President Trump’s penchant for diminishing the fourth estate didn’t wither on British soil. “Fake news,” he riffed at various points during a joint news conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May — the better to shout down all the accurate reporting about his unhinged behavior and pronouncements about the United States and its most pivotal allies in the world.
Kristen Welker of NBC News asked the president if his fractious relationship with NATO allies provided the “upper hand” to Russian President Vladimir Putin for the upcoming summit in Helsinki. “See, that’s such dishonest reporting — of course it happens to be NBC, which is possibly worse than CNN,” Trump said. Then he boasted about his exploits with the NATO countries.
The slight aimed at CNN provided a toehold for CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta, who has jostled with the president and his emissaries in the past. He waited for a lull in the proceedings, and this exchange proceeded:
ACOSTA: Mr. President, since you attacked CNN, can I ask you a question?
TRUMP: John Roberts, go ahead.
ACOSTA: Can I ask you a question?
TRUMP: No, no. John Roberts, go ahead. CNN is fake news. I don’t take questions from CNN.
ACOSTA: Take a question …
TRUMP: John Roberts of Fox, let’s go to a real network.
ACOSTA: Well, we’re a real network, too, sir.
Fox News White House correspondent John Roberts then said, “Thank you, Mr. President” — essentially validating the president’s hostile, baseless, authoritarian, gratuitous slam on a group of peers. The group dynamic wasn’t lost on White House-covering veterans in the news media. CNN’s Jake Tapper:
Back in 2009, Tapper pressed then-Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs about its conclusion that Fox News was “not a news organization.” The Erik Wemple Blog has asked Fox News whether it would consider having its White House correspondent insist that the president answers a question for CNN before proceeding with its own question for the president. We are awaiting a response.
At a July 5 meeting of the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA), White House reporters expressed support for just this sort of collective action, especially in the context of White House briefings. “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 outgoing WHCA President Margaret Talev. Others in attendance nodded at the sentiment.
The notion, however, hasn’t quite taken root. Roberts asked a reasonable question about whether U.S.-Russia relations could improve so long as Putin continues occupying Crimea. “I think I’d have a very good relationship with President Putin if we spent time together,” responded Trump, dodging the point. Roberts pressed on the Crimea matter, and Trump responded that Putin wouldn’t have taken this hostile measure if Trump had been in power at the time.
The news conference went on from there. Let the record reflect that it wasn’t just Roberts who looked past Trump’s unacceptable treatment of CNN. Reuters correspondent Jeff Mason and at least one other journalist who asked later questions did as well. Via a Fox News spokeswoman, Roberts issued this statement:
In today’s press conference, I paused while my colleague from CNN went back and forth with President Trump over a question. When it became clear that the president wasn’t going to entertain a question from him, I proceeded with my question, as did my fellow colleagues in the press corps. I know Kristen Welker of NBC. She is honest as the day is long. For the President to call her dishonest is unfair. I also used to work at CNN. There are some fine journalists who work there and risk their lives to report on stories around the world. To issue a blanket condemnation of the network as ‘fake news’ is also unfair.
So Fox News got its opportunity to press the president. Yet it shouldn’t be pleased about the circumstances. What Trump was doing here — dissing CNN in deference to Fox News — was as close as a leader in a proud democracy can come to anointing an outlet state news. And many hours on the Fox News schedule — “Hannity” and “Fox & Friends” chief among them — surely sound and feel as if their funding is coming from the state treasury.
Yet Roberts, Shepard Smith, Bill Hemmer, Bret Baier, Ed Henry and other hosts and reporters on the non-commentary side of Fox News have performed genuine oversight of the Trump administration. Do they want to play any passive, quasi-collusive role in Trump’s attempt to mold an official U.S. news outlet? It’s time for cable-news outlets to put aside their long-macerating tensions and resentments — and face down the bigger threat coming from the White House.
A coda here on Trump telling reporters, “I don’t take questions from CNN.” That’s a lie. On Thursday, he had this exchange:
JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN: Thank you, sir. Jeremy Diamond with CNN. How are you?
TRUMP: Hi, Jeremy.
JEREMY DIAMOND: Quick question with regards to Germany and the comments that you made yesterday. Do you feel like given the threats that you made about potentially leaving NATO, about insulting Germany’s sovereignty, it appears, by suggesting that they’re totally controlled by Russia — do you feel like that’s an effective way to conduct diplomacy? And secondly, would you be able to be a little bit more specific about the commitments that you secured today with regards to increasing the financial commitment? Is there an updated timeline? Are there specific countries you could cite? Because a majority of them were already planning to meet that 2 percent threshold by 2024.
TRUMP: No, many of them — in fact, Germany was going to be in the year 2028 or ’30. Yeah, I think it’s a very effective way to deal, but I didn’t deal exactly the way you said. I have great respect for Germany. My father is from Germany. Both of my parents are from the E.U., despite the fact they don’t treat us well on trade.