Trump Un-pressed: What not to do in White House pressers

Since Donald Trump won the nomination, there has been a glut of punditry, panel discussion and professional navel gazing about how to cover him more effectively.

What exactly “more effectively” means is a tricky question but there are two common themes.

First, Trump has been nearly immune to injury from the kind of damning reporting that has doomed other politicians. No revelation from his past, offensive behavior or utterance, blatant lie, display of ignorance or reckless tweet has drawn real blood.

Next, almost any attention Trump gets, no matter how negative, ends up helping him, especially on television. This applies even now that he is president-elect. No other top politician in the broadcast age has been imbued by this freak magic.

Press critics, editors and social scientists have offered confident explanations and prescriptions. The media should abandon “false equivalence.” Trump’s every spoken word and tweet must go through a reality check.

Underlying all this is the obvious: Voters understood from the start that Trump plays a different game; his whole act was to mock the regular order and break rules; he would do whatever he damn pleased. No one ever expected Trump to be polite, fair, well-informed, or respectful of anyone but himself. When Trump violates rules he doesn’t accept, roughly 40 per cent of the electorate cheers.

Trump backers think he’s got more guts and backbone than all the other politicians.

Politicians, by the way, are the least trusted professionals in America, according to Gallup polls. We journalists barely fare better. From the public’s perspective, journalists and members of Congress are the least likely to provide credible information.

I do not have any bold ideas to recommend and don’t think there are any killer apps.

Why? I think the press hasn’t failed covering Trump, but that the technology-driven transformation of how we communicate and inform ourselves has vastly diminished the value and trust citizens/consumers put on what we traditionally call “news.” Trump is the first national leader to benefit from this; perhaps he exploited the moment, perhaps he is a lucky savant who stumbled into it.

Still, the press must try to adapt and there are obvious examples of what not to do. Some were on parade at Trump’s press conference on Wednesday.

Don’t do this: Ask the same question over and over and over. This is what toddlers do when they want cookies.

Reporters asked 16 questions at Trump’s press conference and 12 were on one topic. They were variations of a theme: What’s the deal with you, Putin, spies and hacking?

Yes, this was the big story of the day and a vitally important one. But it was obvious that whatever tricky formulation the reporters used, Trump was going to say the same thing — “it’s fake news.” But the reporters kept asking the same question.

A partial solution is obvious: collusion. Reporters should get together and divide up questions on the most important topics to ensure they all get asked. This doesn’t violate the anti-trust laws or the ethics of journalism, though it may frustrate the demands of some egos.

Don’t do this: Lust after the glory of scoring a clean kill by asking the perfect, never-before-thought-of “gotcha” question that will reduce the president to a mumbling puddle. If I did a couple days research, I might be able to find a dozen “gotcha” questions at formal press conferences over the years that really worked — that led the president to say something impolitic, inadvertently reveal a secret, or confess to a great blunder.

The solution is simply to stop it. Reporters aren’t going to trap and trick presidents in press conferences except once in blue moon.

For sure, Trump creates a constant trail of gaffes, contradictions, untruths, insults and non sequiturs. The temptation to nail him with a perfect prosecutorial question is irresistible. It probably will be better to resist that temptation in televised White House events.

With Trump, a reporter is more likely to score by asking something like, “Can you please name the elements of the nuclear triad?” or, “Who is the Prime Minister of Italy?” than, “Just wondering about when exactly did you stop your practice of illegally laundering money?”

Don’t do this: Allow the president or his press team to select the reporters who get to ask questions. And don’t continue letting AP go first, then TV, etc. It gives the White House too much control. Reporters might have to boycott the press office to do it, which Trump might respect.

These suggestions are only little experiments that might help.

The more important work will come from high-quality investigative, explanatory and daily reporting from the few organizations that can fund it. Despite Democrats’ complaints, there was a ton of fine work produced during the campaign — exposes that would have doomed mere media mortals. The fact that Trump flourished despite it all is a freak event in history, not a failure of journalism.

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