Opinion

New Ground Rules for the Press and the President

Managing Trump and the media’s unhealthy marriage

Donald Trump waves to the media as he leaves a meeting with House Republicans at the Capitol Hill Club in July. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

It’s been a couple of on-again, off-again weeks for Donald Trump and the media, which his campaign manager Kellyanne Conway has likened to two feuding parents trying to figure out what to do about the kids.

“For me it’s very simple,” she said last week on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “President Trump and the media have to share joint custody of the nation and its people for the next four or eight years, so it’s highly productive and in everyone’s interest to find a way to do that.”

It’s actually a good analogy to capture the relationship, which had all the hallmarks of a codependent and extremely unhealthy marriage throughout the campaign. They needed each other, but they hated each other. They couldn’t work together, but they couldn’t go it alone.  

The same traits that made Trump a compelling candidate made him even better copy and TV. He was sometimes charming, often offensive, but never predictable. He rated, he got clicks. Even as he called political reporters “scum,” “slime,” “dishonest” and “disgusting,” cable news carried him live, sometimes while he trashed their own correspondents.

[Opinion: Understanding the Friction Between Trump and Journalists]

It wouldn’t be giving Trump or the reporters who covered him enough credit to say that the media put Trump in the White House. Much of the coverage was aggressive and sometimes, it seemed disqualifying. But Trump had a message and a relationship with his supporters that only turned bad press into fuel for his fire.

But weeks after the campaign ended and the divorce has been finalized, mom and dad’s dynamic hasn’t changed much. Trump still keeps the media at arm’s length, ditching the protective pool and holding meetings with business associates that the foreign press hears about first.

After he called network heads in for an “off the record” meeting last week, someone somewhere in Trump Tower tipped The New York Post off to the fact that the meet and greet was more like a firing squad. After tweeting about the “dishonest” New York Times on Tuesday, Trump nonetheless held a wide-ranging on-the-record session with reporters from the paper, which he was calling “a jewel” by the end of the affair. It all seems very familiar, but it’s time for the relationship to change.

As newsrooms consider how to cover President Trump instead of candidate Trump, here are a few updates to the ground rules between the press and the president I’d suggest for covering the Trump White House:

  1. Put more resources overseas. It’s clear that the potential conflicts of interest between Trump’s presidency, his family, and his international businesses will be an ongoing and important story. But the only information that’s come out on this front since the election has been from the foreign press in Argentina, India, Japan and the U.K.. If the American press isn’t going to get the story in Washington, they have to get it from the other side of the deals.
  1. Insist on transparency, starting with refusing to give Trump “anonymous source” status. Trump is notorious for leaking stories himself, but a president shouldn’t get the shield of anonymity, especially when the leak serves his personal interests. Networks agreed to give Trump an off-the-record meeting and got hammered. The New York Times refused to do the same, and their readers got important insights (from Trump himself) about what he’s planning for his administration.
  1. Stop obsessing over Trump’s Twitter feed. Donald Trump is a master of Twitter, but the novelty is wearing off, isn’t it? It’s time to stop obsessing over his latest tweet and focus on information people can’t get from Trump’s own platform.
  1. Don’t assume the public is on the media’s side. The latest Pew poll showed that 35 percent of Americans give Trump an “F” for his conduct in the campaign. But that same poll showed the media with a worse grade for 2016 — 38 percent of voters gave the press an “F.” Even though press freedom is essential to our democracy, the people in the democracy don’t necessarily see it that way after this election. There are bridges to mend.  
  1. Leave Melania and Barron out of it. The decision not to move Mrs. Trump and son Barron into the White House in January has set off speculation about “what’s really going on.” Even if Trump serves two full terms, Barron will be a minor for nearly the entire time. He deserves his privacy, even with the most public of parents.

[Opinion: From Agnew to Trump: Trying to Make TV News Buckle]

At the end of Trump’s meeting Tuesday with the Times, he was asked about his commitment to the First Amendment, which is easy to question after his conduct in the campaign. “I think you’ll be OK,” he told the reporters in the room. “I think you’re going to be fine.”

Mark me as skeptical about that assurance, but adapting our approach to covering this president seems like a good place to start with the new custody arrangement. Let’s do it for the kids.

Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.  

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.