MARSHALLTOWN, Iowa — Only a few minutes into a hastily scheduled press conference in a high-school weight room here, Donald Trump is already on the attack. Against a reporter, of course.
“In 1999, you said you were pro-choice in all respects,” NBC newsman Peter Alexander starts to ask Trump about a long-ago “Meet the Press” interview.
Trump doesn’t wait for the question. “Read the full statement!” he shoots back. “You didn’t read the full statement. What did I say? Read the full statement!”
The sharp retort seems to catch Alexander off guard, but he soon regroups, pointing out that Trump’s full comment in 1999 included the mild caveat that he was uncomfortable with “the concept of abortion.”
But Trump senses an opening. “Why didn’t you say that when you asked the question before, that I hate the concept of abortion?” he asks Alexander. “Do you apologize? Do you apologize for not reading my words?”
When Alexander responds that he was merely reading Trump’s words back to him, Trump scowls. “Do you apologize?” he demands. “No? . . . Okay, forget you. Just forget you.”
What was remarkable about the exchange was how unremarkable it was. When you cover Trump on a regular basis, say reporters who do, the beatdowns are part of the job. It’s one of the signature things about Trump, one of the many ways he’s broken the rules of presidential politics. No leading presidential candidate — perhaps ever — has been as dismissive, belittling or as downright hostile to the people who follow him on the campaign trail as Trump.
Trump’s penchant for insulting people and organizations that displease him is well known, of course. Less remarked upon, however, has been the special contempt that Trump pours out for the women who chronicle his campaign. His targets aren’t limited to Fox News host Megyn Kelly, whom Trump has publicly called “a bimbo,” “dopey” and “so average in every way” in his long-running (and largely one-sided) feud.
The list of female journalists and commentators who’ve been verbally roughed up by Trump include Associated Press reporter Jill Colvin (“one of the truly bad reporters”); New York Times reporters Amy Chozick and Maggie Haberman (“third-rate reporters”); CNN pundits S.E. Cupp and Ana Navarro (“two of the dumbest people in politics”); Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington (“liberal clown”); Forbes writer Clare O’Connor (“dummy”); MSNBC reporter Kasie Hunt (“poor and purposely inaccurate reporting”); CNN host Alisyn Camerota (“disaster”); Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin (“one of the dumber bloggers”); NPR’s Cokie Roberts (“kooky”); NBC News reporter Katy Tur (“Dishonest!”); and CNN reporter Sara Murray (“absolutely terrible”).
One female reporter said Trump’s denunciations of journalists makes his rallies feel “scary,” with an undercurrent of menace among his supporters. Another said the hostile tweets she gets from Trump supporters tend to mirror the language Trump uses in smearing women.
Even in a place as placid and generally friendly as Iowa, it can be a bit unsettling for anyone to cover Trump.
When security personnel ordered reporters to wait outside in the cold because of a brief mix-up before one of Trump’s appearances here last week, the gaggle of journalists drew a few catcalls from the hundreds of supporters who had lined up to get into the event. “Let ’em freeze,” someone called from the line. The crowd laughed.
This is mild, even inconsequential, compared with what other journalists have experienced while reporting on Trump.
Sopan Deb, a videographer and digital journalist for CBS News, tweeted that he was asked by a Trump supporter “if I was taking pictures for ISIS” as he recorded a rally in Reno, Nev., last month. When Deb, who is of South Asian heritage, looked surprised at the question, the man said, “Yeah, I’m talking to you,” and repeated the accusation multiple times.
“I told him, politely, I was with CBS and that what he said was inappropriate,” wrote Deb. “He said, ‘This is America. . . . Be glad that you’re here.’ I have a couple guesses what he meant by that. The best part is that the man — an apparent Vietnam vet — started filming me with his cell — as if he really thought I was filming for ISIS.”
Added Deb, “This isn’t first time this has happened. At last month’s rally in Vegas, [a] man came up to me to [say] ‘Go back to Iraq!’ I’ve never been!”
Trump’s slams and slights seem to draw few complaints from the media pack, at least not in public. Several reporters approached for this story during a few days in Iowa were critical of Trump’s treatment of them, but kept their comments off the record, meaning they could not be quoted. Others declined to speak at all, saying they weren’t permitted to do so without authorization from their employers.
The no-commenters included Tur, Murray, Fox News’s Carl Cameron, McClatchy’s Lesley Clark, Reuters’s Steve Holland, the Des Moines Register’s Jennifer Jacobs, NPR’s Mara Liasson and Trip Gabriel of the New York Times.
Alexander, the NBC reporter, still seemed to be smarting from his run-in with Trump a few minutes after the press conference here concluded, but he was cautious in his comments. “The bottom line is, I asked a valid question,” he said. “It’s a question his opponents have been raising. We’re choosing the next president of the United States. He can answer a question.”
Silence may be the best policy when it comes to Trump; journalists who’ve written or spoken critically about him have received swift payback. Reporters for the Huffington Post, Buzzfeed and Fusion TV network have been banned from his events at various times. Univision’s Jorge Ramos and Gabriel of the New York Times have been ejected during his events.
Reporters for the Des Moines Register, the largest newspaper in the first caucus state, were banned by Trump after its editorial board called for him to drop out of the race in July (the editorial’s headline: “Trump should pull the plug on his bloviating side show”). The ban made little sense on its face; news reporters have no control over their newspaper’s opinion pages, and vice versa. Nevertheless, it didn’t stop the Register from covering Trump. Its reporters simply secured general-entry tickets and sat among his supporters, not in the pen.
“At every opportunity, he’s said what a lousy paper we are,” said Jason Noble, one of the Register’s political reporters, who waited in line for two hours to report on a Trump event in Pella, Iowa, last month. “The question is, what kind of precedent does this set for future presidential campaigns? If you can slash and burn your way to the nomination, does that send a message” to future candidates?
Trump, of course, has been criticized for many things, but his ad hominem attacks on journalists have not been sufficiently rebutted, wrote columnist Eric Boehlert of the liberal watchdog group Media Matters last month. “On and on the bullying goes and the pushback remains minimal,” he wrote. “. . . Where’s the indignation over the constant press intimidation? Where are the outraged editorials? Where are the endless, handwringing TV panel debates about what Trump’s hatred of the press really means; what it tells us about his possible character flaws, and his would-be presidency?”
Asked about this, Lynn Sweet, a veteran political reporter and columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, offers a longer view.
“My heart goes out to reporters when I hear them being singled out,” Sweet said last week, standing in the media room at a Trump event in Des Moines. “However, just as we say running for president puts you in the big leagues, it’s also true for the reporters. Just as we say the politicians have to have thick skins, my guess is the reporters do, too.”