Trump, press corps could use a timeout
President Donald Trump walked into his East Room news conference Wednesday with a carefully scripted plan. He hoped to make the day memorable for the un-Trumpian way he extended an olive branch to Democrats who had captured control of the House.
Then all hell erupted. And what we’ll mainly recall from the president’s post-election performance was how Trump steered his press conference off the rails with bursts of anger at innocuous questioners.
Especially his dangerously provocative tirade at the journalist he most loves to hate: CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta. “CNN should be ashamed of itself having you working for them,” Trump finally thundered at Acosta. “You are a rude, terrible person. You shouldn’t be working for CNN.”
Hours later, Trump’s anger exploded anew, as his White House yanked Acosta’s White House press credential. All because Trump didn’t like Acosta’s style of questioning.
I, too, have been caught in the cross-hairs of an irate president. Eight presidents ago, Richard Nixon fumed to his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman (who was subsequently jailed for his Watergate crimes) about the way I was covering his presidency for Newsday. Specifically, how we at Newsday had begun an investigation into the finances of Nixon and his best pal, Florida banker Charges (Bebe) Rebozo.
Nixon ordered his staff to freeze me out — no interviews! — so I couldn’t do my job (didn’t work). Then Nixon banned me and Newsday from covering his historic trip to China (that worked). But not even on the worst day did Nixon revoke my White House press credential.
At Wednesday’s news conference, Acosta properly pursued a topic Trump should have been pressed to explain long ago — why he told rallies that Central American migrants walking a thousand miles toward the U.S. were a dangerous “invasion” by undesirables — not refugees desperately trying to save their children from being trapped in corrupt countries overrun by gangs and drugs. But Acosta didn’t carefully focus his question; he didn’t ask Trump to cite any intelligence analysis justifying his use of “invasion.”
Instead, Acosta wound up debating and lecturing Trump. He continued even after Trump said: “You and I have a difference of opinion.”
When Trump called on another reporter, Acosta wouldn’t surrender his hand-held White House mic. He just kept talking as a young Trump aide in a maroon dress tried to yank it away. Later the White House falsely contended Acosta placed “his hands on a young woman.”
Until they yanked Acosta’s credential, this was going to be a very different column. Because, frankly, there is a lot about the ways some of my fellow journalists go about their jobs that I don’t like. Some approach press conferences as if their job is to debate those we cover. Too many ask imprecise questions, or try to jam several unrelated topics into one unfocused query.
The key to asking tough questioning is facts — strong research, anticipating a person’s response, avoiding the loopholes, and forcing the responder to focus on the heart of the problem.
Wednesday, an African-American reporter tried to ask Trump about his repeated claim of being a “nationalist” — much to the pleasure of racist white nationalists. Trump rebelled, repeatedly calling her question racist. But the reporter never mentioned to Trump that he had pleasantly answered the query before — when it was asked of him by Fox News’ Laura Ingraham.
Journalists need to reevaluate what they are trying to accomplish and how they go about it — how we can show respect for the institution we are covering even while asking tough-minded questions on behalf of the American people.
Today we sometimes appear to be a bellowing herd. Or a gaggle of debaters. Those are not our most effective tools of reporting.