By Chris Adams
It’s been a tough – albeit invigorating – few months for the news media. From crowds at political rallies that boo them, to Cabinet departments that shut them out, to a president that questions their very legitimacy, the press has become a major player in the political drama they are supposed to be covering.
So how does it work around the hostility?
Twelve journalists now in the trenches covering the Donald Trump administration and other centers of power in Washington talked about how they push back against a political establishment constantly trying to stiff-arm them and a president constantly insulting them.
Just two days before the event, for example, the president tweeted this: “The Fake Media (not Real Media) has gotten even worse since the election. Every story is badly slanted. We have to hold them to the truth!”
The event was co-sponsored by the National Press Club Journalism Institute and the National Press Foundation and held in the club’s Edward R. Murrow Room – a place named for a towering journalistic figure known for standing up to the political establishment of his time.
What was clear is that there is a steep learning curve at work now. That applies to the administration, which is still trying to learn how to govern as well as how it wants to interact with the press; to reporters, who need to navigate around shut doors and hostile subjects; and to news organizations, which want to maintain their competitive nature but also stand together when necessary.
“We, in our competitive profession, need to show some solidarity,” said Kathy Kiely, the 2017 Press Freedom Fellow for the National Press Club Journalism Institute who helped organize the event.
For news organizations, the barriers erected to keep them from doing their jobs are aggravating, but also something to work around.
Throughout the event, some dominant themes emerged: The level of antagonism is up, and it’s generally more difficult to get information. That’s partly because so many political positions in the administration remain unfilled, and partly because the new administration is finding its way.
Beyond that, the day-to-day aspects of covering beats has begun to normalize, and reporters are starting to get the information they need. While the Trump-press spats continue, there still are daily press briefings and still are communications staffers responding to information requests. Some of the tactics employed by the Trump White House were also employed by the Obama White House.
Margaret Talev, the White House correspondent for Bloomberg and vice president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, said she has had to get used to hostility – knowing, for example, that some portion of rallies will be about the press.
“Everybody’s going to turn and boo and give you the stink-eye, and then you’ll get on with things,” she said.
“It’s a more publicly antagonistic environment than the one before it,” she added – but you work past it.
Beyond that, all the journalists on two panels – one of beat reporters, one of newsroom executives – expressed a strong desire to avoid getting caught up in Trump’s battles with the press.
“We are determined not to become the enemy,” said Mark Memmott, NPR’s supervising senior editor for standards and practices. “We’re not there to be their friends, but we’re not there to be their enemy.”
Added David Lauter, Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times: “It is our job to cover the news, not to become the news.”
Even so, newsroom executives said uniting to push back against administration actions is important. When the White House excluded some reporters from a press gaggle, news organizations both wrote about the episode and issued statements decrying it. Some were more strident than others, in part because some news executives felt they should keep their outrage in check so they could deploy it for much-more serious situations.
Other tips and observations from reporters and editors:
__Prepare workarounds for when you are invariably stonewalled. Coral Davenport, who covers energy and environmental policy for The New York Times, knows she needs to double-down on efforts to find out about regulatory changes from the Federal Register, since the administration is not likely to publicize its moves.
__Be accessible to potential sources – and whistleblowers. You can find Davenport in multiple ways: office and cell phones; New York Times and Gmail email addresses; Twitter; Facebook; the encrypted messaging service WhatsApp. For her own protection and those of sources, she assumes that “at some point somebody will read my emails,” and is careful in how she communicates. People in the federal government who want to talk with her will do so away from their offices and away from their work phones.
Matt Lee, who covers the State Department for The Associated Press, suggested forgetting about encrypted emails “and go meet people in person.”
__Realize that the public posturing might be just a game. “He’s not sure-footed when he doesn’t have an enemy,” said George Condon, a White House correspondent for National Journal who has covered nine presidents said of Trump. “And his supporters like it when he attacks the press. If he doesn’t have an enemy, he flounders a little bit.”
__Redouble fact-checking efforts, and standardize how you refer to statements that are not factually grounded. Are they “lies”? “Unsupported statements”?
“If somebody says something – including the president – that isn’t true, just say, ‘This is what this person said and this is what the facts are,’ ” Talev said. “… It has required a fact-check at a completely different level of intensity.”
__Watch what you say – and tweet. In an age of social media, journalists need to remember their role and keep their opinions in check. “‘I loathe the tendency of what I see on Twitter,” said Politico editor Carrie Budoff Brown of reporters who share their opinions on the social media platform. “I don’t care what you think. I care what your reporting shows.”