Trump, press corps could use a time­out

The Modesto Bee - - Opinion - BY MARTIN SCHRAM

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.

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