Unexamined Premises

Time to Reset the White House-Media Relationship

CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta (Photo by Oliver Contreras; Sipa via AP Images)

As if President Trump doesn’t have enough problems with the Democrats, the never-Trumpers, the status-quo slugs of the GOP establishment and the reflexively hostile White House press corps — so fully representative of the Compromised Media () — he’s also been signally let down by his administration’s communication corps, known as the comms shop. This ongoing disaster is the subject of my column in today’s New York Post:

Call it the Battle of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

On one side: the perpetually aggrieved White House press corps, whose members sit atop journalism’s pinnacle and yet are herded like cattle, made to stand behind rope lines and are generally treated with disdain by those they report on. Like fantasy-league baseball players, they’re convinced they can run the country better than the officials they so resentfully cover.

On the other: a beleaguered, media-conscious president who still harbors the notion that he can get dedicated ideological enemies to like him if he can just charm them enough and is prepared to go around them on Twitter if he can’t.

As the Trump administration revamps its communications operation yet again in the wake of the short-lived Anthony Scaramucci era, it’s time to face the fact that this is no longer an exercise in public relations, or even messaging strategy.

This is war.

I don’t know how to put it any more bluntly than that. It’s clear that, at some level, the administration does not understand the mortal peril of a Democrat press corps allowed to wager unrestricted, anonymously “sourced” warfare against it; even worse, it walks right in the front door and insults the host to his face.

No longer content to be merely adversarial when necessary in its pursuit of information, the media’s now almost wholly partisan — the propaganda wing of the Democratic National Committee, which takes literally the fictional admonition “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” not realizing it was meant as both a joke and a caution by a Chicago newspaperman more than a century ago.

Meanwhile, liberal newspapers like The Washington Post (owned by Amazon tycoon Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man) openly troll for “leaked” documents via secure Internet drop boxes in order to derail the Trump train. The Post’s Thursday publication of leaked transcripts of the president’s private conversations with the Australian and Mexican leaders can have no other outcome except damaging Trump’s conduct of foreign policy.

No wonder chief adviser Steve Bannon refers to the media as “the opposition party.”

And yet, so far, the White House has yet to find the right combination of personnel and message to combat them. Its first mistake was treating communications policy as a public-relations exercise, handled almost exclusively by the Reince Priebus/RNC faction in the White House. That didn’t work, which is why both Priebus and former press secretary Sean Spicer are now gone.

Honestly, if I hear another halfwitted media type citing Mr. Dooley’s famous aphorism about afflicting the comfortable one more time, without the slightest idea that the joke’s on him…

The poorly educated press corps is a national embarrassment — CNN’s Acosta, seen in the clip above, actually read the Emma Lazarus poem to White House aide Stephen Miller as if “The New Colossus” actually had some legal or constitutional significance. Even worse, it’s actively collaborating with the Democrats: the Wikileaks release of Clinton poobah John Podesta’s emails last year outed both Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman, then of Politico, as friendlies.  Today, of course, they’re both White House correspondents for the New York Times.

The question is, what to do about it? My prescriptions include:

  • Insist that credentialed reporters be demonstrably unbiased and factually accurate. If they’re not, request that their editors replace them with somebody who is. Follow their Twitter feeds to see what they’re saying behind your back.
  • Never say anything to a journalist you aren’t prepared to hear on the air or see in print or on the Internet. In an age of ubiquitous recording devices, nothing is really off the record.
  • Freedom of the press is right there in the First Amendment — but nowhere in the Constitution does it say that the government has to be nice to the media, spoon-feed them information, accommodate their travel wishes, suffer silently their snark and sneers or permit them unfettered access to its private papers and conversations. Treat them professionally, and expect the same from them; that’s it.

There’s some buzz at the moment that Miller, fresh off his demolition of Acosta, might take over the comms shop in the wake of the short-lived Anthony Scaramucci era. He’s one of the smartest people in the West Wing, and views the media through a reality-based prism that understands how they see themselves: as the propaganda wing of the Democratic Party, dedicated to overturning the results of the 2016 election by any means necessary. My own recommendation would be to hire a former journalist, someone who knows the players and knows how to treat them with the same contempt with which they treat the White House. But, in any case:

  • Take advantage of the power imbalance. The media needs the White House more than the White House needs the media.

That’s a lesson both sides need to relearn — fast.

Like the Germans, the media is either at your throat or at your feet. The administration needs to decide which it wants.

 

Follow me on Twitter @dkahanerules