WASHINGTON — It was a pathetic spectacle: TV news executives and anchors filing in to Trump Tower on Monday to be the president-elect’s whipping boys.
Donald Trump had summoned them for a talk, but it turned out to be part tongue-lashing, part perp walk. The TV news people had foolishly agreed that the session was “off the record,” leaving Trump and his aides free to characterize the media representatives as groveling while Trump berated them as liars.
“Trump Eats Press,” announced pro-Trump Breitbart News.
The New York Post: “Donald Trump’s media summit was a ‘f—ing firing squad.’ ”
Drudge: “Trump Slams Media Elite, Face to Face.”
Trump singled out for abuse CNN — the outlet that, with its endless live broadcasts of Trump speeches, did more than any other to win Trump the GOP nomination.
Many outlets (though not The Washington Post, happily) seem to expect and crave a return to business as usual after the election. They envision off-the-record chinwags with the new president. They expressed indignation when he ditched the press pool to go to dinner. They’re begging him to hold a news conference and devouring the crumbs he tosses their way. And ominously, they’re taking to heart the criticism that the media were too tough on him, and talking about recalibrating their approach to him to regain public approval.
Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, in a segment with me on MSNBC on Tuesday, said that “the media is really overplaying its hand” in its coverage of Trump’s business conflicts of interest. “I think the media is on thin ice with the American people, very thin ice, and that they ought to just … dial it back.”
My former editor Liz Spayd, now public editor at the New York Times, fretted that letters to the editor are at their highest level since 2001 and that “many are venting about the Times’s coverage,” including “the liberal tint.” Trump, naturally, used this to further his campaign against the media, tweeting Tuesday that “the failing” Times “just announced that complaints about them are at a 15 year high. I can fully understand that.”
Journalists need to recognize that we’re not going to win a popularity contest with Trump, and we shouldn’t try. Trump is not going to be appeased by friendlier coverage. He campaigned against the media, and he will continue to use the media as a foil. His party controls Congress, and conservatives will soon control the Supreme Court. If he can discredit the media, he’ll remove another check to his power.
Our third president, Thomas Jefferson, famously remarked that “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Our 45th president would clearly prefer the former. He has shut out news organizations, including The Post, whose coverage he dislikes. He has threatened to restrict First Amendment press freedoms.
Rather than cozying up to this new establishment, the media need to savor our traditional role as outsiders. Columbia Journalism Review’s top editor, Kyle Pope, has it right when he urges “a return to journalism’s oppositional roots; it has done reporters no good to think of themselves as part of the establishment or a megaphone for the conventional wisdom. We need to embrace, even relish, our legacy as malcontents and troublemakers.”
Pursuing public affection is a fool’s errand. The profession was never held in high public esteem. And the recent decline in approval is due entirely to Trump’s daily bashing.
A Gallup poll in September found a historic low for trust in the mass media: just 32 percent, down eight points from 2015. But Gallup speculated that this was a “result of Trump’s sharp criticisms of the press,” noting that trust of the press among Republicans dropped to 18 points in a year.
Was the press really hard on Trump? Thirty-nine percent of voters think so, according to a Pew Research Center poll this week. But looking at it another way, 59 percent thought the press was either too easy on Trump (27 percent) or fair (32 percent).
There is much the press should do differently: Ditch the horse-race coverage, the discredited data journalism and the tendency among news reporters to express their opinions in social media.
But for those who think the media could gain public support if we stop hassling Trump about his conflicts of interest, the rise of white supremacists alongside him, the Trump Foundation’s self-dealing and the $25 million Trump University legal settlement — too bad. We’re not here to be popular.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank. (c) 2016, Washington Post Writers Group