How does Trump abuse the media? Let us count the ways: he shuts down our questions; he threatens to diminish access to the White House; he flouts our dearly held traditions; he calls us liars. We could go on.
By now you've no doubt heard how scary and unprecedented this level of animosity is, but could it actually be a blessing in disguise? According to Politico's Jack Shafer, it may be just what the media need. Shafer talks with Brooke about how Trump's fraught relationship with the press might actually force reporters to shake off old habits, get creative, cultivate new government sources, and do some real digging.
Newsreel by Randy Newman
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Trump versus the media. He shuts us down, he flouts our traditions, he calls us liars. Jack Shafer, Politico’s senior media writer, thinks all of this might actually be a blessing in disguise.
JACK SHAFER: It’s fantastic. To quote Dashiell Hammett, “I haven’t heard such good news since the hogs ate my kid brother.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Okay, what’s so good about it?
JACK SHAFER: I think that Trump’s hostility to the press and his well-advertised notion that he will not continue to do business with the press, as usual, sort of liberates the pres because all the old scripts that go into the formula of making political news have to be completely rethought. This gives us an opportunity to cover the White House, to quote Jay Rosen, “from the outside in, rather than from the inside out.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You say forget about the White House press room, it's time to circle behind enemy lines. So what does that mean?
JACK SHAFER: He and his people were making noises about moving the White House press briefing room out of the White House and over into the old executive office building. And this, of course, caused the gnashing of teeth by the people who go down there and collect the, the sweet nothings that are whispered by the press secretary.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Even though they hate that room.
JACK SHAFER: Even though they hate that room, but the people in that room would concede that very, very little real news is captured or made there. The physical dislocation of, you know, a small number of reporters, I don't care a whole lot about. I care a whole lot more about reporters digging into every department, every executive bureau and finding real stories, and I think that they have a very good chance. The bureaucracy has been fractured. The number of people who are inside the government, who might not be completely on the [LAUGHS] same page with the Trump presidency, you’d have to take off your mittens and your shoes and socks in order to count them all up and then you’d have to multiply by a factor of 10,000.
And so, if you had said to me, you know, the Department of Transportation during the Obama era will be a great source for stories, I’d say who are you kidding? No news is going to happen there. But now I think that there will be sources, whistleblowers, who will bring attention to us the workings of the government maybe out of their own self-interest because their status is being threatened. But, you know, a reporter takes great tips wherever he can find them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You say the reporters should infest the departments and agencies around town that the president has peeved. Give us some examples. We know he’s peeved the intelligence agencies but, you know, where else should they infest?
JACK SHAFER: Well, let’s look at EPA. He has appointed administrator of the EPA a man who has filed suit against the EPA. It’s a sure bet that inside of EPA there are bureaucrats who won't like the new direction of the new administrator and will be very, very willing to leak or to provide information that’s valuable to whatever investigation a reporter might be pursuing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, what about the threat of prosecution? I mean, might even peeved members of the bureaucracy be wary of speaking to reporters? Under Obama, the Espionage Act was repeatedly invoked to go after government officials who talked to journalists about classified matters. Now, I know a lot of these stories will not be about classified matters. They could be things like simple ethics. But, in some of the big scoops, you need classified material and one has to assume that Trump will really take off the gloves.
JACK SHAFER: One can assume that, but if I were to put my money on the tradecraft of intelligence sources being able to cloak themselves as sources of information, I think that's a pretty solid bet. All administrations leak. The Obama administration leaked classified information all the time because it was in their interest. And we can look for the Trump team, surrogates, officials to leak on his benefit, and what that will set up is a counter-leak effort by perhaps members of the – what lots of people like to call the “deep state” who are threatened by, you know, these official leaks to participate with their own leaks. You know, Trump would have to be very careful there. Would he prosecute the hostile leakers but not the friendly leakers?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sure, he would. [LAUGHS]
JACK SHAFER: I don’t know. I'd love to see the discovery in such a trial.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You are saying that one rich source of stories, if you’re closed out of the White House press room, is peeved bureaucrats. What about opponents within the Republican Party, as well as the Democratic Party?
JACK SHAFER: That’s going to be a very rich avenue. You have to remember that a political party is not a monolith. John McCain, lifelong Republican, is the guy who brought the document that people are calling “the dossier” about Donald Trump to the attention or directed it to FBI Director Comey, which is not a friendly gesture to the, the incoming president.
I think that presidents are always astonished that members of Congress are not robots, they’re not puppets. They have a will of their own, and they’re not eager to attach their fate to a president, especially a president who is this unpopular and did not win a majority of votes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You had mentioned parallels to the Nixon administration.
JACK SHAFER: Both Nixon and his leading surrogate, Spiro Agnew, were intensely hostile and critical of the press. They thought that the press had overstepped its bounds. I think that they thought that the press should just provide a stenographic exercise. Instead, the press basically threw off the complacency that maybe it had fallen into in the ‘50s and in the early ‘60s and saw Nixon's abuses of power, in part, because the Nixon administration was so hostile to the press.
Reporters are like red ants. If you leave red ants alone, you probably have no problem, but if you kick a red anthill, you’ve got a swarm of angry biting insects. It’s one thing to attack the press in the campaign stage, but now that Trump will have his hands on power, it's really at his own peril. You show me a politician who made a lifelong practice of attacking the press, you show me where those political careers end. I think they always end sort of poorly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You think this could all not only set journalists’ missions straight but actually help revitalize the struggling industry.
JACK SHAFER: I think so. Trump has driven readers and viewers to newspapers and television across the board. Wherever he goes, he makes news. But it won’t always be the news that he’s looking for, and wherever there’s conflict, readers follow. They want to see war, they want to see conflict, they want to see bloodshed because that’s, you know, the day-to-day experience of our life. It’s war out there, Brooke!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] But don’t we have a more balkanized press than we ever have had in history? Aren’t we all just preaching to the converted, in a way that we never had before? Is there any way to persuade people who already, you know, limit their consumption to Breitbart News?
JACK SHAFER: What you call balkanized, I call sort of a great flowering of the American press.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I think it's fantastic that we have many more views out there and many more people are consuming them. The concern is that people are only consuming that which comports to their own view. So if you’re doing great reporting, will it make a difference in this environment?
JACK SHAFER: I think so. David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post, the man who brought us all the outrages and illegalities of the Donald Trump Foundation, David Fahrenthold is a great reporter.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: For those of us who follow that sort of thing.
JACK SHAFER: And what did he do? He reported the story, he reported it again. He went deeper. And the culmination is that the Donald Trump Foundation is closing up shop because he blew the whistle on them, he brought it to the attention of the public. I see the Fahrenthold example as the repudiation of your idea that people don't pay attention. Everybody paid attention to the David Fahrenthold story. Everybody paid attention when David Fahrenthold got the Access Hollywood tapes of Trump’s smutty talking.
I think that you're pulling my leg here, that you don’t think that quality reporting that breaks big news doesn’t get noticed. And, and this Breitbart thing of yours is just a radio host red herring.
And you think that you can get me to bite my own tail and I will not bite my own tail.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Those were two huge stories, but [LAUGHS] the thing is, is that there is this feeling frequently of spitting against the wind.
JACK SHAFER: You tell me who in America was not made aware of the Access Hollywood tape.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Everybody was aware of that one, but look, it had the benefit of smutty talk. I would say many fewer people know about Fahrenthold’s reporting over the Trump Foundation.
JACK SHAFER: But never in the history of journalism has everybody partaken of the great scoops available to them. I think that the upside of the equation is there's this cornucopia of news and information and it’s for the sociologists and the radio talk show hosts and the marketers to get more –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Screw you, Jack. [LAUGHS]
JACK SHAFER: - more people, more people to, to, to read and partake?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, Jack, I love being insulted by you. It’s my favorite thing.
JACK SHAFER: Insulting, insulting! I take your call. I consider this the highest praise.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jack Shafer is Politico’s senior media writer.
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, Barack Obama leaves a big gift for Trump in the White House.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Enhanced surveillance powers. This is On the Media.