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The President Vs. The Press

Omri Nahmias & Gershon Burstyn

Three top White House reporters who’ve learned the balancing act between access and ethics talk about what it’s like to cover Trump in the age of the Tweet

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

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FIRST AMENDMENT “Our newspaper has been banned from some events,” says Hadas Gold, Politico’s media writer. “It’s frustrating, but it’s more frustrating from the point of view of freedom of speech and the First Amendment” (Photo: AP Imagebank)

T here is a war between the media and the president of the United States.

When exactly did it start? It’s hard to say, but it’s clear that the antagonism runs deep.

Donald Trump is a media personality and businessman. He made a name for himself by thinking big, creating an empire of commercial and residential properties across the globe. He deftly marketed his product, in part by associating his name with luxury, stamping his name on his buildings in oversized, gilded capital letters. Still, one could enjoy the luxe trimmings without thinking much about the man behind them.

Then came the presidential campaign. Trump was an outsider, and few gave him any chance of success. In fact, the media famously belittled his candidacy, as can be seen on numerous video compilations floating around the Internet. But then the crowds began to swell and the polls remained mysteriously close, suggesting he was touching a nerve. That’s when the media panicked.

Trump is not a sophisticate. He’s heimish, despite his gold-plated apartment in Trump Tower. He says what he thinks and doesn’t care much what you think. The media — largely a group of well-educated liberals — think he’s uncouth. After eight years of Barack Obama, the ultra-cool intellectual with all the right elite credentials, Trump was the party crasher with the blowhorn.

Into this mix add that Trump has an elastic relationship with facts, often exaggerating his own accomplishments and magnifying the attacks of his adversaries. On March 4, he famously tweeted that Barack Obama had “wiretapped” Trump Tower. Investigations are ongoing, but it seems unlikely that allegation was literally true.

The media, for its part, has made its opinions of the president clear, often in overtly partisan fashion. A recent Los Angeles Times editorial called the president a “narcissist and demagogue who used fear and dishonesty to appeal to the worst in American voters.”

“Press briefings are a kind of performance art,” Time magazine’s White House correspondent Zeke Miller told Mishpacha. “At a certain point it becomes obvious that Sean Spicer is not answering the question, and that becomes news in itself”

His administration, the Times wrote, has been a “train wreck,” one that “has taken dozens of real-life steps that, if they are not reversed, will rip families apart, foul rivers and pollute the air, intensify the calamitous effects of climate change, and profoundly weaken the system of American public education for all.”

Question: Is this what his supporters would say about his policies? Is this what any fair observer would say?

Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, has insisted the president will continue to “carry his message directly to the American people” via his Twitter account. Apart from a president using an often-banal social-media technology to communicate directly with the US citizenry, his use of Twitter circumvents one of the traditional roles of the press. It is the media that has long decided what is and what is not news, and has shaped the words and policies of public officials on their news pages. Trump’s use of Twitter allows him to bypass the press, thus shaping his own agenda and sidelining the powerful role the press has long played in American life. So this is a tug-of-war; a powerful president who is sensitive to bad press (and cares very much what the press says about him) versus a media that is alarmed at the president’s relationship with the truth and the diminishment of its own historic role.

To better understand some of the dilemmas that face reporters today in Washington, Mishpacha’s Omri Nahmias sat down with a group of seasoned political journalists to talk about today’s media climate and what it’s like to cover Donald Trump. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 657)

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