Bypassing media norms, Trump offers challenges for newsrooms

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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump walks off his plane at a campaign rally in Colorado Springs, Colorado, U.S., September 17, 2016.  REUTERS/Mike Segar     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      - RTSO7UI

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HARI SREENIVASAN: One thing that’s become clear since the election is the very different approach president-elect Trump is taking toward dealing with the media and his efforts to talk to the American public more directly.

To start, let’s look at the last 24 hours.

It was a most unusual appearance for a man whose unpredictability is now signature. President-elect Trump showed up unannounced in the lobby of his Manhattan skyscraper yesterday. Less than an hour earlier, he tweeted that costs for a new Air Force One were out of control, and said the order should be canceled.

He spoke to journalists who’ve gathered in the Trump Tower entrance for weeks.

DONALD TRUMP (R), President-Elect: It is going to be over $4 billion for Air Force One program. And I think it is ridiculous. I think Boeing is doing a little bit of a number. We want Boeing to make a lot of money, but not that much money.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The White House later questioned the figure Mr. Trump cited. The president-elect later appeared in the lobby again to announce an investment by a Japanese tech mogul.

Since his stunning election night upset, Mr. Trump hasn’t held a single formal press conference. Instead, he’s communicated with the public directly, often 140 characters at a time. He called the protesters who took to the streets immediately after his election — quote — “very unfair.” He said burning the American flag, which is protected under the First Amendment, should be punishable by loss of citizenship or a year in jail.

He has made announcements about the plans for his business interests. Late last month, he challenged the results of the popular vote with a false claim that — quote — “millions of people voted illegally.”

He even used the platform to float names for potential Cabinet picks, like Dr. Ben Carson as the head of Housing and Urban Development. In a video statement released on Twitter and YouTube, Mr. Trump laid out plans for his first 100 days in office.

DONALD TRUMP: My agenda will be based on a simple core principle: putting America first. Whether it’s producing steel, building cars, or curing disease, I want the next generation of production and innovation to happen right here, on our great homeland, America.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The president-elect’s choice to control his own public communication is driven, at least in part, by his open disdain for the mainstream media.

On Monday, he tweeted: “If the press would cover me accurately and honorably, I would have far less reason to tweet. Sadly, I don’t know if that will ever happen.”

To be sure, past administrations have had their disagreements and even hostile relationships with the press. During his two terms, President Obama has, on occasion, used his social media channels to circumvent reporters.

But no leader has taken to such platforms like Mr. Trump. Last week, during a post-election review at Harvard, Mr. Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, spoke about how the president-elect sees the press.

COREY LEWANDOWSKI, Former Trump Campaign Manager: Donald Trump understands the media and he understands the American electorate and he understands how to drive a message. However, Donald Trump also has the ability to bypass the mainstream media by going directly to social media.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The president-elect did hold an off-the-record meeting with television anchors and executives last month and on-the-record conversations with The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, but he has also repeatedly traveled without notifying the press pool assigned to cover him.

That’s led reporters to voice concerns about a lack of access. Mr. Trump is, however, expected to hold his first press conference as president-elect next Thursday.

We take a broader look at the president-elect’s unprecedented relationship with the press and unique communication style with Micheline Maynard, a veteran journalist who is covering Trump and the media for Forbes.com.

Micki Maynard, this isn’t the first time the president, any president has wanted to go talk directly to the people or go around the pesky press in the middle. What’s so different about this?

MICHELINE MAYNARD, Forbes: Well, I think what’s so different about this is the unpredictability, and also the fact, you know, with many presidents, you could just take — if they had a tweet — this is really our first tweeting president — president-elect.

Mr. Obama tweets a little bit, but it’s fairly structured. This is not structured at all. You almost have to take the information as the starting point, because you can’t simply repeat what he’s tweeted. You have to give it a little bit of context.

So, you were talking about the Boeing situation and the over-$4 billion number. Well, those of us who cover aviation who have kept track of the Air Force One replacement program had never heard a number like $4 billion.

And the GAO, the General Accounting Office, had never even said that the program would be $4 billion. So it’s a little bit of a puzzlement where some of this information is coming from.

But it does at least give you something to go on.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So how do newsrooms decide where to put their resources, chase down the fact behind every tweet, or figure out what the policy will actually be and what the actual impact on Americans will be?

MICHELINE MAYNARD: The interesting thing about Mr. Trump’s tweets is that they’re often in response to a news story that he doesn’t like.

So, the Boeing tweet in particular came a little while after The Chicago Tribune ran a story quoting the CEO of Boeing as saying he was a bit concerned about trade policy under the new Trump administration.

So, it’s almost like — I don’t know how you guess which company he might criticize next. But it’s almost as if you have to write the tweet down on one side of a ledger and then go look for a link to the story on the other side of the ledger and see where the mesh comes in.

HARI SREENIVASAN: There also seems to be a gap inside the newsrooms, the political reporters on one side and the business reporters on the other side not necessarily seeing the connections.

MICHELINE MAYNARD: Right. They’re two different specialties.

So, business journalists, like myself, we spend years learning how the Securities and Exchange Commission works. We take classes in business journalism. Political reporters probably take political science classes, spend years in Washington or in their local state governments. The two don’t cross that often. Sometimes, they do.

We have great publications like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, where you have politically savvy business reporters, and vice versa. But it’s two separate sets of DNA.

And now the challenge for newsrooms will be to school reporters who are trained in politics in business, and school business reporters to look for the politics in whatever Mr. Trump does.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Inherently, is anything that comes out of a president’s mouth automatically newsworthy? If he wants to say a tweet like the flag-burning one, where he’s essentially challenging the constitutionality of how we express ourselves, isn’t that newsworthy, in and of itself, or is someone making an editorial decision, saying, well, this is a distraction and we shouldn’t put resources on it?

MICHELINE MAYNARD: Well, so far, I haven’t seen anyone not repeat the tweets.

Because he’s the president-elect, because everybody is looking for clues about what kind of president he will be, anything he says right now is newsworthy. But I am watching news organizations that just repeat it like they’re stenographers, and news organizations that say, wait a minute, the flag-burning thing, you know, we’re constitutionally protected if we want to burn the flag.

So I’m looking for people giving the right context to their audiences, whether it’s on the air, in print, or on social media.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Some of the complaints about limited access, about the traveling press pool or not so many press conferences, I mean, some of that is a violation of tradition or it’s personnel preference, but how does it actually matter in the day-to-day coverage of the presidency? Why is that important for the public to have and to know?

MICHELINE MAYNARD: Well, right after Mr. Trump was elected, he went to Washington, and he left the pool that was following him behind.

Then he went to dinner, and he left the pool that was following him behind. In fact, those reporters had been told that there was a lid on movement for the night. That means that he’s not going to do anything newsworthy. And, in fact, he went out for dinner with his family.

I don’t know how newsworthy that was, but people have made the point that we had the 9/11 attacks, people needed to know where President Bush was. President Reagan, sadly, there was an assassination attempt, and the pool needed to know what was going on with that, and on and on.

So we have certainly had instances in our history where unexpected events happened, and a group of reporters, broadcast, print, now digital, photographers needed to be there. So the pool is important. But I think we’re seeing that Mr. Trump is either not aware of traditions or has his own opinion about them.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Micheline Maynard, I’m sure we will have more conversations about this in the future. Thanks so much.

MICHELINE MAYNARD: Thank you for having me.

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