Trump and White House press corps can both use a time­out

Lodi News-Sentinel - - OPINION - MAR­TIN SCHRAM Mar­tin Schram, an op-ed colum­nist for Tri­bune News Ser­vice, is a vet­eran Wash­ing­ton jour­nal­ist, au­thor and TV doc­u­men­tary ex­ec­u­tive. Read­ers may send him email at mar­

P res­i­dent Don­ald Trump walked into his East Room news con­fer­ence Wed­nes­day with a care­fully scripted plan. He hoped to make the day mem­o­rable for the peace­ful (see also: un-Trumpian) way he ex­tended an olive branch to the Democrats who just cap­tured con­trol of the House.

Then all hell erupted and ex­ploded all over our news screens. And what we'll mainly re­mem­ber from the pres­i­dent's post-elec­tion per­for­mance was how Trump steered his press con­fer­ence off the rails with bursts of anger at seem­ingly in­nocu­ous ques­tion­ers.

Es­pe­cially his dan­ger­ously provoca­tive tirade at the jour­nal­ist he seems to most love to hate: CNN's 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."

And hours af­ter the press con­fer­ence, Trump's anger ex­ploded anew, as his White House sud­denly yanked Acosta's White House press cre­den­tial. All be­cause Trump didn't like Acosta's style of ques­tion­ing.

I viewed all of that from a van­tage point that was rare and prob­a­bly unique. Af­ter all, I too have been caught in the cross-hairs of a very cross 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, Key Bis­cayne (Florida) banker Charles (Bebe) Re­bozo.

Nixon or­dered his staff to freeze me out – no in­ter­views! – so I couldn't do my job (that didn't work). Then Nixon banned me and News­day from cov­er­ing his his­toric break­through trip to China (that worked). But not even on the worst day of his pres­i­dency did Nixon or his White House hench­peo­ple re­voke my White House press cre­den­tial.

Fast-for­ward: At Wed­nes­day's news con­fer­ence, Acosta prop­erly pur­sued a topic that Trump should have been pressed to ex­plain long ago – why Trump 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; per­haps press Trump to cite any in­tel­li­gence anal­y­sis jus­ti­fy­ing his con­tin­ued use of "in­va­sion." In­stead, Acosta wound up lengthily de­bat­ing and lec­tur­ing Trump on the fact that it's just not an in­va­sion. He con­tin­ued even af­ter Trump said: "You and I have a dif­fer­ence of opin­ion."

And when Trump called on an­other re­porter, Acosta wouldn't sur­ren­der his hand­held White House mic. He just kept talk­ing, switch­ing to a dif­fer­ent topic, as a young Trump aide in a ma­roon dress tried to reach in and yank it away. Later the White House falsely con­tended that Acosta placed "his hands on a young woman."

Up un­til they yanked Acosta's cre­den­tial, I was go­ing to be writ­ing a very dif­fer­ent sort of col­umn. Be­cause, frankly, there is a lot that I re­ally don't care for about the ways some of my fel­low jour­nal­ists go about their jobs of cov­er­ing the White House beat these days.

Some re­porters ap­proach press con­fer­ences and brief­ings as if their job is to pub­licly de­bate the pols we cover. Too many ask im­pre­cise ques­tions, or try to jam sev­eral un­re­lated top­ics into one un­fo­cused query. I'm told I am con­sid­ered a very tough in­ter­viewer and ques­tioner. But the key to 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 telling the re­porter her ques­tion was racist. But the re­porter never men­tioned to Trump that he had pleas­antly an­swered the query be­fore – when it was asked of him re­cently by Fox News' Laura In­gra­ham.

Jour­nal­ists need to re-eval­u­ate what they are try­ing to ac­com­plish and how they can bet­ter go about it – in ways that re­spect the in­sti­tu­tion we are cov­er­ing, even as we re­main tough-minded in our de­ter­mi­na­tion to tell Amer­i­cans what they need to know.

My very good friend and col­league on the pres­i­den­tial beat, ABC's leg­endary cor­re­spon­dent Sam Donaldson, al­ways dis­agreed about a tac­tic he made fa­mous. In the early 1980s, Sam was the first to be­gin yelling ques­tions as Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan was walk­ing on the lawn to­ward his revving he­li­copter. The for­mer ac­tor Rea­gan just played to the cam­eras that he was a vic­tim of a rude press corps. "If Sam Donaldson didn't ex­ist, Ron­ald Rea­gan would've had to in­vent him," I once re­marked. (Sam just laughed, but al­ways thought his way worked best for him.)

To­day we some­times ap­pear to be a bel­low­ing herd. Or a gag­gle of talk­ing-head de­baters. I just don't think those are our most ef­fec­tive tools of re­port­ing.

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