Donald Trump's presidency is shaping up to be a major pivot point in journalism in the 21st century. Trump's willingness to flaunt all previous rules of communication with the country and interactions with reporters has already begun forcing reporters -- and news organizations -- to grapple with what their role is and what it should be. No one is better equipped to answer -- or try to answer -- these existential questions than Erik Wemple, who covers the media and its intersection with the political world at his eponymous WaPo blog. I reached out to Erik to cast some light on the Trump Administration's relationship with the media today and what it could or should be. Our conversation, conducted via email and only lightly edited for flow, is below.
FIX: You were very critical of White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s first press briefing, writing that he represented “the penchant for falsehood and mendacity that Trump displayed throughout the presidential campaign.” How lasting is the damage to Spicer and Trump? How long should that damage last?
Wemple: From what I can tell, that damage lasted until about the halfway point of Monday’s press briefing, when reporters started yukking it up with the press secretary. [Nota bene: I praised Spicer's performance in that press conference.] That’s on an observational level only, however. There is longer-lasting damage that hovers below the surface. With this group’s record for twisting the truth, reporters will face greater and greater difficulty nailing anything down, with the end result that U.S. citizens may find themselves knowing less and less about their government. But the damage will ultimately fall on the White House itself, and it’ll manifest itself when they need everyone to take their word on something very, very important.
FIX: Some media critics have suggested reporters ignore Trump’s tweets or Spicer’s briefings until they commit to telling the truth consistently. Where do you come down on that suggestion – and why?
Wemple: These media critics need to work longer in the media. Tweets and statements from top-level public figures aren’t ignorable in any way. They immediately shoot into the current of public discourse, and if media folks want to ignore them, they’ll be alone in doing so. Some have suggested disallowing Kellyanne Conway from appearing on air, another strategy with which I disagree. Boundaries: We are the media; we ask the White House for someone to comment on administration policy; the White House offers Conway; we respond, well, we’d prefer the president but if he’s not available, fine. If Conway appears on the air and says something that needs correcting, then we clean up the mess. That’s our job.
FIX: Going broader: What, if anything, new have we learned about the Trump Administration’s approach to the media?
FIX: You’ve covered the media – and its intersection with politics – for a very long time. I keep saying we are through the looking glass when it comes to Trump. Am I exaggerating?
Wemple: I certainly feel as if we’ve slipped into another dimension. I did a lot of reporting on the media’s handling of the story about Trump getting briefed on that Russian dossier on that fateful Friday earlier in the month. Did he or did he not get a briefing on it? CNN said yes, and turned out to be right. Others said he hadn’t been briefed. There were a lot of sources flying in every damn direction. [White House chief of staff] Reince Priebus said that he was in that briefing session but that he didn’t find out about the dossier until BuzzFeed published it much later. At the same time, Trump himself at his press conference talked about something resembling a sting operation, in which he didn’t tell his staff about a meeting – as a way to figure out who was leaking stuff.
So you tell me: How do you report in this environment, when the president-elect (at the time) boasts about keeping his staff out of the loop? Sheds a new light on the reliability of those “senior administration sources,” doesn’t it? No wonder news organizations are stepping up the resources dedicated to White House reporting.
FIX: Finish this sentence: “The best thing a political reporter can do in the early days of the Trump Administration is ____________.” Now, explain.
Wemple: "get another source."
As the Time magazine screwup shows, those who mangle facts regarding the Trump White House are going to be pounded for their mistakes, which is fair. But the stakes around journalistic hygiene have never been higher.