While most of the country was celebrating Independence Day, a small contingent of reporters were tailing President Trump as he checked in at the Trump National Golf Club and then spoke at a picnic for military families on White House grounds. A report from Alice Ollstein of Talking Points Memo described a little moment that occurred as journalists were escorted onto the South Lawn for the event. “A gentlemen shouted ‘fake news!’ at the pool as others around him guffawed,” reported Ollstein.
Shouting down the “enemy of the people” — that counts as patriotic duty these days in and around the Trump White House.
At a meeting of the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) on Thursday evening, Brian Karem offered some context for the insult. Karem is the fellow who on two very publicized occasions scolded White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders in the briefing room. In addition to serving as Playboy magazine’s White House reporter and a CNN political analyst, he is the executive editor of the Sentinel community newspapers in Maryland — a capacity in which he developed friendships with journalists at Annapolis’s Capital Gazette. Two of the victims of last week’s killings at that newspaper, Karem told the Erik Wemple Blog, were folks he knew “really well.”
In the days since the attack, Karem has been in contact with staffers at the paper. “One reached out to me after the pool report [on July 4] about people saying ‘fake media’ and laughing on the South Lawn. At that time, when that happened, every member of that paper that was alive was leading a Fourth of July parade in their hometown. They’re part of the community, they are the community, and they are not the ‘enemy of the people,’ ” said Karem.
Motive in the attack remains unclear, but the suspect, Jarrod Ramos, bore hostility toward the newspaper dating back to 2011, when it reported on his guilty plea for criminal harassment of a woman who’d been a high school classmate. Though Ramos filed a defamation suit against the paper, it was dismissed by the courts. He menaced the paper’s employees for years, then allegedly executed a murderous rampage against them. Five were killed.
“The one person that’s responsible is the guy that pulled the trigger. The atmosphere in which we all operate today starts at the top, and that’s having an effect,” said Karem, referencing escalating threats against journalists.
Speaking directly to the media attacks from the White House, HuffPost reporter S.V. Date placed a challenge at Thursday’s meeting before Margaret Talev, the outgoing WHCA president: “They accuse us, basically, of lying, they accuse us of making up quotes. I don’t know a single person in this town who makes up quotes. . . . This is having a material effect on us as professionals. And: Is there something we, you, have done, the board has done? Should we do something, or is that inappropriate? But I’m at the point where if Sarah [Huckabee Sanders] were to say, ‘fake news,’ I would feel like jumping up and saying, ‘No, Sarah, we’re not fake news. We’re professionals.’ ”
That question landed on a point of institutional agony for the WHCA over the past year and a half. During its 104-year history, the group has served as a liaison between White House occupants and the media. Its representatives negotiate access at ceremonial events, as well as for domestic and overseas trips. Oh, and it also organizes a dinner every spring, complete with a comedian who may or may not offend Washington sensibilities.
Scolding a sitting president for his proclamations about the media, accordingly, is not a traditional role for the WHCA, which has proceeded cautiously as Trump has continued attacking the profession. Trump, however, crossed a WHCA red line of sorts in May, when he riffed on Twitter about the prospect of revoking credentials. A WHCA statement rushed forth: “Some may excuse the president’s inflammatory rhetoric about the media, but just because the president does not like news coverage does not make it fake. A free press must be able to report on the good, the bad, the momentous and the mundane, without fear or favor. And a president preventing a free and independent press from covering the workings of our republic would be an unconscionable assault on the First Amendment.”
Talev, addressing the issue raised by HuffPost’s Date, said, “The board has always, again, sought to balance two competing concerns: One is there are clear red lines and there are important principles. It’s important to stand up for what we do. We’re all proud of what we do, we all feel it’s important. . . . And then on the other hand, we all know that our job is to cover the news and not ourselves and that one way to see attacks on the press is a tactic, a rhetorical tactic and so there is a balancing act of: Do you put out a statement every time? What would be the value of putting out that statement every time? What would it accomplish? . . . If you’re going to use that statement sometimes selectively, what are those thresholds?”
Talev explained that “fake news” pushback strategies dogged not only her yearlong presidency of the WHCA, but also that of her predecessor, Jeff Mason of Reuters. The problem will shortly fall to the next WHCA president — Olivier Knox, chief Washington correspondent for SiriusXM. “This is something that we want your feedback on. . . . I’m almost less inclined to give you an answer other than to kind of talk through our thinking,” said Talev, who encouraged people to speak for themselves. “I think it’s important to have decorum in that briefing room and to be professional in that briefing room, but if your integrity or personal credibility is attacked in a public setting, and you feel instinctively that it’s appropriate, you don’t need my permission to speak your mind and do your job.”
That said, Talev endorsed perhaps a higher degree of solidarity among reporters in the White House briefing room. Sanders frequently ducks or provides half-answers to controversial questions, and then moves quickly to another reporter in an effort to change the subject. “If you’ve asked a question and there’s an immediate redirect, and I get the next question, maybe I say, ‘I appreciate the opportunity but I’d actually like to yield to my colleague,'” said Talev.
The Erik Wemple Blog asked Knox if he’d lead the organization in a different direction vis-a-vis Trump’s attacks. He declined to address the matter before his presidency begins, which will be after Trump’s meeting in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Whatever Knox decides, the WHCA would be well-advised to broaden its thinking about counterprogramming Trump: To issue a statement or to not issue a statement is an awfully narrow band of options for some of the country’s top journalists.
Other issues that arose during Thursday’s meeting:
• Jordan Fabian, a White House reporter with The Hill, recalled requesting access to the “top” of a fundraiser attended by President Trump. “We were very rudely dismissed by Hogan Gidley,” said Fabian. “I don’t have a problem with manners, but when you make it clear that you’re not even going to try . . . I have a problem with that. It’s literally their job to do that.” Also, Fabian said that during weekend trips to Mar-a-Lago, there’s often not sufficient press staffing to handle routine press requests.
• President Trump has been prolific with appearances at so-called “pool sprays” — essentially short question-and-answer sessions at ceremonial events and the like. One of his tendencies is to hover among reporters before boarding Marine One. It’s a scene in which reporters and cameras form an intense scrum to get a word in with the president. Talev explained the dynamics: “The departures have changed a little bit by custom because President Trump does something President [Barack] Obama, like, he never did. Which is: You’re walking out of the residence and you decide to hold a 35-minute [media availability] on seven different subjects from ‘lock her up’ to Peter Strzok to Russia and North Korea. What happens in a scenario like that — because the White House has resisted setting up a podium with a mic because they don’t want to create an expectation that he’ll say something every time he leaves. And then get coverage that says, ‘President Trump avoided questions.’ And they have a point, that’s exactly what would happen. As a result, it’s very difficult to hear and his inclination, his instinct is to go straight to the camera and/or the on-air talent who he recognizes who may be standing next to the camera. And so you have, like, a borderline physically dangerous situation where there’s a crush of people and step ladders and, like, lenses and heavy stuff and small people with pens trying to get in there and hear.”
• As a WHCA board member, Alicia Jennings of NBC News does a lot of the usual association work — namely, securing access for television crews to White House goings-on. A more unconventional chore crept into her job description over the past year, however: Extermination advocate. As it turned out, TV crews set up on the North Lawn’s so-called “Pebble Beach” area were off-put by an accretion of rats near their workspace. “They were out and more aggressive . . . I don’t want to say menacing people, but they were, you know, just out. . . . And people were, like . . . seeing them and saying, ‘These rats are coming right up to me.’ ” So Jennings raised the issue with the White House usher’s office. She’d heard that the sudden rat spike may have resulted from a change in the type of garbage cans used at the facility. “It’s been resolved,” says Jennings.