The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

News organizations defend off-the-record event with Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago

The Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla. (Joe Skipper/Reuters)

Reporters hung out with Donald Trump over the weekend at Mar-a-Lago, though American news consumers won’t be reading too much about the event. That’s because it was all off-the-record, meaning that Trump could say anything he wanted, and the journalists who heard it all couldn’t pass along a single word. Mike Allen, the former Politico mainstay turned correspondent for start-up Axios, tweeted some pictures from the event. Those were allowed by the authorities.

Though the photo could use an upgrade, several of the journalists have been identified, in addition to Allen. There’s Brian Kilmeade of Fox News, Ali Vitali and Hallie Jackson of NBC News/MSNBC, Terrence Dopp of Bloomberg News and Nick Corasaniti of the New York Times, for example.

Reaction to Allen’s tweets was unsparing. One Twitter comment: “lol in all seriousness though this is terribly embarrassing for you & everyone in this photo should be ashamed. happy holidays!” Another: “Because he hasn’t answered reporter’s questions in . . . months and routinely attacks them at his rallies.” And: “‘Hey he’s not that bad right?! There were shrimp wrapped in bacon! And all we had to do was stop mentioning Russia…‘” More: “This just in: Stockholm syndrome epidemic strikes Trump press pool. Film at 11.

Context cannot be omitted in this circumstance. There is plenty of precedent for reporters doing off-the-record discussions with presidents, and the tradition remained strong in the Obama years. The rationale for attending is that journalists can get a window into the president’s thinking on stuff. And the rebuttal to that rationale, as expressed by this blog, is that the president uses the opportunity to spin reporters on his position, without any fingerprints on the transaction. It’s a way of getting the media to internalize the official view of things.

In a brief chat with the Erik Wemple Blog, New York Times Washington bureau chief Elisabeth Bumiller said, “Our policy on off-the-record with presidents and presidents-elect is to push long and hard to do things on record.” A good example thereof is the New York Times interview with Trump not long after the election, she notes. However: “With journalists, you need some insight into the president-elect’s thinking. We have found in the past that this has helped us with Obama,” says Bumiller, arguing that the exposure has given the newspaper the “thought and direction to pursue stories afterward.”

Photos such as Allen’s — of reporters hanging in sumptuous, off-the-record environs with a president-elect who has abused the media up and down and back and forth — present a media image that “opens up us for criticism, and we’re aware of that,” says Bumiller.

Jim VandeHei, Axios founder, passed along the following thoughts to the Erik Wemple Blog:

I don’t think my view on this will be terribly popular on Twitter, but: my general take is people get way too deranged about reporters talking w presidents, politicians, sources OTR. I am a fan of candid, OTR chats: it’s often the closest you get to truth. In this case, my understanding is the President-elect popped in unexpectedly. Do people really think reporters should run for the exits or stage a protest a few weeks into his transition? Seems dramatic to me. At the same time, the President-elect should make himself more available to press questions and scrutiny, and hopefully very soon. This wouldn’t be much of a story if he had been holding press conferences of late. If he does, then I would root for even MORE OTR or deep background or whatever sessions so a president-elect and a press corp with a hostile relationship can at least better understand each other.

Thanks to Allen’s exercise in Twitter transparency, news consumers will be better prepared to evaluate the impact of Trump’s hosting skills on the reporters who cover him. The ultimate decider of these matters, after all, is the news product.