The White House blunders, and the media overreact

The ongoing fiasco that is the Trump-media range war reared its ugly head again this week. The Trump administration and the White House press corps continue to batter each other in a wearisome slugfest that has most regular Americans rolling their eyes. The latest round was sparked by a CNN reporter who launched rapid-fire questions at President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump watching 'very closely' as Portland braces for dueling protests WaPo calls Trump admin 'another threat' to endangered species Are Democrats turning Trump-like? MORE during a brief Oval Office press availability with the EU Commission president.

The CNN reporter, Kaitlan Collins, asked questions about former Trump attorney Michael Cohen. Reporters frequently shout out questions at these brief White House press events, known in media circles as “pool sprays.” Thus, Collins was doing only what reporters routinely do in these photo op settings. Presidents normally don’t respond to the shouted questions, but Trump sometimes can’t resist and answers anyway. Not surprisingly, on this occasion, Trump wanted no part of Collins’ inquiries about Cohen.

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The White House press office, which seldom misses a chance to pick a fight, then notified Collins she was disinvited from attending an open Rose Garden press event later in the day. The notice was delivered by White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders and White House deputy chief of staff Bill Shine, who told Collins her questions during the spray were inappropriate.

 

This was an obvious White House blunder and created a standard that is unenforceable. The White House shouldn’t ban every reporter who asks pointed questions at a spray; it shouldn’t be making content decisions about what is appropriate. When it comes to government officials, all question topics are on the table. The questions asked by Collins are on the minds of all Washington-based reporters.

This barring of a CNN reporter comes off as petty reprisal; Trump’s negativity about CNN is well established. Further, it makes the White House press office appear as though it has to shield Trump from the nasties in the press corps. Trump’s persona is that he can take on all challenges. Protecting Trump from a CNN reporter hardly boosts that tough-guy image.

The White House surely knows that reporters will launch questions at Trump whenever he is in earshot. That’s not necessarily a great part of the press culture, but it is hardly a threat to the presidency. If the administration press office is worried about impromptu questions, then just stop having sprays and photo ops.

The media, for its part, also seldom misses a chance to pick a fight with Trump. Press indignation to the CNN slight was immediate and loud; the flap drew extensive coverage from virtually all media outlets, taking up space in the news agenda that would be better devoted to stories about things not involving the media. Americans who follow the news by now know well that Trump and the media don’t work well together. Yet, the news media continue to perform under the protections of the First Amendment and have not been intimidated by Trump’s criticisms. CNN still telecasts; the New York Times and Washington Post still publish. For all of Trump’s constant press attacks, the media has not backed down and surely won’t.

The “poor me” outrage of the press exaggerates the nature of this White House mistake. Trump is not the first president to battle the press: Journalists were imprisoned during John Adams’ presidency; FDR had little respect for the press and controlled reporter access carefully; Truman, Johnson and Nixon pretty much hated the press as much as Trump but usually were more restrained in their antagonism. A major reason for that restraint was that the press was held in higher regard by the citizenry during those times. Trump, meanwhile, knows he can get away with bashing the press because public trust in the institution has declined, and that was happening well before Trump became a candidate.

News about Trump feuding with the media just doesn’t register much with news consumers today. A year and a half into the Trump presidency, there are no indications that media relations will improve. This battle will likely go on for the rest of Trump’s presidency, whether that be one term or two. Between now and then, however, the press should focus on doing great journalism about news the public wants and needs to hear about; stories about Trump insulting the media aren’t in that category any more. Save the shrill, righteous stories about threats to the media for when there are formal, concrete threats to the constitutional protections of a free press.

Jeffrey McCall (@Prof_McCall) is a professor of communication at DePauw University.