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The Stephen Miller dilemma

White House adviser Stephen Miller battled CNN host Jake Tapper in an interview on Jan. 7. Miller's volatile relationship with the press isn't new. (Video: Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

Shortly after the combative performance on CNN by White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller on Sunday, journalist and lawyer Seth Abramson, a frequent guest on cable news shows, asked Twitter users to retweet their agreement with his position that TV networks should stop booking Miller. About 25,000 people obliged.

Then Abramson found a typo and posted a corrected version of his tweet, arguing that Miller's media appearances “are intended for the exclusive consumption of President Trump and contain no new, honest, or accurate information.” The edited message proved even more popular, garnering about 36,000 retweets, as of this writing.

It also caught the attention of Ann Coulter, who mocked the petition as evidence that journalists are afraid to interview “smart conservatives” such as Miller, preferring to book “random bimbos” who represent Trump's views poorly.

This is the Stephen Miller dilemma: He seems to enter media sessions with a mandate to show up his questioners, rather than engage them in good-faith discussions. After 12 frustrating minutes on Sunday, CNN's Jake Tapper ended the interview and said, “I think I've wasted enough of my viewers' time.” Yet refusing to waste time with Miller can, as Coulter suggested, create an appearance of fear-driven censorship and fuel the president's claims of media bias.

CNN did not respond to a Fix inquiry about whether it will book Miller in the future.

How to attack the media like Stephen Miller, in 3 easy steps

Lisa R. Cohen, who directs the DuPont-Columbia Awards, broadcast journalism's answer to the Pulitzer Prizes, said that banning Miller would be a mistake.

“I don't think it behooves us to be in the business of saying, 'We're not going to hear from the people who are in the news,'” said Cohen, a former producer at CBS and ABC. “'We're just not going to hear from you at all. We're going to suppose, rightfully or not, that what you have to say is obfuscation, and so we're not going to even call you up and ask you for your time.'”

Why not, if Miller's antics are so predictable?

“Well, you're not doing your job,” Cohen said. “You're not reporting what has happened and what people involved in the story are saying about what has happened. In this case, he's the Trump surrogate. I don't like it, but I think you have to do it in a way in which you clearly challenge.”

“I would book him,” concurred Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington bureau chief who now directs the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. “He's a senior official in the Trump White House. He should be accessible — and accountable. That's what these interviews should be all about: gaining information and understanding from the public servants who are doing the people's business, getting their explanation for news and events, and holding them accountable for the words they've spoken and the actions they've taken.”

I asked Abramson to make the case in favor of banning Miller. Here's part of what he said:

None of us want bad information, or to waste our media-watching time on interviews that don't contribute anything to our stock of knowledge. The tweet had nothing to do with Miller being a Republican, a conservative or a Trump adviser, except in one respect: This president has proven himself unusually willing to use his aides not as instruments for informing the public or even advancing his agenda, but soothing his easily wounded ego. I'm not the first to observe that aides such as [White House press secretary Sarah] Huckabee Sanders and Miller appear to be “performing” for an audience of one, rather than engaging in robust civic discourse. This practice compounds the problem we already have in our media environment with rehashed, dishonest and inaccurate information.

Mark Feldstein, a former reporter for CNN and ABC, assessed the substance of Miller's TV appearances in much the same way. But Feldstein contended that viewers can see through Miller's tactics and said there is value in putting them on display.

“I actually think Stephen Miller gave both heat and light in his own inadvertent way by so robotically and aggressively repeating the same talking points and utterly avoiding the questions,” said Feldstein, who chairs the broadcast journalism department at the University of Maryland. “So, I think you should have him on. . . . There is something to be said for just holding a mirror up to an ugly face.”

Lynne Adrine, a former ABC producer, suggested a kind of middle ground — interviewing Miller but being prepared to pull the plug, as Tapper did when he cut off the conversation.

“It is important to provide President Trump or his designated surrogate an opportunity to respond” to “Fire and Fury,” the new book by Michael Wolff, said Adrine, who directs the Washington graduate program at Syracuse University's communications school. “After you give that representative an opportunity to answer your questions, and if he refuses or filibusters, you have a right to end the interview — even abruptly — and trust your audience to make its own assessment about whether the situation was handled fairly.”