Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly identified former columnist Joseph Alsop’s employer. He was a syndicated columnist; he did not work for the New York Times. This version has been updated.
Facts are stubborn things. Unfortunately in the age of Twitter journalism, too many reporters find such details to be both onerous and optional.
This past week, I met twice with President-elect Donald Trump attempting to secure an interview for inauguration week. Judging from the snide reaction of some in the press, you would have thought I offered to sketch the outline of his inaugural speech.
Our first meeting was a background discussion over dinner where we discussed topics ranging from Mexico to Cabinet nominees to Russia. Very little Trump said regarding Mexico and his Cabinet choices was groundbreaking. He reiterated that the incoming administration will “drive a hard bargain” when renegotiating NAFTA, and that his Cabinet nominees are “first class.”
The part of the conversation I actually found intriguing was his outlook toward Russia. As we discussed on “Morning Joe” today, Trump stressed that he was determined to begin his four years in office pushing for a constructive relationship with Vladimir Putin.
“The worst thing Barack Obama ever did while dealing with Russia was calling them a regional power.”
The president-elect restated the popular view among foreign policy professionals that Russian foreign policy has been fueled by resentment since the fall of the Soviet Union. Putin invaded Georgia when George W. Bush was president. He invaded Crimea when Barack Obama was commander in chief. The 45th president’s attitude seems to be that approaching Putin with a less confrontational foreign policy just might yield more benefits for America.
Despite the controversy that strategy has generated in foreign-policy circles, I got the sense that unlike his posturing on China and Mexico, this new Russian reset amounts to more than a tough starting point for future negotiations. As uncomfortable as that may make conservatives like myself, Trump seems to believe strongly in what he says when he speaks about building strong relations with Russia.
The dinner conversation was much like what I have heard the countless off-the-record discussions Obama hosted were like over his two terms in the White House — with media figures such as Thomas Friedman, Fareed Zakaria, David Ignatius, Jeffrey Goldberg, David Brooks, and even Mika Brzezinski and myself having a 90-minute Oval Office meeting. The main difference between Obama’s numerous off-the-record powwows with reporters and the one I had with Trump on Saturday night was that ours was not on deep background. On a more bizarre note, it was also different because I was introduced to Fabio while walking to dinner. I’m not sure who Fabio is or what he does, but I suspect we were at Mar-a-Lago for different reasons.
Mika was not able to attend Saturday, so Trump asked that she come by the next night for a few minutes before his annual New Year’s Eve party. We walked through the metal detectors and straight into the start of a black-tie function where we were dramatically underdressed. At 7:30 p.m., Mika and I were guided by security through a sea of tuxedos and evening gowns, were introduced to a 10-year-old boy by PEOTUS, and quickly made our way upstairs. The topic for Sunday night’s discussion was intended to involve an interview we wanted to conduct before the inauguration, but personal topics came up, as they do in many such meetings we have with public officials. Mika and I have known Trump for more than a decade, so we caught up on each other’s families and we asked how his son was adapting to the big changes happening all around him. Without getting into personal details, the entire family is nonplussed by the transition process and is taking most things in stride, other than the relentless media glare that exasperates every presidential family.
I do not know whether we will end up with an interview with the incoming president next month, but I do know that the reaction from some media reporters has been an equal dose of hyperventilation and hypocrisy that such a meeting ever took place. Never mind the inconvenient fact that a passel of reporters and media types has had more meetings with the current president than Mika and I have ever had with Trump. Also don’t bother yourself with boring details of history that show how Washington Post legend Ben Bradlee was extraordinarily close with JFK, or how legendary Washington columnist Joseph Alsop practically kicked down John Kennedy’s door at the 1960 Democratic convention to demand that Lyndon Johnson be his vice-presidential pick. And forget the fact that Walter Lippmann constantly offered LBJ advice, or that Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham was close friends with Nancy Reagan and a regular dinner companion with Nancy and her powerful husband. Oh, and please don’t bother yourself with the fact that Edward R. Murrow quit CBS News to go work for the Kennedy administration just as Time’s Jay Carney jumped from the campaign trail to be communications director for Vice President Biden.
The long history of politicians and the press meeting outside of news conferences and editorial board rooms can be neatly summed up by NBC’s Douglas Kiker, who once said, “If a bomb had ever gone off at Hickory Hill on a summer weekend, three-fourths of the most powerful print and broadcast journalists in America would have had to be replaced.”
While that level of socializing cooled down after Watergate, it continues at a fairly frenzied pace today. And if you don’t believe that, just look at Politico’s daily calendar of events in Washington over the past few years to see how common the co-mingling of politicians and press members has been during the Age of Obama. Mika and I are usually no-shows at events such as the White House correspondents’ dinner but do not judge those who swim in that small ecosystem.
So why has there been such an avalanche of outrage on Twitter and sneering in some press rooms whenever Mika and I find ourselves in the same area code as Donald J. Trump? Is it because of media bias against Republican reporters such as myself?
Of course not.
Nobody seemed to care that Mika and I met privately with Barack Obama for over an hour in the White House. Nor did they raise an eyebrow when it became common knowledge that we were close friends with the president’s closest adviser, Valerie Jarrett. And colleagues saluted us for raising money on several occasions for David and Susan Axelrod’s charity. But I can’t even imagine the reaction if we hosted a similar event for one of Donald Trump’s close aides.
In the end, the feigned outrage leveled regarding our coverage of Trump is not about Mika or myself. Instead, it is about an increasingly disoriented press corps made vertiginous from the election of a man they openly despise. What the New Republic calls “outrage porn” focused on Trump only strengthens its sworn enemy’s standing and hurts the media’s long-term credibility. The pressing fear of being accused of “normalizing” Trump has led to predictable news coverage lacking in context or historical perspective.
The groupthink that has overtaken national media outlets is embarrassing. There is an intellectual climate so suffocating that even stating that truth, or daring to line up a presidential interview, makes one be seen as a member of a suspect class. Reporters don’t have to like Trump. But they do need to stop hyperventilating long enough to approach the next four years with a balanced perspective and at least start pretending to once again be objective.
As for those who attacked me this weekend for doing my job, facts are stubborn things. The only “party” I attended on New Year’s Eve was the one in front of the TV with my children, watching “Groundhog Day,” “Ghostbusters” and Mariah Carey’s epic meltdown. That may not sound as exciting as a big party at Mar-a-Lago, but for my family, it was a perfect way to end 2016.