Former CNN anchor: 4 things media must do when covering Trump
© Getty Images

He summons network anchors and top execs to complain about unfair coverage and unflattering photos. He upbraids cable networks for their unrelenting coverage. He cancels a session with The New York Times, suggesting his media war is just beginning, and then reschedules the meeting. He's on the record, then off the record. He posts a two-and-a-half-minute YouTube video that lays out the first executive actions he plans to take, shunning the journalists he distrusts so much.

Last week's acrimonious dance between President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump pens op-ed on kindergartners learning tech Bharara, Yates tamp down expectations Mueller will bring criminal charges Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax security employee left after breach | Lawmakers float bill to reform warrantless surveillance | Intel leaders keeping collusion probe open MORE and the media is just the warmup.

And it raises a critical question: How should reporters cover the my-way-or-the-highway president? Does it even matter?

First, yes, it matters. A lot.

Say what you will about the news media, but journalists run interference between the public and the public officials who govern us.

ADVERTISEMENT
Reporters have experience and, often, expertise. They can compare one comment, one promise to another. They have access to decision-makers and the loyal opposition. They play a mediating role in our democracy, where we hold government leaders accountable.

The best journalists are stand-ins for citizens, paid to go up close and ask tough questions.

Exactly how to cover Trump is a question that challenges every journalist and every newsroom, just as it should challenge every news consumer and every citizen.

This was the candidate who used the media, then turned on it, attacking and belittling reporters, blacklisting news organizations he didn't like, and threatening to tighten libel laws even as he misrepresented events and bent the facts.

As a former White House correspondent, I know that the presidential press corps can be an unruly mob. Stories can be blown out of all proportion. The media can hang obsessively on political intrigue, controversy and failure. Reporters can be obnoxious. Coverage can be simplistic and breathless. The 24-hour news cycle can be shallow and sensational.

But in the age of Trump, reporters have a new purpose, a more pressing social contract with the public to cover the president fairly but fearlessly. They need to zero in even as they broaden their horizons.

The news media should cover Trump motivated by four pillars of political journalism: be fair, be relentless, focus on substance and serve as respectful adversary.

How would that translate into actual coverage?

1. Be fair. Give Trump his due: He won. As his appointments and policies emerge, they should be examined in turn and in detail, looking at their component parts. Separate news from opinion. Be sure people know the difference between analysis and commentary. Get rid of pundits who are nothing more than partisan propagandists.

2. Be relentless. Relentless reporting means that journalists should demonstrate an attention span that goes beyond the last deadline or latest insult. Stay on the story. Focus on choices and tradeoffs that affect people's lives. Tax cuts. Health care. Infrastructure. Immigration.

Zero in on the particulars. Cite examples. Use data, real numbers and real people. Seek out other views, different angles. Draw upon not only "experts" but also people across the country, including the voters who upended this election.

3. Focus on substance. The president-elect never laid out the deep detail behind his tweets and sound bites that got so much traction: repeal ObamaCare, rip up trade agreements, walk away from climate commitments, back off regulation, dump Dodd-Frank, rethink NATO.

The media can do less horse race and more human race. Go beyond personalities and politics. Do series reporting. Cable news — with 24 hours to fill  can produce longer segments with graphics and serious conversation to dive deep. Talk radio should do less arguing and more asking.

4. Respect the adversary. The adversarial nature of the press — which Trump doesn't like and takes personally — is the cornerstone of a free press. It is the a bedrock principle by which we hold the powerful to account and ferret out incompetence, hypocrisy and corruption. Thomas Jefferson was treated that way. So was Abraham Lincoln. And Ronald Reagan. They didn't like it, but it was power's price of admission.

Among the most dangerous sounds to come out of Trump's mouth has been his disrespect, not just for individual journalists, but for journalism itself. Turning reporters from adversaries into enemies, inciting the crowd to the point that some reporters needed personal security protection during the campaign is the kind of horrific thing we expect to see in Venezuela or Russia or Cuba.

Never in the United States of America.

The news media should neither be cowed by Trump's bombast and track record, nor should they be fixated by it. Report the story. Cover the man. Know what's at stake.

The next president comes to office with a disturbing disregard for the cacophonous freedom of the press that is part of the Constitution he will swear to uphold. The president-elect talked a lot about protecting the Second Amendment. He should start with the First. Our most basic freedoms are at stake.

Sesno is a former CNN anchor, White House correspondent, Washington bureau chief and is now director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at the George Washington University. He is author of the forthcoming book, "Ask More."


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.