Spurned Reporters should dump Trump Briefings, turn to Investigative Journalism

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Donald Trump was unhappy Saturday that the major media had neglected to report a point made by Herman Cain in an interview on Fox. Cain alleged that in Barack Obama’s first month, the Federal budget deficit rose $200 bn., but in Trump’s first month it fell to only $12 bn. Obviously, Obama had nothing to do with the deficit in his first month– that was a result of the 2008 collapse, which had something to do with Republican policies of deregulating the banks and other mortgage lenders and declining to exercise any oversight over sketchy practices. And Trump had nothing to do with the deficit during his first month in office. That was a result of Obama’s 8 years of pulling the economy back out of the toilet to which the Republican Party had consigned it.

Trump’s petty attacks on journalists as enemies of America, as the worst people, and as irrationally denying him the credit for his 4 weeks of economic turnaround, are deeply worrisome to many Americans sensitive to the danger of a spiral down into authoritarian rule. William H. McRaven, the retired four-star admiral and former Navy Seal who led the raid against Usama Bin Laden, called Trump’s remark on the press as an enemy of the people “the greatest threat to democracy” he has ever seen.

Trump’s immature sidelining of reporters on his enemy’s list kept rolling on this weekend. White House spokesman Sean Spicer was set to do an on-camera press briefing on Friday, and then Donald Trump spoke at the conservative gathering CPAC. It is a custom that the spokesman doesn’t do an on-camera event the same day the president gives a substantial address. So Spicer switched to doing what is called a “gaggle,” a smaller briefing in his office attended only be a few reporters in a pool who then would convey his remarks to others.

Spicer pared down the invitee list to the bare bones. He excluded the BBC, CNN, the New York Times, the Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, Buzzfeed, the Daily Mail and Politico, among others. He allowed ABC, Fox News, Breitbart News, Reuters and the Washington Times. Breitbart is not a news outlet, but a propaganda arm of elements of the Ku Klux Klan who wear suits rather than white robes.

The exclusions were so egregious and petty that the Associated Press, USA Today and Time magazine declined to be present. The Washington Post and McClatchy did not know about the disinvitees, and said that if they had been aware of what was going on, they would not have attended, either.

Since Spicer often conveys fake news (the Atlanta Attack) or pro-Trump propaganda at his briefings, it isn’t clear that the excluded media were exactly missing anything.

Then Trump announced that he would be the first president since Tricky Dick Nixon voluntarily to skip the annual dinner of the White House correspondents, where in recent decades the president and the press engaged in some good-natured ribbing. Trump appears to have felt humiliated at one of these events by remarks of then President Barack Obama, pushing back against Trump’s outrageous lies about Obama’s birthplace.

But Spicer’s and Trump’s attempts to exclude so many journalists from a briefing may be all to the good.

Something is broken in American journalism. Maybe it is the “inverted pyramid” whereby US reporters put the “most important thing” first in the article. It has been pointed out that this way of organizing the article gives an unfair advantage to a duplicitous administration, since anything the president says goes first in the article. Bush and his people used this principle to game the press all the time. (When the scandal about US personnel torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq broke on a Thursday evening, Bush quickly came out and condemned the practice. The Friday headlines were “President condemns torture at Abu Ghraib.”)

Or maybe it is access journalism, whereby an administration adopts a few favored writers and feeds them scoops that it suits the administration to go on the front page.

Or maybe it is the news conference. Why privilege an administration’s narrative about itself by doing articles based on nothing more than hot air coming from the general direction of the West Wing?

Most major newspapers in the US, when there were major print newspapers, used to have an investigative journalism team. With the decline of ad revenue and the hard times on which journalism has fallen, investigative journalism has often been abandoned. Administrations and the Washington bureaucracy don’t like a young journalist nosing around. ProPublica, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, and some other independent organizations (often with limited resources) have been left to try to fill the gap left when big media cut back on investigative reporting.

But we need that back, big time, in this administration. Everywhere you dig in Trump’s cabinet, you find bodies. So instead of sitting in a room being fed falsehoods by Spicer or Trump, best for the journalists to be working contacts in the White House or at NSC or the Pentagon to get the real story. Enough people in Washington are appalled by the Trump-Bannon attempt to fascize America that they seem willing to leak damaging information all on their own. How much better if a trained journalist got those stories through initiative.

So here’s to Trump excluding virtually all the newspapers and cable channels. Let him. Go get the scoops he doesn’t want you to have.

Someone (probably not George Orwell) once said, ““News is something somebody doesn’t want printed; all else is advertising.” Whoever said it, truer words were never spoken.

We need less advertising (or “public relations” in some versions), and a helluva lot more journalism these days.


Related video:

CBS Evening News: “Trump won’t attend White House correspondents’ dinner”

25 Responses

  1. I’ve been saying the same. Hopefully newsroom editors and media owners will listen. There’s a huge swath of the public who will probably tune out real journalism that doesn’t include the President’s words, so this is not without risk, but I can’t help thinking it’s a marvelous opportunity.

  2. > Republican policies of deregulating the banks and other mortgage lenders

    The legislation that allowed this was signed by Bill Clinton. I think you go too far in absolving corporate-funded and -controlled Democrats of the mess that our country is in.

    • Thanks for this Steve. You are right – it was Clinton not Bush who screwed us with Wall Street deregulation with the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act in 1999; it repealed part of Glass-Steagall and allowed investment banks, commercial banks, and insurance companies, previously separate entities, to consolidate. And it didn’t use the SEC to regulate large investment bank holding companies.

      The Dems need to do a couple of simple things to stop loosing elections. They need to focus on jobs (infrastructure, clean energy, and land restoration would be good for a start), regulation on Wall Street, and a push back against their embrace of militarism in an effort to keep up with the Jones’s (i.e., the GOP’s) truculent policies.

      I have been to three town halls this week, and the desire by Dems to rid themselves of Clintonism and get back to their basic roots of economic and social justice is palpable. Maybe they can do it, but if they can it will only be because of each one of us. The party needs to be moved to the left.

      My own anecdote? I’ve never considered myself political beyond the ordinary but am registering this week to run for school board and my wife as a county delegate. We are at a point where we need to stop blogging and commenting (metaphorically speaking), and act. It is too dangerous not to do so.

      • It wasn’t Bill Clinton’s idea to repeal part of Glass-Steagall. That was a Republican plot, which they used a rider to impose on Clinton (he didn’t have a majority and didn’t want to shut down the government).

        • And that’s the problem with “Clintonism,” e.g. neoliberalism – you have to be able to stand firm, even if it means shutting down the government. In which case, you need to communicate with the American people more effectively.


    • My thought exactly when reading this: the Clinton years were a swampy bi-partisan bunch, and Trumpism is the result of such amoral collaborations, exposing once again the outlines of a Very Deep State. Question: how far will Bannon’s “destruction of the administrative state” extend? Surely not into the Pentagon?

  3. “News is something somebody doesn’t want printed; all else is advertising.” I searched for that and found it attributed to William Randolph Hearst, Juan. I guess that makes Informed Comment a news site, not a commentary.

  4. While I totally agree that Trump is dysfunctionally immature, I don’t see his “war on the media” as part of that immaturity. I see it as president Bannon’s calculated plan, and because he has such a convenient fool to do his bidding without second thought, this very dangerous . Bannon’s “war” is already doing tremendous damage, and it’s THIS particular aspect of Bannon’s “war” that will enable him to carry out the rest of his evil, evil agenda.

  5. The White House Correspondent’s Dinner was a prime example of what is wrong with political reporting today. But far from the only one. It seems like the prime objective of establishment news reporters and pundits nowadays is getting access and getting invited to the right parties. Real journalism seems to have been abandoned, and not just with Trump. This goes back to the time Woodward and Bernstein became celebrities and thereafter lost focus. The watergate story was an example of real , old time journalism. Now reporters interview each other and congratulate themselves on what wonderful reporters they are. Then, the press tries to make up for giving Obama a free pass on some very bad policies and actions by doubling down on Trump criticism, but thinking that venom can carry the day without actually getting the facts first. It is good of Prof. Cole to point out this problem.

  6. While I disagree with the headline, I do agree that we need more investigative journalism. Attending the briefings is necessary in order to have lies to refute. I will note that one of the greatest investigative journalists of my early lifetime, I.F. Stone, probably never attended a presidential press conference.
    He did love to pour over transcripts of whatever he could get his hands on.
    Cheers and keep on!

  7. Something is broken in American journalism.

    Very true, but it is nothing new. Mencken was a severe critic of journalists generations ago. link to realclearbooks.com

    The great and courageous Helen Thomas nailed Ronald Reagan with a question that deserved an answer, but he dodged it with his aw-shucks schtick and was aided and abetted by other “journalists” at the press conference who should have backed Ms. Thomas to demand an answer. Instead, they laughed at Reagan’s corny joke.

    But surely, the White House correspondents and their friends sank to their lowest when they laughed at George W. Bush’s squalid skit at the 2004 WHCA dinner when Dubya made fun of the non-existent WMDs that got the war on Iraq going and led to the deaths and maiming of countless people, including thousands of our military personnel “serving their country.” David Corn was the only journalist and attendee at that dinner with the integrity to walk out after witnessing that despicable scene.

  8. I can’t remember who it was who has been pushing this, but one commentator on MSNBC, has said that the major news outlets should send just interns to the press conferences by the administration. I think that would be a good response. They can work with regular staff to prepare some decent questions while this frees up regular reporters to be doing more substantial work while giving the administration the lack of respect it deserves.

    • Good point and an appropriate idea.

      As Glenn Greenwald has noted for a long time, we shouldn’t confuse stenography with journalism.

      Finally, however, business models and their budgets become the problem, often driven by the system.

      This is what makes ventures like Propublica and The Intercept so important.

      • I just learned The Guardian is funded by a Trust, and say they’re beyond the control of govt or the invisible hand.

        They still had to take a lot of heat, and direct abuse from the British government (certain at the behest of the US), for their participation in the Snowden affair. No one is immune from the various pressures.

  9. Well, hell yes. Izzy Stone did great work in spite of never having this access stuff that today’s faces think is so important. Wake up, guys. It can be done.

  10. Investigative reporting, good idea. Trump will label it “FAKE NEWS”. But, ultimately it will prove who is the King of Fake or Falls news.

  11. Exactly right. The news we need is not going to be revealed at a Spicer press conference. What we need to know is: what are in the tax returns and what is the nature of the relationship Trump and his staff have with Russia.

    • It may be too late to get unvarnished information from the maladministratiom and the complicit Congress, so any good investigative reporting will be prosecuted as criminal over “sources,” displaced-term verbage used to not violate the First Amendment.

      Incidentally, the press freedoms extended by the Constitution cover the limits on Congress to make laws but says nothing about a maladministration moving against the press by other means.

  12. Coward Donald Trump won’t allow any news outlet that doesn’t flatter him to attend White House briefings. He says he won’t attend the White House Correspondents Dinner, because he’s thin-skinned and can’t take a joke.

    What a loser!

    Pass it along.

  13. You left out “both siderism”. It seems an ironclad rule that, if you report a Bad Thing about Republicans or the rightwing (please – they are NOT by any definition “conservatives”), you must include something to “balance” the article that shows how Democrats/the left are doing something just as bad.

    Like, most recently, the obvious facts that Trump and his various families are working his position as “president” bigtime to make as much money as possible. Visit or call foreign countries, remind them who’s “president” and ask for “a good deal” for Trump, Inc. Tell foreign heads of state that they really need to stay in Trump Suites while they’re in DC. Hold all your public events in Trump properties, bill the federal government, and the money goes right into your pocket. Oh, and he’s doubled his rates on everything. Et cetera.

    And the Dems? Well, while Hillary was Secretary of State, Bill was running the Clinton Foundation, and getting contributions from all around the world. Zingo!!! Not that any quid pro quo or even favoritism on the part of the Obama government could ever be found, but “there were dark clouds…” Equivalence! Clinton Did It First!!

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