Donald Trump hasn’t even been inaugurated as President yet, but he has already given us a taste of how acrimonious his relationship with the media is likely to be after a no-holds-barred meeting with cable executives and off-again, on-again meeting with the New York Times.
The existential problem this poses for the mainstream press is this: Do they accede to Trump’s demands in order to get access to him and his administration so that they can better report on it? Or do they become even more antagonistic in their coverage, and give up any hope of a working relationship? Both of these come with significant risks.
The idea that Trump might have an adversarial stance towards the media won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has been following the president-elect on Twitter (TWTR), or anywhere else for that matter.
Trump has routinely called out the New York Times for being a “failing newspaper,” slamming both it and the Washington Post for their coverage of him during the campaign. At one point, he withdrew the Post‘s press accreditation as he did for a number of other news outlets.
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At Trump’s rallies, the Republican candidate encouraged his supporters to attack the “crooked media,” and repeatedly said he planned to “open up” libel laws in order to make it easier for him to sue the Times and other mainstream outlets. (Something that is easier said than done thanks to a little thing called the First Amendment.)
Given all of that, it’s not terribly surprising to hear that Trump reportedly spent much of his off-the-record briefing with cable TV executives on Monday attacking them.
According to one report in the New York Post, a source at the meeting called it “a f***ing firing squad,” during which Trump called out CNN and NBC (CMCSA) for their unflattering coverage of him and his campaign.
Another source told the New Yorker that Trump’s comments were “totally inappropriate” and “f***ing outrageous,” and that he thought the president-elect’s attitude was probably going to affect his network’s coverage in the future.
What’s noteworthy about the meeting—apart from the fact that the soon-to-be President of the United States took time to complain that a TV network used a photo that made him look bad—is that cable networks like CNN (TWX) were routinely criticized during the campaign for being too deferential. Apparently, giving Trump an estimated $2 billion in free coverage isn’t enough.
Donald Trump outsmarted Hillary when it comes to earned media. Watch:
So how should the media respond to this kind of attack? The network executive that David Remnick of the New Yorker spoke to said that he would likely become even tougher on Trump as a result of the treatment he received. But is that the appropriate strategy to take?
If the mainstream media swallows its pride and endures all of Trump’s insults to do the job properly, journalists risk looking like they are caving in to him and giving up their principles in order to get access. That’s not going to go over well with many Trump critics, not to mention voters.
But if the media steps up its criticism of Trump and makes it clear just how adversarial the relationship is, Trump supporters—most of whom already distrust the press—will become even more convinced that these outlets are biased against the President.
There have been other presidents who had adversarial relationships with the press, including Richard Nixon. But never has there been one who took power at a time when the media landscape is so broken, and when there are so many alternate methods for reaching an audience. In the past, the president needed the media, but Trump has shown that he clearly does not.
Even in these early days, it has become clear that Trump intends to go his own way, reaching out on Twitter and posting videos to YouTube (GOOG) and Facebook (FB) instead of holding press conferences. This is likely to remain a pattern throughout his administration.
The prospect this raises is a president who communicates through social media and through media outlets that he sees as friendly to his cause—whether it’s Breitbart News (where his chief strategist Steve Bannon is chairman) or Fox (FOX)—and leaves the other members of the mainstream press to simply talk about his tweets and YouTube videos without any access.
In many ways, Trump is a creature who was born for this time, molded via a reality TV show and equipped with the tools to do an end-run around some or all of the press. It was hard enough to watch when he was just a candidate. How will the media deal with it when he is president, especially when many are pre-occupied with their own survival?