A glittering array of media stars and network executives made pilgrimage on Monday to the 25th floor of Trump Tower to meet with the president-elect. They all agreed that the discussions would be “off the record”: meaning they would conceal from their viewers what they discussed. Shortly after the meeting ended, several of the stars violated the agreement they made, running to the New York Post and David Remnick of the New Yorker to whine about Trump’s mean behavior. “The participants all shook Trump’s hand at the start of the session and congratulated him,” Remnick reported, “but things went south from there.” It’s difficult to identify the shabbiest and sorriest aspect of this spectacle, but let’s nonetheless try, as it sheds important light on our nation’s beloved media corps and their posture heading into a Trump presidency.
To begin with, why would journalistic organizations agree to keep their meeting with Donald Trump off the record? If you’re a journalist, what is the point of speaking with a powerful politician if you agree in advance that it’s all going to be kept secret? Do they not care what appearance this creates: the most powerful media organizations meeting high atop Trump Tower with the country’s most powerful political official, with everyone agreeing to keep it all a big secret from the public? Whether or not it actually is collusion, whether or not it actually is subservient ring-kissing in exchange for access, it certainly appears to be that. As the Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone put it: “By agreeing to such conditions, journalists expected to deliver the news to the public must withhold details of a newsworthy meeting with the president-elect.”
Seen on C-SPAN #elevatorcam — Chuck Todd pic.twitter.com/MjdnIPzzcO
— Howard Mortman (@HowardMortman) November 21, 2016
The pretext these media stars offer for such meetings is unpersuasive in the extreme. “Oh, we need,” they claim, “to negotiate access and how we’re going to work together, and this discussion can be productive only if everyone is confident that it won’t be reported.” But why do media organizations need to have cooperative access agreements with politicians? Just report on and investigate what he says and does. Don’t agree to ground rules that limit or subvert your ability to report aggressively. Don’t turn yourselves into vassals in order to be granted access to the royal court.
More to the point, nobody really believes that a discussion that takes place in a room filled with a couple dozen TV stars and their media bosses is going to be kept private, so the “off-the-record” agreement does not actually foster candor. It’s instead designed to achieve nothing other than creating a cozy atmosphere where — just as they do at the sleazy, Versailles-like White House Correspondents’ Dinner and on so many other occasions — media stars get to feel like they’re colleagues and friends with the president rather than his adversaries.
And, as was completely predictable, some of the TV stars immediately breached the off-the-record commitment they made — not by bravely reporting what occurred but by slinking around in the dark to anonymously whisper and gossip about what Trump said to them. Which is worse: agreeing to an off-the-record meeting with Trump, or then unethically violating the agreement by disclosing exactly what you promised in advance you would not disclose? (This is not the first time journalists have dubiously promised Trump off-the-record privileges and then violated their own commitments.)
Stephanopoulos at Trump Tower ahead of off the rec meeting with network execs and anchors pic.twitter.com/nKRHrOfkxp
— Michael Calderone (@mlcalderone) November 21, 2016
Then there’s the content of their complaints. Trump, apparently, was very mean to them. His tone was unpleasant and uncivil — hostile even. He did not treat the august press corps with the respect and admiration to which they are entitled. At least two of them ran to David Remnick to whine about how mean and critical Trump was. Remnick himself was outraged on their behalf and conveyed this pitifully amusing anecdote:
Another participant at the meeting said that Trump’s behavior was “totally inappropriate” and “fucking outrageous.” The television people thought that they were being summoned to ask questions; Trump has not held a press conference since late July. Instead, they were subjected to a stream of insults and complaints — and not everyone absorbed it with pleasure.
“I have to tell you, I am emotionally fucking pissed,” another participant said. “How can this not influence coverage? I am being totally honest with you. Toward the end of the campaign, it got to a point where I thought that the coverage was all about [Trump’s] flaws and problems. And that’s legit. But, I thought, OK, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. After the meeting today, though — and I am being human with you here — I think, Fuck him! I know I am being emotional about it. And I know I will get over it in a couple of days after Thanksgiving. But I really am offended. This was unprecedented. Outrageous!”
Where to begin with this? First, if they really believed “that they were being summoned to ask questions,” a form of a press conference, then what remote justification is there for keeping it a secret? This expectation obliterates the standard excuse offered for why such meetings are appropriate.
Second, I’m really sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but yes: Donald Trump hates the U.S. media, as do the overwhelming majority of Americans. Even though every pampered star in that room is paid many millions of dollars a year and is flattered on a daily basis by teams of underlings, they are not actually entitled to respect and admiration, especially not from the powerful politicians they cover. The media was quite critical of Trump, and he hates them back. If they don’t want to be disliked by powerful politicians — if confronting hostility of this type traumatizes them this way and sends them running to David Remnick for therapy and comfort — then they should go find other work. Who cares if Trump is nice to Wolf Blitzer and Phil Griffin?
Third, the above-quoted journalist pronounced themselves so profoundly “offended,” crying: “This was unprecedented. Outrageous.” But in the next breath the journalist said this about the brutality they suffered: “I know I will get over it in a couple of days after Thanksgiving.” I have no doubt that’s true. Rather than doing their jobs and being adversarial to Trump, rather than responding to this sort of bullying with some dignity and return aggression, it is a very good bet that they will respond with greater submission (the way they all stayed passively in their assigned press pens during Trump rallies). The supreme religion of the U.S. press corps is reverence for power; the more Trump exhibits, the more submissive they will get. “I know I will get over it in a couple of days after Thanksgiving.” We believe you.
Finally, after everything Trump has said — about immigrants, Muslims, women, etc. — this is what upsets these journalists: that he criticized them to their faces using a mean tone. Remnick writes that “Trump whined” in the meeting and showed how “vain” he is. That may be true, but the same is true of his anonymous friends for whose petty grievances he is crusading. There is much oppression in the world and many serious concerns as Trump heads to the Oval Office; how Trump speaks to Chuck Todd and Jeff Zucker is not on that list.
All presidents have the temptation and potential to abuse their power. That’s why the American founders were preoccupied with creating safeguards against that, and one of those was a free press. The homage these TV stars and executives were prepared to make inside Trump Tower, followed by their self-absorbed whimpering afterward, suggests that one should look elsewhere for the vital checks that an aggressive press must provide.