Lester Holt’s interview with President Trump last week made huge, splashy headlines when the president confirmed that he always intended to fire FBI Director James B. Comey, and that he was thinking of the investigation into Russia’s influence on the 2016 election when he did it. Holt’s wasn’t the only interview with Trump that aired last week. Trump’s conversation with Fox News’s Jeanine Pirro was less explosive, but from a Trump watcher’s perspective, it was more revealing. The interview was a near-perfect example of what Trump would like his relationship with the media to be. And it was proof of why no respectable news organization can give it to him.
Pirro, whose show “Justice with Judge Jeanine” airs on Saturday evenings, has never exactly aspired to the sort of independent, feisty moments that helped make Megyn Kelly, now with NBC News, one of Fox News’s breakout stars.
Even by that lowered standard, though, Pirro’s latest chat with Trump was awfully cozy. She introduced the president as “a man I’ve known for more than 30 years,” and wrapped up their conversation by inquiring into whether Trump was still conducting family dinners characterized by “friendliness and camaraderie,” noting, “I’ve even had occasion to be at some of those dinners.” The framing was clear: Pirro could vouch for Trump because she’s practically family.
Specifically, Pirro served as the president’s agony aunt, lamenting what she described as the Democrats’ hypocritical response to Comey’s firing; Trump’s inability to break through the Pig-Pen-like cloud that has surrounded him throughout the campaign, his inauguration and the first 100-plus days of his presidency; the “terrible things” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has said. She phrased questions to include praise for Trump, describing the House’s health-care legislation as something that would not have passed if not for Trump’s willingness to be “hands-on and involved”; asking if his communications staff’s errors were a result of Trump’s “moving so quickly that your communications department can’t keep up with you”; and lamenting “the risk of the country not being able to see your successes.”
And over and over, Pirro returned to the word “we.” “How do we solve this?” she wanted to know about the challenge of breaking through a news cycle dominated by “Comey and other ridiculous stuff.” “What do we do about that?” she asked about errors in press briefings. “How are we going to get that across to the American people?” Pirro asked of Trump’s accomplishments at another point.
That “we” is at the heart of Trump’s problem with the press.
It might have been possible for Trump to have a mutually beneficial relationship with the tabloid press in New York when he was a mere real estate developer. As Susan Mulcahy wrote about her relationship with Trump years at Page Six and New York Newsday, “I needed to fill a lot of space, ideally with juicy stories of the rich and powerful, and Trump more than obliged. I wrote about his real estate deals. I wrote about his wife, his yacht, his parties, his houses.” And even there, Trump’s penchant for lying to and abusing reporters meant that his ability to provide copy was a mixed blessing.
Now that Trump is president, there is no possible responsible way for serious journalists to behave as if Trump is their partner. The problem for Trump is not political, but structural. Even if individual journalists or the editorial boards of news organizations agree with Trump on any given issue, our function is to stand apart, learning new information and gathering new insights rather than hoisting pom-poms aloft. The demand that the press be friendly or supportive to the president has a way of shutting out all other people and institutional imperatives to which the media might feel some obligations. State-run media might be able to play to a subscriber base of one; independent media cannot possibly do this.
Pirro can’t even fall back on the argument that soothing and stroking a wounded president elicited better information for her viewers than Holt’s cooler, detached style did for his. Her yes-or-no answers meant that Trump insisted that of course he’d build the wall, without addressing any of the serious political or logistical hurdles to his signature campaign promise. He mused about what it was like to be present with “so many friends” he’d made in the Republican congressional delegation after the health-care vote. And Trump reassured Pirro that he was sure his late brother Fred Trump Jr. would be proud of the job he has done so far.
Making Trump comfortable means allowing him to seal any cracks or flaws in his facade, rather than eliciting any revelations or new insights from him. Trump wants the press to perform public relations, not journalism. And as long as people like Pirro are willing to flatter him, Trump will never understand why real journalists can’t give him what he wants without losing who we are.