President Trump’s unique approach to the press conference and his strained relationship with journalists has forced us to challenge our assumptions about biased media and presidential politics.
On Thursday, at 11:30 a.m., the media advisory informed the White House Press Corps to gather in front of the Palm Room at the White House. The occasion: a last-minute press conference called by no one else but the President of the United States Donald. J Trump.
On 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the journalists started to rush through the heavily guarded White House gates for a pre-setup.
The upside of the press conference (called on only an hour’s notice) was that it would not be as crowded as President Trump’s usual press conferences.
Specifically, only regular members of the WH Press Corps, already cleared by the Secret Service, were able to enter the East Room in order to fire their questions at the Commander-in-Chief. And clearly, there have been many questions that need a response from the current occupant of the Oval Office.
Close to 12:30 p.m., The East Room was filled with journalists, all awaiting the President of the United States. On my left side, Jim Acosta from CNN. On the right side sitting next to me, one of the few journalists unwilling to give a free pass to former President Obama: CBS’ Major Garrett.
The public at large usually only takes note when the President of the United States is on the stage. However, similarly important to the equation of political theater is the White House Press Corps that captures its drama on print.
“Two minutes warning,” said Stephanie Grisham, warning the press of the President’s impending arrival to the East Room. With that ensued a complete change in atmosphere, commanding a heightened, focused, and very tactile tension in the air.
Immediately, everyone stood up, a time-honored journalistic call to arms, a sign of respect for the institution of the American Presidency.
President Trump opened the press conference in a firm, yet unexpectedly calm manner. What was unfolding in front of us was a different kind of Donald Trump than what we could have seen at his first press conference as the President-elect.
The press conference focused on the several issues important to President Trump – namely border control, immigration, media bias, and the mishandling of the classified information by the members of the intelligence community.
In a “meta-political sense,” this press conference represented a new chapter for President Trump himself. The President of the United States has been adjusting to the role of being a politician and, in his own way, is starting to sound and act like one. For Trump, this reflects most prominently in his psychology itself: he seems to be more confident in the role he has stepped in.
Instead of attacking and raising his voice, Trump has expressed his criticism of the mainstream media, pointing out that he is seeking conversation about media bias.
Here are the three main takeaways:
1. The leak of the classified information is, in fact, a problem that should equally concern the media and the White House
Trump said that the real story concerning General Flynn is the systematic leaking of classified information. Upon first glance, the President’s statement can be seen as a diversion from growing concerns in the media concerning previous contacts between Russian intelligence and Trump campaign contacts. However, the leaking of the national security equally deserves an in-depth coverage, primarily for two reasons:
- It warrants the examination of the role and responsibility of the intelligence agencies, specifically concerning their allegiance to the President of the United States. It poses a compelling question concerning the mishandling of classified information and the weaponization of the practice of leaking as a political attack.
- It encourages one to confront potential, partisan misinformation of the media in order to embolden the political agenda of the factions and individuals invested in leaking the information in order to influence the media agenda.
“The information is real, the news is fake”, said President Trump to the White House press corps. What he meant by that is that the leaks are real ( i.e. happening), but the way corporate media is spinning them is a fake news. What he also did not say is who, where, when and why has leaked the classified phone transcript between Gen Flynn and the Russian Ambassador and with what motivation.
If the media is raising the question about motivations behind the Russian hack, then why not apply the same rigorous examination concerning the motivation behind classified information being leaked to major media networks?
Of course, one ought to hold the President of the United States to stringent standards of accountability. But, there is little to no justification as to why the same expectation cannot be demanded of anonymous government officials intent on leaking sensitive classified information?
While the media owns at least half of the responsibility concerning this accountability, as do the members of our intelligence community entrusted with maintaining our national security. While the media’s role should be nonpartisan, the even higher standard of scrutiny must be applied to the intelligence community.
The fact that the national security leaks appear endemic to low-level leadership is one of the main political problems challenging the Trump Administration. And, thus the main question: How will Trump safeguard the leaking of classified information by those on low-level chains of command?
The other part of the problem is that the media can also be manipulated by the leakers. When officials of any given intelligence agency, active or retired, come forward as a source, journalists, by default, refrain from questioning these people. It is politically verboten for journalists to question the credibility, intentions, and motivations of these officials.
The prevailing sentiment is that these intelligence officers always operate based on professional credibility and trust. Looking at this convention objectively, one concludes that most leaked information is hardly verifiable mainly because it exists in the classified, and not public, domain.
If the leaders of our intelligence agencies have been incapable of ensuring the highest level of scrutiny for its employees, who is it to say that these officials are leaking only exclusively to the media? Why should this possibility not concern both the President of the United States and the American people?
Some outlets ascribe reasons willy-nilly as to why intelligence agents indeed leak classified information. Regardless, remains a real question that we must confront: isn’t the intelligence community obliged to serve the President and keep a politically neutral position?
If the answer is no, then who do these unelected agents serve, and who are they accountable to if not the Commander in Chief?
At the end of the day, the reality boils down to this: no intelligence officer has the legal ground to withhold any information from the President.
2. The First Amendment works both ways
“I do not hate you, Sir,” said Jim Acosta of CNN, seated next to me, when President Trump commented on the hatred he perceived as constantly coming from CNN.
By defending CNN, Jim Acosta has assumed a huge responsibility: to defend and speak on behalf of the whole network. This is a tough call, considering that one can only take responsibility for his own work.
Nevertheless, Jim Acosta is a serious reporter. Anyone who sits in the White House Press Corps knows how tough the job is for journalists. To be constantly on the spot and ask hard questions risking to rub someone the wrong way, even if it that someone indeed is the leader of the free world – this is a tremendous duty.
But it seems unfair that Acosta should be the one taking the burden of responsibility upon himself on behalf of an entire CNN.
It should not be difficult to admit that not everyone in CNN is producing the work of the same level of high standard and objectivity.
On the President’s end, while many would say that he is bashing the media, he is, in fact, exercising his own rights to the First Amendment.
Also, Trump is not the first president who has offered a critique of journalism. Indeed, this practice goes back to the nation’s founding. For, it was Thomas Jefferson who said, “Newspapers present for the most part only a caricature of disaffected minds.”
To characterize the President’s albeit unique criticisms of the media as unprecedented is to take a historically blind-eye to the adversarial tension that has always existed between President and the fourth estate.
To say that Trump’s criticisms are excessive or problematic is one thing. To say that they have been originated by him and him alone is intellectually dishonest.
Assessing President Trump should not be limited only to a comparison of Obama and Clinton. One could argue that facetious pedanticism is no more deleterious to politics than the kind of “politically incorrect” philosophy embraced by and characteristic of Trump. Remember! President Trump does not fit the standard definition of the American President. He ran a campaign whose promises were raw and direct. Indeed, he won a presidential contest and captivated both a nation and the world community by his concerted attack against that which thrives on niceties, understatements, and rhetorical calculations: the establishment.
Above all, we must keep in mind that America would not be the nation we know without the First Amendment.
What is different in the modern history of the American presidency is that, for the first time, the President of the United States is exercising the same right in his own critique of the press. And that should be just fine so long as the President continues to express his dissatisfaction not as a measure to silence the media but as a listening session to stimulate a national conversation. Perhaps some good could very well come from that.
Trump made it very clear at the press conference that he is seeking to improve his relationship with the media and that he does not have a problem with critical stories so long as they are true.
“I am not a bad person,” said the President. This, in fact, shows very human nature, a universal need of every individual to be accepted for who he is. This puts a human face in the emotionally white-washed terrain of politics: indeed, a very novel thing.
3. Unscripted politics
What we are witnessing more and more is the unscripted approach to the ways we talk politics in America.
For that, Trump has to be given credit. He is not playing safe like other presidents. This, in turn, opens up the space for a more honest, direct communication.
What America needs now, more than ever, is to remove hypocrisy from the society and behavioral prescriptions born out of political artifice.
What America needs is civilized behavior as well as open conversations without the burdensome power-driven mechanisms that have degenerated politics into nothing but rehearsed and derivative script.
And what America needs is to be free from partisan reporting.
With the press conference, President Trump has opened the door into an albeit ought, yet ever so necessary, conversation. Indeed, we do not know if it will be for better or for worse, but the very fact that it is taking place (specifically between the president and the media) means that everyone can have a say and voice different opinions.
In that respect, credit to President Trump must be given when credit is due. Critique must be offered when it’s warranted.
Only through a fair game, America will reinforce politics par excellence and an open dialogue. As an end result, perhaps we will have bestowed upon politics a true kind of meritocratic and honest character, capable of allowing more and more Americans to succeed.