MEDIA WATCH--On Monday, some of the biggest names in TV news trooped into Trump Tower for an off-the-record meeting with the president-elect.
It was an all-star cast. Not just on-air stars like Lester Holt, Wolf Blitzer and George Stephanopoulos, but their bosses were also summoned before the Potentate of Fifth Avenue.
The meeting was a huge success — for Donald Trump.
Soon after it broke up, a leak to the New York Post brought on a story about how thoroughly the president-elect had taken the attendees to task.
With attribution to anonymous tipsters, the Post wrote: “The meeting was a total disaster. The TV execs and anchors went in there thinking they would be discussing the access they would get to the Trump administration, but instead they got a Trump-style dressing-down. . . . Trump kept saying, ‘We’re in a room of liars, the deceitful, dishonest media who got it all wrong.’ ”
Why off-the-record meetings with Donald Trump are different
In light of President-elect Trump's meetings with media executives on Nov. 21 and the New York Times on Nov. 22, Washington Post media columnists Erik Wemple and Margaret Sullivan talk about the merit of off-the-record meetings and the role of the media in Trump's administration with Facebook Live host Libby Casey. (The Washington Post)
Call it Woodshed Theater, with all the applause lines for the president-elect.
Brandon Friedman, a Virginia-based public relations executive, offered his theory on Twitter: “They walked into an ambush, agreed not to talk about it, then Trump went straight to the Post with his version.”
Then it was just a hop, skip and jump to a big headline on the Drudge Report, with its huge worldwide traffic: “Trump Slams Media Elite, Face to Face.” As Business Insider politics editor Oliver Darcy aptly put it, that is “how a lot of America will see this.”
The result for the president-elect: He once again was able to use the media as his favorite foil. Having a whipping boy is more important than ever now that the election is over and there is no Democratic opponent to malign at every turn.
Yes, there’s no proof that the Trump camp tipped the New York Post, but don’t forget, this is someone who used to pose as his own spokesman to spread word of his romantic conquests. And the newspeople were largely unable to provide their own version of events because they had agreed to its being off the record. That’s supposed to mean that nobody talks about it — a rule that was immediately broken (which also doesn’t speak particularly well for them). Through anonymous leaks, participants agreed with some aspects of the “total disaster” and disagreed with others, but Trump benefited in the end.
He got a lot of attention, he got to continue bashing the establishment elite, and he evidently put the TV people on notice that if they want access to him as president, they’ll need to bow and scrape. Notably, Trump hasn’t held a news conference since July.
On Tuesday, shockingly, a new melodrama arose: Trump’s planned meeting at the New York Times was canceled, then restored.
The Times played it right. Despite a tweet attack from the president-elect, editors refused to go the off-the-record route with Trump, which was his preference, for obvious reasons — because he wanted again to control the story.
With the exception of a brief off-the-record conversation between Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger and the president-elect, the meeting was fair game for news stories — as it should be.
Off-the-record was a mistake for the TV people, and it would have been a mistake for the Times. The paper successfully called Trump’s bluff. As much as he professes to despise the Times, he remains in some ways the Queens boy who lusted after Manhattan success and acceptance.
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In many ways, Trump can bypass the traditional press — using YouTube or Twitter to take his message to the world without pesky journalistic fact-checking or filtering.
He has masterfully manipulated the media for the past 18 months — bullying reporters, garnering billions in free publicity and portraying journalists as part of the corporate structure that must be brought down so that the people can triumph.
That’s a deeply misleading and dangerous picture. In fact, U.S. citizens need an independent press more than ever.
Journalists, and their corporate bosses, shouldn’t allow themselves to be used as props in Trump’s never-ending theater.
(Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was The New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of The Buffalo News, her hometown paper. This piece was posted first at The Washington Post)