President-elect Trump is scheduled to give his first full-fledged press conference since the summer amidst a fair amount of journalistic angst. During the campaign Trump banned certain reporters or media outlets from covering him. Since the election his Chief of Staff has hinted that they might do away with the daily White House press briefing or, at a minimum, change the make-up of who gets briefed and how.
This won’t be the first time that a politician upended press tradition. When I worked in the Carter Administration we decided to expand the time the President spent with press from outside Washington—those radio hosts, local anchors, editors, columnists and reporters who had helped Carter win the primaries over a field of Washington and Democratic Party stars. The White House press corps looked down on them, but President Carter made news by answering their substantive questions about what was relevant to their readers and viewers because it affected their daily lives. Later in my career, on the Hill with Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd, a few minutes daily in the Well of the Senate would set the agenda for the day in D.C., but it was the interviews with wire services and satellite transmission of television and radio interviews back home that drove home what the legislative actions might mean to constituents.
And at Coca-Cola our brand was measured four times a year in data and numbers in quarterly reports, a version of approval ratings. We could not spin our way out of bad numbers and the good numbers spoke for themselves—something the Trump administration will learn if and when it has its first major screw-up.
Although there is a lot of anxiety among journalists at the prospect that the Trump administration will make good on its promise to upend the normal course of president-media relations—it could also present an opportunity to journalists. The freedom from the briefing room to get the information they need in other ways could be an opportunity not only to fulfill their role to hold leaders accountable but also for investigative reporting that informs and enlightens, and that helps sustain the lifeblood of a democracy: an informed citizenry.
Access and transparency are two different things. And the traditional means of access may be outmoded, especially in a Trump presidency. The protective pool, news conferences, and the daily briefing all serve different purposes for the press and the presidency. Statements and interviews from the campaign and transition suggest that access to the Trump administration will not produce what Marlin Fitzwater, the press secretary to the first President Bush, called the goal of government leaders and their spokespeople: “We are doing the people’s business and we should be able to explain it.”
The question for journalists is whether they will bite every time, and use valuable time, resources, and reporting to follow his agenda at the expense of stories that actually explain what his policies do, not just what he says.
The daily briefing and news conferences have been a way for presidential staffs (while their boss was usually busy governing) to set the agenda, get ahead of a story, or make news. But doesn’t President-elect Trump do that himself in an endless stream of tweets? A President Trump will be the 3:30 am agenda-setter for the day’s stories. He will likely not only continue to do that, but will use the protective pool in the same way.
Donald Trump is a brand. The brand once known only as The Donald does not need a title. And the title of President of the United States he now has is not likely to affect the way he defines, nurtures and protects the brand that is his name.
And he is using that brand to set the agenda in a way no White House briefing or news conference can do. The question for journalists is whether they will bite every time, and use valuable time, resources, and reporting to follow his agenda at the expense of stories that actually explain what his policies do, not just what he says.
In other words, why not turn his obsession with ratings into a reporting mandate?
Why not focus on how his brand is doing by focusing on how his administration’s policies actually affect people? If you look at his administration through the measure Kellyanne Conway says drove the election results, “People care more about what affects them than what offends them.”
Donald Trump the brand’s ratings—his quarterly report numbers—can come from reporters focused not on Donald Trump the performer but by covering the results of his policies and how they affect people’s lives—not just in broad national numbers or in briefs for the Sunday shows only news junkies like me watch.
Make it relevant. Present the facts in a way that resonates with more than the Washington echo chamber. Use every delivery means necessary to get the results of investigative reporting to people outside the Acela corridor. Reach a broader audience where they are: online, on social media, but also in low-tech still relevant radio and weekly newspapers. Increased funding and efforts to expand the reach at Pro-Publica, the non-profit investigative reporting enterprise, and NPR’s commitment to put more resources covering statehouses, are examples of attempts to do those things.
The opportunity is to avoid following every thing the president says or does that offends or tweet he sends to those who have slighted him.
A President obsessed with his brand, limiting traditional access, can be a boon to reporters. They can be freed up to build the trust they need from citizens by reporting on what affects them—by telling them how Donald Trump the brand and president is doing in his commitments to them. Focus on his policies as a president, not his performance as a brand and help citizens see the difference.
The first test comes with the president-elect’s first news conference since the election. Focus on what affects the public, not on what offends. Hold him accountable to the facts. Don’t let his news conference performance overshadow the news from contentious confirmation hearings on his Cabinet nominees and the actions they will likely take that directly affect people’s lives much more than his primarily fact-free answers. The White House press corps and their colleagues on Capitol Hill and in the Cabinet departments can focus not just on the process, politics, and people inside the beltway but what the policies mean outside of it.
Brands have to make their quarterly numbers. You can go only so far with rhetoric in a quarterly earnings release because the numbers speak for themselves. Let the facts and numbers of the results of Donald Trump’s policies speak for themselves. Persuading is not a journalist’s job but informing and enlightening is.
Resist the performance. Focus on the policies. Show people you understand what affects them and use the facts that will give the President the ratings he deserves.