President Trump has attempted to undercut the U.S. media in a number of ways — by calling them the “enemy”; by denying coverage credentials to certain outlets during his campaign; by telling falsehoods and lying; by siccing his aides on reporters. As we close in on two months of the Trump White House, however, another strategy may be emerging: Outlast the media.
April D. Ryan, White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief for American Urban Radio Networks, tells this blog that “this pace of covering this new president is unsustainable for the long haul.” That comment came amid a news-filled weekend that wasn’t supposed to be that way. According to a White House official quoted in The Post, Saturday was supposed to be a “down day, pretty quiet.” Someone forgot to tell Trump, who unleashed his now-famous string of tweets alleging involvement by former president Barack Obama in a Trump Tower wiretapping expedition.
All of a sudden, a down day for White House aides as well as for journalists became a tangle of tweets and phone calls and URLs. And this was a Saturday — a day when journalists could once unplug with minimal risk of missing a big story. “Nothing happens on Saturday,” wrote former Bloomberg staffer Dawn Kopecki in a widely read memo to colleagues. “We have very little readership and we’re often paying editors to kill time by surfing the Web.” That was 2015.
The Sunday news cycle kicked off with more morning tweets from Trump as well as a statement from White House press secretary Sean Spicer requesting congressional scrutiny of the allegations in Trump’s wiretapping tweets. Then came another wave of news as the New York Times reported that FBI Director James B. Comey had asked the Justice Department to rebut the wiretapping claims. The weekend? What weekend?
Tweeting, of course, is just one of the ways in which Trump has ruined weekends. Haste is another; after signing a poorly vetted executive order on immigration on Jan. 27 — a Friday — Trump sent the country’s airports into chaos over the ensuing days. Reporters scrambled to cover the protests and the response from the White House, not to mention the actual parameters of the executive order.
Evenings are another thing. “We’re basically together from 6:30 in the morning until about 11 o’clock at night,” said White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus about the work schedule that he and strategist Stephen K. Bannon maintain. Combine that workaholic dedication with a commitment to the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” as advocated by Bannon, and you have … a lot of stories.
The frenetic nature of the Trump White House was apparent to those who’d watched the frenetic nature of the Trump campaign. “We’re used to Donald Trump as a a candidate making wild accusations at the spur of the moment and that becoming the dominant news story immediately,” says Washington Post White House Bureau Chief Philip Rucker. “So we’re all trained.” And staffed up. Outlets such as Politico — with seven White House reporters — and The Post and the New York Times — six apiece — upped their White House staffing to historic levels. The early weeks raise questions as to whether those deployments will be sufficient. “I think we’re okay,” says Elisabeth Bumiller, the Washington bureau chief for the New York Times. Bumiller was one of two White House reporters in the early days of the George W. Bush administration. That number reached four during the Obama administration — “that’s really because of the demands of the Web,” she says.
Now there’s the Web and there’s Trump, working together. “It’s the demands of the beat,” says Bumiller. “It is completely unpredictable, as you’ve seen, and it’s relentless and we’re also in uncharted territory. We’ve never covered this kind of a president before.” To properly shadow this kind of a president, the New York Times puts two people per day on White House coverage, the better to ensure that there’s someone on the beat from 6 a.m. till midnight. Those folks have what’s called a “duty week” — seven days of breaking-news coverage of Team Trump — after which they rotate into less of a spot-news role and focus on enterprise reporting on the White House.
The Post has a similar approach, with two people per day tag-teaming the news from the White House. One is generally at the White House itself, while the other occupies the so-called “hot seat” in The Post’s newsroom.
At Politico, Trump’s presidency has saddled the breaking-news desk with considerable responsibilities, including taking screen shots. Just in case Trump decides to delete or edit tweets — say, to clear up spelling problems — that desk is charged with taking pictures of each one, according to Karey Van Hall, Politico’s managing editor for news. What no one can predict, however, is what those tweets may target. Though there was some expectation, says Van Hall, that Trump might tweet about “The Apprentice” in light of Friday’s news that Arnold Schwarzenegger would be leaving the show, “what was not quite as predictable was that he had such a bold accusation against Obama,” says Van Hall, who adds that “for two weeks we had not really had some really bold statement on Twitter.”
Would that the White House’s pace and out-of-nowhere tweets were the only factor upping the workload for reporters these days. Another layer altogether comes from the conflicting messages that the administration sends, often on anonymous footing. “You can ask two senior administration officials the same question, you get completely opposite answers,” said Bumiller at a Columbia Journalism Review conference last week, citing an experience of New York Times reporter Julie Davis. In her chat with this blog, Bumiller reports that reporter Maggie Haberman encountered this very problem in a piece seeking to retrace Trump’s steps in tweeting his wiretapping claims. “We ended up making it more vague than what we wanted because we tried to reconcile the two versions,” says Bumiller. A close read of the article — which Haberman wrote along with veteran White House correspondent Peter Baker — suggests that Bumiller was referring to a passage in which the Times seeks granular information about just how Trump got the idea for his baseless claims:
“It was not immediately clear if someone printed the article out for him or if it was part of a collection of Twitter posts and news articles that his aides present to him each day. But it resonated,” reads the article.
Compare that experience to previous years. The Obama White House, says Rucker, generally had one or two top officials who would voice the “approved-upon administration line.” If you did one interview, he says, you could “pretty much take it to the bank that that’s the position of the White House. With the Trump White House, you talk to five different officials on a story and you get slight variations and it becomes a challenge to figure out what is true,” says Rucker.
How long can this go on? “It’ll be that way until he finds some reason to change, but this is who he is,” says Haberman. Though Haberman confesses she’s tired, she says she has trouble unplugging in any case. “I don’t ever totally turn off — Trump or no Trump. I just so happen to have encountered a president who doesn’t turn off,” she says. On Saturday, Haberman recounts that “from the minute I opened my eyes this weekend, my phone was ringing from my desk wanting to talk about Trump’s [tweets], and I had been working till late on Friday. And instead of taking my kids where I was going to take them, my husband did.” Many hours later, Haberman — who credits her history with the New York Post as instilling a never-stop ethic — had to interrupt her workday to bring “someone a cake for a party.” Needy people!
That’s all by way of commentary, not complaint. Rucker echoes the sentiment: “It’s important to note that nobody’s complaining. We’re tired, it’s a lot of work. It takes an extraordinary amount of attention and it can be stressful. But this is our job and it’s what we live to do.”
Politico’s Van Hall says that there’s enough redundancy in the site’s White House team to ensure people come up for air. But: “A lot of reporters do want to be in the game at all times to cover this presidency,” she says.