingly, one wonders how the diminishing reputation of the U.S. media might be affected if the press focused more on the important policies and actions of the Trump Administration rather than on its own unrestrained contempt for the most media-accessible President in history.
Fraser P. Seitel has been a communications consultant, author and teacher for 40 years. He’s author of the Pearson text “The Practice of Public Relations,” now in its 13th edition, and co-author of “Rethinking Reputation" and "Idea Wise.” He may be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.