It’s an unforgettable exchange: CNN’s Jim Acosta trying to get President-elect Donald Trump to recognize him and allow him to ask a question moments after Trump tore into CNN for reporting that top government officials were made aware of an unsubstantiated dossier filled with details of what the Russians might know about him.
Trump demanded that Acosta not be rude, refused to allow him to ask a question and dismissed CNN as “fake news.”
For a man who is days away from assuming the highest political office in the country, his words and his gestures were far from presidential. Whether Acosta’s pleas to ask a question also were infantile or demonstrative of how journalists should hold politicians to account for their words and actions also is worth considering.
For many media analysts, the exchange between the two men crystallized how Trump will treat the White House press corps and the mainstream media in general. It didn’t take long for the New York Times to urge the journalism community to gird for battle.
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.
It better figure things out, fast, because it has found itself at the edge of the cliff. And our still-functioning (fingers crossed) democracy needs it to stay on the right side of the drop.
One of the challenges in reporting about Trump is that he wants no part of the media. He doesn’t want to answer their questions or give them any credibility. The Columbia Journalism Review suggests what should already seem obvious — no modern president has ever adopted such a position.
Trump’s wild unpredictability deconstructs itself. That is one reason why it is, in the eyes of Trump’s followers, immune to being exposed and condemned by the media. When the very nature of the man is contradictory and self-undermining, it is difficult to contradict or undermine him. The media cannot use a narrative woven out of the truth—e.g., the integrity of the country depends on the integrity of its elected officials—in order to expose lies that are composed of fragments. It is like trying to use water to remove an oil stain.
About the only narrative that does work is Trump likes Twitter. He uses it to rail against his critics. He uses it to praise people whom he likes. He uses it to offer his political thoughts for that day. In short, he turns 140 or fewer characters into a guaranteed media event.
Speaking of media events, one Russian journalist thinks that Trump might deal with the media much like Russian president Vladimir Putin does. Alexey Kovalev describes what that might mean.
These things are carefully choreographed, typically last no less than four hours, and Putin always comes off as an omniscient and benevolent leader tending to a flock of unruly but adoring children. Given that Putin is probably a role model for Trump, it’s no surprise that he’s apparently taking a page from Putin’s playbook.
Will — can? — this open disdain, this deliberate refusal to respond to the mainstream media continue when Trump assumes the presidency in one week?
There’s no reason to believe that Trump will wake up on Jan. 21, realize the enormity of the office he has assumed and become a cordial man. The White House press corps will not throw their collective hands in the air, admit they have lost the battle and allow Trump to rule more as bully than president.
But until some form of detente is agreed to, what types of stories will be press corps report?