How quickly we forget. Just a few months ago, Donald Trump was conducting an unprecedented attack on the mainstream press by keeping them in pens at his rallies, subjecting them to abuse, taking away press passes from newspapers. But now, it seems, all is forgiven.
So what changed? The President-elect—who hasn’t held a traditional press conference since July, it should be noted—offered up the opportunity for an off-the-record chat in a gold-leaf ballroom in his version of Versailles, his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida. And it seems to have been a fairly friendly get-together between the cyberbully-in-chief and the press he has harassed for months.
This is a strategy that abuse victims understand all too well. First come the punches, then the apologies and flowers. And with each gesture, Trump pulls the media in closer, hoping to blunt the force of any future criticism. Will it work? Or will the press see through the charade?
The arguments for participating in such off-the-record briefings are fairly obvious, just as they were for technology titans like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Apple CEO Tim Cook, who got roped into a tech summit with Trump at the Trump Tower last week.
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In a nutshell, the theory is that regardless of Trump’s treatment of them during the campaign, media outlets must cover the man who is about to become president. In doing so, they will need to have cordial relationship, and part of that is to have off-the-record conversations from time to time. Standard cost of doing business, the theory goes.
But are such meetings really necessary? Perhaps. Or perhaps the media outlets that participated are being played by a man who instinctively understands the media and how to manipulate it more than probably any previous president—a man who got $2 billion or so worth of free press coverage.
The President-elect is a man who has said he needs to “open up” libel laws in order to make it easier to sue newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post. His former campaign manager said the editor of the Times should be in jail for reporting on Trump’s tax returns. The threat Trump poses to the First Amendment and freedom of the press is very real.
New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen laid out a fairly plausible scenario in which President Trump starts to crack down on the press and restrict its movements and abilities, just as he did during the campaign. What good will off-the-record briefings do then?
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When Trump managed to win the election (although not the popular vote), much of the media seemed to go into self-flagellation mode, concerned that they had missed a groundswell of pro-Trump sentiment in the U.S. heartland. And that in turn has led to some efforts at what some might call “normalization,” in which Trump is seen as just another politician.
Understanding the sentiment behind Trump’s support—and why large sections of the U.S. population seem to have lost trust in the mainstream press and their ability to report on things accurately—is a worthy goal. But it shouldn’t mean getting co-opted by the man or his fan base.
There’s no question that the Trump administration is prepared to effectively trade access for favorable coverage, in what appears to be an even more shameless way than previous governments. All we have to do is look at how the Trump campaign asked for and received more favorable media treatment from Sinclair Broadcasting, in return for more access to Trump.
The risk is that, as almost every media outlet large and small is struggling with financial hardship and cutbacks, some may be prepared to make such agreements because they feel compelled to do so, or because they want to compete with their larger counterparts.
The slide that this slippery slope creates is almost impossible to stop. And the potential downside should be obvious. Trump and his chief strategist, Breitbart News chairman Steve Bannon, have made it abundantly clear that they believe the mainstream media are weak and easily played. Let’s not give them too much more ammunition than they already have.