Media critic

Boris Epshteyn, special assistant to President Trump passes a note to White House press secretary Sean Spicer during the daily briefing at the White House on Jan. 31. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)


Fox News Chief White House correspondent John Roberts today appeared at a journalism symposium at the National Press Club with a stern message: “We’ve got to stop whining,” said Roberts in a multi-person panel of journalists discussing coverage of the Trump White House. “We’ve got to just do our jobs and it’s … almost like working in a war zone. The hours are long, it’s difficult to get information, you’ve got to beat people over the head, you’ve got to work your sources to the best of your abilities to get information,” said Roberts, who emphasized that President Trump was a “nontraditional” politician.

Just work hard, stressed Roberts. “People will say, ‘Oh, Fox News you’ve got an in,'” said Roberts. Not the case: “Our programming department has had a relationship with the president but the news division of Fox News — we still have to struggle as hard as anybody else to dig up information.”

It was unclear just what Roberts was referencing with his “whining” remark, though the panel — convened by the  Missouri-Hurley Symposium under the banner “Fact-Checking, Fake News and the Future of Political Reporting” — had been discussing the move by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on Feb. 24 to block several outlets, including CNN and the New York Times, from a briefing. Jeff Mason, a Reuters reporter and president of the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA), blasted the move by the White House press operation. “Not an appropriate use of the pool,” said Mason.

April D. Ryan, White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief for American Urban Radio Networks, felt compelled to take issue with Roberts’s formulation. “I’m not going to look at this as whining … and I do not consider it war, even though we are considered the ‘opposition party’ by some in the administration, the president has called us the ‘enemy’ of the American people.” Citing former press secretary Michael McCurry, Ryan said that the White House press corps and the administration should carry on a “friendly adversarial relationship.”

Lies, untruths or misstatements? Post columnist Margaret Sullivan looks at how different newsrooms are reporting President Trump's claims over crowd size and voter fraud and how "alternative facts" can damage a democracy. (Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

Roberts responded, “I was not suggesting that going to the administration to ask questions was whining. … We’ve got to stop whining about, ‘We’re being excluded from this, or we’re not getting that or whatever.'” When he spoke of whining, said Roberts, “It’s just a sense that, ‘Oh, we should be treated better than this because we’re the White House press corps. … The people who supported Donald Trump don’t give a damn what the White House press corps thinks. They really don’t. So we need to get past that.”

Panelist Margaret Sullivan, media columnist at The Post, denounced whining on general principle but noted that the practices opposed by the WHCA are  a big deal. She cited remarks by renowned media attorney Floyd Abrams, who said that excluding media organizations based on their coverage posed a First Amendment problem. “I’m with you that we don’t want to whine about it,” said Sullivan. “I’m trying to draw a distinction between not whining — that’s good — and not ignoring the fact that there are some important First Amendment issues here.”

The Erik Wemple Blog has never once whined. That said, we endorse the practice if it comes in opposition to big-footed White House policies that restrict media coverage — along with perhaps more effective countermeasures such as screaming.

Unhappy with Roberts’s defense of his whining claim, the Erik Wemple Blog pressed him for an example of this offense during the Q&A session. “Just in terms of what I say is whining, it’s just a general kind of noise that maybe has diminished somewhat in the last couple of weeks. But it’s sort of this idea that we’re not being treated fairly, woe is us, we’re the White House press corps, we have a right to be doing what we’re doing, which we certainly do,” said Roberts. He then talked about his days covering Israel in 2006 for CNN. “You want to feel like you’re not liked? [Try] covering a war in Israel” when your organization has correspondents in Lebanon covering the other side. “The Israeli government wasn’t particularly happy about that.” His response was to report, report, report — to the point that “our journalism was something that they needed to pay attention to.”

We also asked Roberts how much time he spends explaining the difference between his job at Fox News and Sean Hannity’s job at Fox News. “Every waking moment of every day,” jokes Roberts, before noting that he does the same stuff now as he did when he worked at CNN and CBS News. “My goal as a journalist is to get the facts, get them right and to be fair in my coverage. Fair doesn’t necessarily mean that every story is balanced because it may tilt one way or another in terms of participation of an individual or an organization in that story,” said Roberts.

Other moments from the discussion:

*On the topic of whether news organizations should use the term “lie” in covering President Trump’s frequent falsehoods, CNN Washington Bureau Chief Sam Feist said his organization had perhaps used the word once. “The word ‘lie’ is a very powerful word and should be used almost never,” said Feist.

*Elisabeth Bumiller, the New York Times’s Washington bureau chief, said the decision to charge Trump with a “lie” in a headline regarding his claims about voter fraud was “above my pay grade.” The New York Times came to that decision simply because Trump’s counterfactual claims in this regard were “so sustained” over a long period of time.

*Mason said that if the Trump White House again tried perpetrating another gaggle shutout, more media organizations would walk away in protest.

See more at the Erik Wemple Blog Twitter channel.