The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s battles with reporters are part of his strategy. My advice: Ignore him.

President Trump in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House on Monday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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President Trump snapped at a reporter again the other day. Weijia Jiang, a correspondent for CBS News, challenged the president at one of his so-called briefings about whether he’d been late to respond to the coronavirus threat, which elicited from Trump the kind of anger he likes to direct at reporters — and with the kind of patronizing tone he seems to reserve for reporters who are women (and especially women of color).

The president instructed Jiang to “lower your voice” and “take it nice and easy,” as though he were robbing the bank where she worked as a teller.

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Creepy, yes. Offensive, for sure. But my question is: Who benefits from all our self-righteous complaining about it? The media, or Trump?

I get that we’re outraged by this behavior — and by “we,” I mean my colleagues in the media. I get that it’s not the kind of conduct one would have seen from any other president, and that it makes for compelling footage and something to rant about on cable TV. It happens over and over — to NBC’s Peter Alexander, to PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor, to ABC’s Jonathan Karl.

What I don’t get is why we keep playing into the president’s hands by reacting to it. Our vanity as an industry — we love it when the story’s about us — repeatedly blinds us to the fact that Trump is setting us up to look exactly like the whiny leftists he says we are.

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One of the main themes of Trump’s presidency is that the media has aligned itself with the Democratic resistance. As a result, the public can’t believe anything it reads or watches about him in any venue other than Fox News — and sometimes not even that — because it’s all fake and designed to destroy him.

You want to know how Trump manages to neutralize facts? You want to understand how he retains the faith of a sizable chunk of the electorate that doesn’t really have much affinity for him personally?

It’s at least partly because the elite media in this country is a widely distrusted and sometimes reviled institution. And every time Trump manages to get us to jump up and down in outrage and preen about the sanctity of our mission, an awful lot of Americans cheer for him, no matter how wrong he is.

Every time we appear on TV, looking angry and powerless, to bemoan our shabby treatment by the president, some large bloc of voters thinks: Good, now you know how we feel.

That’s why Trump always picks an ugly fight with some reporter when he’s up against a wall. He knows he can count us to blow it all out of proportion and remind people of why, however much they may despair of his leadership, they like us even less.

Look, I’m not some carping media professor saying this. I’ve been a reporter for 25-plus years. I understand abuse.

President Trump calls criticism of his coronavirus response "fake," yet cherry-picks news clips to make his case. He can't have it both ways, says Erik Wemple. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford / WP; Alex Brandon / AP/The Washington Post)

In my first real job, as a general assignment reporter at the Boston Globe, I spent a good chunk of time knocking on the doors of people who were grieving a tragic loss or who’d just been indicted. I’ve been called things I wouldn’t say out loud, and sometimes I deserved it.

Once, on a chartered campaign plane, then-Sen. John F. Kerry, a man infinitely more composed and thoughtful than Trump, ripped the lavalier microphone I was using to record an interview off of his lapel and threw it at me, then ordered me out of his cabin. (I’d been asking him about the growing death toll in Iraq, which seemed to me a pretty reasonable question for a presidential candidate.)

I mentioned the incident later, as part of a long New York Times Magazine piece, but I didn’t complain about the rudeness or use it as an excuse to grandstand.

Because that’s the job. That’s what comes with the privilege of bringing people the news.

As an industry, we’re awfully good at lobbing scorn and accusation at just about everybody in power — and especially at this president, who earns it more than most. When the scorn and accusation come back over the net, though, in a crass way that ought to reveal more about Trump than it does about us, we behave as though he just set the briefing room on fire.

It's time for us, as an industry, to show a little more toughness and perspective when dealing with this president. The right thing to do, the next time Trump goes off on a reporter in the briefing room, is nothing.

Don’t rise up in outrage, don’t replay the video. Move on, and keep asking the questions you need to ask, in as respectful a way as you can.

That’s the way to serve as a dispassionate check on Trump, and not just a convenient foil.

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