President Donald Trump walked into his East Room news conference Wednesday with a carefully scripted plan. He hoped to make the day memorable for the peaceful (see also: un-Trumpian) way he extended an olive branch to the Democrats who just captured control of the House.
Then all hell erupted and exploded all over our news screens. And what we’ll mainly remember from the president’s post-election performance was how Trump steered his press conference off the rails with bursts of anger at seemingly innocuous questioners.
Especially his dangerously provocative tirade at the journalist he seems to most love to hate: CNN’s White House correspondent Jim Acosta. “CNN should be ashamed of itself having you working for them,” Trump finally thundered at Acosta. “You are a rude, terrible person. You shouldn’t be working for CNN.”
And hours after the press conference, Trump’s anger exploded anew, as his White House suddenly yanked Acosta’s White House press credential. All because Trump didn’t like Acosta’s style of questioning.
I viewed all of that from a vantage point that was rare and probably unique. After all, I too have been caught in the cross-hairs of a very cross president. Eight presidents ago, Richard Nixon fumed to his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman (who was subsequently jailed for his Watergate crimes) about the way I was covering his presidency for Newsday. Specifically, how we at Newsday had begun an investigation into the finances of Nixon and his best pal, Key Biscayne (Florida) banker Charges (Bebe) Rebozo.
Nixon ordered his staff to freeze me out — no interviews! — so I couldn’t do my job (that didn’t work). Then Nixon banned me and Newsday from covering his historic breakthrough trip to China (that worked). But not even on the worst day of his presidency did Nixon or his White House henchpeople revoke my White House press credential.
Fast-forward: At Wednesday’s news conference, Acosta properly pursued a topic that Trump should have been pressed to explain long ago — why Trump told rallies that Central American migrants walking a thousand miles toward the U.S. were a dangerous “invasion” by undesirables — not refugees desperately trying to save their children from being trapped in corrupt countries overrun by gangs and drugs. But Acosta didn’t carefully focus his question; perhaps press Trump to cite any intelligence analysis justifying his continued use of “invasion.” Instead, Acosta wound up lengthily debating and lecturing Trump on the fact that it’s just not an invasion. He continued even after Trump said: “You and I have a difference of opinion.”
And when Trump called on another reporter, Acosta wouldn’t surrender his hand-held White House mic. He just kept talking, switching to a different topic, as a young Trump aide in a maroon dress tried to reach in and yank it away. Later the White House falsely contended that Acosta placed “his hands on a young woman.”
Up until they yanked Acosta’s credential, I was going to be writing a very different sort of column. Because, frankly, there is a lot that I really don’t care for about the ways some of my fellow journalists go about their jobs of covering the White House beat these days.
Some reporters approach press conferences and briefings as if their job is to publicly debate the pols we cover. Too many ask imprecise questions, or try to jam several unrelated topics into one unfocused query. I’m told I am considered a very tough interviewer and questioner. But the key to tough questioning is facts — strong research, anticipating a person’s response, avoiding the loopholes, and forcing the responder to focus on the heart of the problem.
Wednesday, an African American reporter tried to ask Trump about his repeated claim of being a “nationalist” — much to the pleasure of racist white nationalists. Trump rebelled, repeatedly telling the reporter her question was racist. But the reporter never mentioned to Trump that he had pleasantly answered the query before — when it was asked of him recently by Fox News’ Laura Ingraham.
Journalists need to re-evaluate what they are trying to accomplish and how they can better go about it — in ways that respect the institution we are covering, even as we remain tough-minded in our determination to tell Americans what they need to know.
My very good friend and colleague on the presidential beat, ABC’s legendary correspondent Sam Donaldson, always disagreed about a tactic he made famous. In the early 1980s, Sam was the first to begin yelling questions as President Ronald Reagan was walking on the lawn toward his revving helicopter. The former actor Reagan just played to the cameras that he was a victim of a rude press corps. “If Sam Donaldson didn’t exist, Ronald Reagan would’ve had to invent him,” I once remarked. (Sam just laughed, but always thought his way worked best for him.)
Today we sometimes appear to be a bellowing herd. Or a gaggle of talking-head debaters. I just don’t think those are our most effective tools of reporting.
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at martin.schramgmail.com.