Dealing with the Donald Trump administration is problematic for a variety of reasons.
As a reporter, it’s been difficult as he’s labeled us “The enemy of the people,” and accuses us of producing “Fake News.”
He’s publicly said all Americans should not believe what we see and hear, but should only listen to him for truth, justice and the American way.
Along the way his administration has battled in ways previously unseen with working reporters. This week Kaitlan Collins from CNN got banned from an event because she either asked “inappropriate questions” or was “rude” to the president in a pool spray event.
Others, including myself, have been physically accosted, insulted and belittled – making it difficult to do the job we’re supposed to do. Compound that with the viewing audience who watches the weekly/daily press briefings and routinely offers well-meaning or derisive suggestions about how reporters should conduct themselves and for reporters young and old navigating through the administration has suddenly become filled with land mines previously unseen in covering presidential politics.
The first administration I covered was Ronald Reagan after his re-election in 1984. My first stop in the press room came with a whole list of suggestions from Helen Thomas, Sam Donaldson, Connie Lawn and others whose institutional knowledge of the White House and political reporting humbled me.
But I’ve taken their advice over the years and now I offer it back. What follows is the abbreviated version of what I’ve learned in the last 30 years covering presidents and politics. It is my own personal, handy, guidebook that I try to live up to every day. I do not pretend it is for everyone – it is merely mine. Just 12 simple rules that I use every day:
1. Just ask the question. Helen Thomas, one of my mentors told me that you should always ask a question. Get the question out. The answer often isn’t as important as the question for once the question is asked, the administration cannot truthfully deny the issue exists.
Of course Sam Donaldson also taught me how to shout to get the question heard.
2. Back each other up when you can. This means listening to the person asking the question in a briefing and to the answer. Sometimes follow up is better than the question you came to ask. Sometimes supporting each other by asking the person conducting the briefing to answer the previously asked question is in order. But sometimes it is not. It is the reporter’s call based on issues, answers, timeliness, deadlines, etc. Not immediately backing each other up does not mean you’re not supportive either. It may only mean – especially in the Trump administration – that briefings are few, far between and short in duration and there are many issues to cover.
3. Do not walk out. No matter how poorly we are treated, walking out of a press briefing only plays into the hands of the oppressor. We are not protesters. We are reporters. We must stay and tell the public - no matter what our personal feelings - what is going on.
4. Do not make yourself the story, but do not back down when bullied. You cannot simply sit there as a spokesperson avoids you, belittles you, and calls you the enemy of the people or “Fake News.” However, pick your battles judiciously by your conscience realizing that when you do push back the administration will accuse you of grandstanding or being rude. The day he called us "Enemy of the people," was the day President Trump made us the story. We cannot play by the old rules when he changed them on us and continues to attack us.
5. Asking a question is not “rude” or “inappropriate,” even if it is shouted and the president or his surrogates find it inconvenient. The answers may be both, but with few exceptions merely asking a question isn’t the problem. When the administration pushes back in such a manner, be assured you are on to something.
6. Do your homework: do not rely on briefings to be the sole source or the soul of your reporting. Work your sources.
7. I do not allow “off-the-record.” Remember “off-the-record,” is up to you. If the Chief of Staff, the president or anyone else in the administration wants to go “off-the-record,” I will refuse to do so. I will agree to “On background,” meaning the information is reportable but attributed to a “senior white house source,” or something similar, but on matters of public policy I will never agree to allowing elected officials off-the-record comments. Those comments always get reported anyway. And since I went to jail to protect a confidential source, I do not use these things as arbitrarily as some.
8. Do not become friends with those you cover. Both Sam Donaldson and Dan Rather warned of this phenomenon more than a quarter of a century ago. Be cordial, friendly and amicable, but at the end of the day you compromise your ability to report on someone when you count them as your friend.
9. Treat them all the same. If you voted for them give them even more grief.
10. Be honest.
11. Always support your colleagues. The press covering the president should represent the melting pot of America and indeed the world. Whatever you think of someone personally, professionally you should always support them whether or not you actually agree with them. Do NOT allow the president or anyone else to cleave away reporters one-by-one with a variety of complaints which have nothing to do with why we are there.
12. You’re not important. The question is important. As I’ve often said, every one of us covering the president is replaceable. At the end of the day what we ask is far more important than who we are. The administration wants to make it personal. They will accuse you of being inappropriate, rude, self-aggrandizing, and much more. That doesn’t matter. You’re not on the White House tour. You’re there to cover the president. The president will have his people try to put the president’s best foot forward. That is natural and correct, again as Donaldson often said. That’s their job. Our job is finding out what’s really going on. In that quest you will anger those who wish their secrets and in some cases, inconvenient facts, be kept in the dark.
In short, presidential criticism isn't new
At the end of the day each reporter is only responsible to their conscience and their own sense of right and wrong. The First Amendment affords them the ability to shout out a question anywhere or any time when the president is around or anyone else in the administration.
This particular administration demands respect from reporters when none has been given to those working in the Fourth Estate. Members of the White House press staff who are now using Secret Service protection will not even acknowledge the escalation of tensions between the press and the president are entirely the fault of the president. Moreover, while administration officials can get protection, the average reporter cannot.
Meanwhile, complaints of partisanship in the press by this administration are laughable considering the First Amendment was born during a time when there was nothing but partisan press. People accused Andrew Jackson of being a drunkard, and his wife was vilified. Washington, Adams and Jefferson were routinely castigated by their enemies. Of John Adams, his fiercest critic said, “Mr. Adams and his Federalists wish to sap the Republic by fraud, destroy it by force, and elect an English monarchy in its place.”
In short, presidential criticism isn’t new and in the past Presidents not only expected push back, but our founding fathers were still able to write and support the First Amendment despite or because of the partisanship. The Trump administration’s attacks on the free press are frightening in that they expose an agenda of suppression and oppression meant to get people to doubt their own eyes and experiences and follow him down the road of tyranny.
These are perilous times. We cannot shrink from our responsibility and we cannot doubt ourselves or allow ourselves to be manipulated by a bully.