In age of Trump, political reporters are in demand and under attack

  • Michael M. Grynbaum
  • The New York Times
7:00 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018 Politics
DOUG MILLS/NYT
President Donald Trump speaks to reporters as he departs the White House in Washington, Dec. 4, 2017. Trump has had hostile words for the news media and has rejected formal press conferences, but he often spars with reporters on the fly, sometimes for as long as an hour.

Asked to reflect on the relationship between President Donald Trump and the news media — an abusive yet symbiotic union, if there ever was one — Stephen K. Bannon, the former White House chief strategist, paused a moment to consider. 

“It’s the first McLuhanesque presidency,” he said, finally, leaning back in a chair on the parlor floor of his residence here Thursday. “One hundred percent.” 

Bannon, who was recently excommunicated from his own media empire, Breitbart News, is not the first to draw a line from Trump to Marshall McLuhan, the theorist whose “the medium is the message” mantra predicted a media-saturated era where reality is less important than its representation. 

Still, he has a point: “Fox & Friends” routinely prompts presidential edicts, tsetse-like tweets from @realDonaldTrump swarm lawmakers and shape policy, and the pronouncements of Time magazine or MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough can carry outsize importance in the Oval Office. 

“The digital world is more real than the physical, analog world,” Bannon said, adding, of Trump, “He understands that in a very visceral way.” 

Since Trump took office a year ago, the political press has endured a sustained assault from a chief executive who has called journalists “the enemy of the American people.” Yet the news media has also driven decisions inside the West Wing to a degree perhaps unmatched since the scandal-ridden days of Richard Nixon. And White House aides and reporters alike say that political reality is being refracted by the media in an unprecedented way. 

Some reporters, in unguarded moments, say they fear for journalists’ safety. Margaret Talev, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, was moved to tears in an interview as she recounted the death threats that now routinely land in her colleagues’ emails. 

Other journalists — ironic, cynical or simply enterprising, depending on your point of view — have embraced the moment as the wildest ride of their lives, and a lucrative one, too: The number of Washington reporters with cable television contracts, some with salaries verging on six figures, has surged. 

It is a boom time for investigative reporting — witness the revelations unearthed by the The New York Times, Politico, The Washington Post and others — and also for rank incrementalism. A story’s “buzz,” variously defined by the number of retweets, Facebook likes, or panicked text messages from White House aides that it generates, is at a premium, fueling news outlets that condense political reporting from 1,000-word stories into stand-alone nuggets designed to set Twitter aflame. 

Trust in the press has eroded thanks, in part, to Trump and his allies, the ubiquitous phrase “fake news” osmosing its way into the American psyche. Yet newspaper subscriptions and television news ratings, once in free-fall, have perked back up. 

“When he says you’ll miss me when I’m gone, and your ratings will go through the floor, he’s absolutely correct,” Bannon said, mischievously, of Trump. “That’s McLuhan talking through Trump.” 

Bannon played a not-minor role in creating the current media atmosphere: At Breitbart News, where he was executive chairman until his abrupt exit this month, he whipped up anger against CNN and other major news organizations; upon entering the White House, he instructed the news media to “keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.”  

Wearing four visible layers of shirts (including a zip-up fleece from West Point, which one of his daughters attended), Bannon declined to speak on the record about his own role in making the fraught new media environment. But there were signs that, like Trump, he is aware that he has benefited from the same news media that he likes to denigrate. 

A copy of “Devil’s Bargain,” a chronicle of Bannon’s rise to prominence by Bloomberg Businessweek journalist Joshua Green, sat on the mantle above the fireplace. The book is being adapted into a television series by the powerful Hollywood producer Jason Blum, who recently flew to Washington to meet with Bannon at his home.  

A year ago, the worries of Washington journalists were manifold: eviction from the West Wing, the end of regular pool reports and briefings, a Breitbart takeover of White House coverage. None of these anxieties came to fruition; in fact, last week, when Trump wandered into a small reporters’ briefing with his chief of staff, John F. Kelly, Breitbart’s White House correspondent was one of the journalists grumbling afterward about not being invited. 

Trump has forsaken formal news conferences, and his usual forum for sit-down interviews has been Fox News. (Last week, in Davos, the president acquiesced to interviews with CNBC and British presenter Piers Morgan, who has usually been friendly toward Trump.) But he has embraced the “pool sprays” — journalist jargon for a White House photo-op — to spar with reporters off-the-cuff, sometimes for nearly an hour at a time. 

“Amid the insanity of the attacks on our industry, you have this journalistic nirvana,” said Jim VandeHei, a co-founder of Politico who now runs Axios, an outlet that went live a year ago with the aim of distilling Washington’s complexities into highly tweetable microscoops. “You get play-by-play visibility you could only dream of under previous presidents.” 

VandeHei proselytized for his site’s “smart brevity” philosophy during an interview at Axios’ Virginia offices, inside a co-working space where pale ale is on tap and the coffee urns specify the altitude at which the beans are grown. 

Axios covers the Trump administration with a bullet-pointed morning newsletter, by the well-connected Washington journalist Mike Allen, and quick-hit scoops from its sole White House reporter, Jonathan Swan. To hear VandeHei tell it, the era of the in-depth newspaper story is over. 

“People aren’t reading that long and, to be honest, they shouldn’t have to,” he said.  

An Axios buzzword is “illuminate” — tell readers exactly what they need to know, and nothing more. Swan, a newcomer to Washington who regularly breaks news, does not attend White House briefings, where fresh information can be scarce. 

His avoidance of the ritual is likely to cheer liberal critics who say the Washington press has been too meek and rigid in adjusting to the Trump juggernaut. There were groans, in November, after a briefing during which the press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, asked White House reporters to preface their questions with a list of what they were thankful for — a schoolyard exercise that some journalists played along with.  

But Talev, a Bloomberg News correspondent and president of the Correspondents’ Association, said the briefing remains an opportunity to force the administration to speak on the record — a crucial forum in an era when truth is blurred. “We think briefings serve people; we think open dialogue serves people,” she said in an interview at Peet’s Coffee, a block from her West Wing desk. 

Talev said her father escaped Communist Bulgaria in the 1960s, where dissent was squashed and criticizing government officials was forbidden. Her work, she said, feels personal these days. Under her watch, the Correspondents’ Association has created a new committee on reporters’ security, to assist members who receive threats, an increasingly common occurrence. 

April D. Ryan, the White House reporter for American Urban Radio Networks and one of the few black correspondents in the briefing room, has described receiving menacing and racist messages; she was subsequently derided as “Miss Piggy” by a high-ranking official in the Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

Last week, a man in Michigan was arrested on suspicion of threatening CNN’s Atlanta headquarters, the kind of real-world effect reporters here worry may be the inevitable result of a president who once called the press “a great danger to our country.” 

Work in the capital, however, goes on. Beneath the White House briefing room, where about two dozen journalists occupy a warren of cramped offices and cubicles, the mood is like that of any other workplace, as it was under past administrations. 

But subtle subversions do exist. For months, a New Yorker cartoon has been tacked to the wall in a prominent place by the stairs. It shows two bearded prisoners hanging inside a dungeon. 

One prisoner to the other: “Personally, I prefer the old White House pressroom.”