News Media Must Up Their Game Or Trump Will Run The Show

01/19/2017 12:03 EST | Updated 01/19/2017 12:04 EST

donald trump

U.S. president-elect Donald Trump argues with CNN's Jim Acosta during a news conference in the lobby of Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., Jan. 11, 2017. (Photo: Lucas Jackson/Reuters/TPX Images of the Day)

Donald Trump's first news conference as president-elect had all the dignity and order of a cage match. The metaphor is not a stretch, given that the man elected leader of the free world once appeared at a WWE event where, in a mock dust-up, he was ostensibly knocked senseless by that well-known political analyst, Stone Cold Steve Austin.

Sadly for the news media covering PEOTUS, Stone Cold did not have press credentials and Trump played by his own rules, dishing out cheap shots, deflections and low blows with impunity -- just he has successfully done ever since he launched his improbable campaign for president. And he walked away relatively unscathed.

There he was, shutting down a CNN journalist's attempt to pose a question: "No, quiet, you're fake news," before accusing the reporter of being rude with his usual Trumpian chutzpah. When a BBC journalist stood to ask a question, the president-elect again interjected: "BBC News, another beauty."

The man who sailed to an unlikely victory on waves of fictitious news stories, lies and insults now could rightly claim that he was a victim of a media witch hunt -- all thanks to BuzzFeed's calamitous decision to publish unproven allegations.

The fact that Breitbart and other Trump acolytes disseminated equally flimsy stories about Hillary Clinton during the campaign is no excuse. Journalism needs to be better and, in most cases, it is. Note all the organizations who knew about the story for months, chased it intensely, but in the absence of evidence chose not to print or air it.

So when the president-elect stepped before the cameras for his first news conference in months, he had a club, courtesy pf BuzzFeed, with which to deflect serious questions and to continue his campaign to discredit serious news media. Still, reporters hungry to go after the world's biggest target largely bungled their attempts at holding him to account.

Journalism needs to be better and, in most cases, it is.

News conferences and scrums with political figures are an unruly ecosystem in the world of journalism. Having attended several thousand of them in my reporting days, I know the adrenaline rush that surges through reporters as they push to get their question heard, the question that they hope will be the zinger that lays bare the weaknesses of the powerful, the one that brands them as a feared interrogator, impressing both their editors/producers and their audience.

It is a professional badge of honour that Conrad Black once accused me of being "tendentious" when I asked him in a walking scrum whether he would apologize to his shareholders. (He did say sorry and yes, I consulted a dictionary afterwards.) I recall with fondness the time in the 2000 election campaign when Opposition Leader Stockwell Day stomped out of a news conference in a huff after he objected to one of my gentle queries.

But at the Trump Tower media rumble, most of the reporters lucky enough to get his attention asked flabby questions, framing them as scattered, multi-leveled laundry lists. One asked him in a single, rambling inquiry about his "Nazi" tweet, Supreme Court nominees and a border tax. To which Trump wisecracked: "Got any more?"

white house press

Members of the press gathered in the White House as U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his final news conference Jan. 18, 2017. (Photo: Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Donald Trump is an exceptionally hard target, a blustering, narcissistic carnival barker whose rise poses a serious threat to serious journalism. Already news organizations are bleeding jobs; now they must deal with not only with a serial liar whose lies do not seem to matter to his constituency, but also the attendant rise of fake news that is widely believed.

I now make a living teaching people how to effectively answer reporters' questions. I would never counsel them to do what Trump does. His statements are rambling and unfocused, his answers often blatantly false or evasive. But his shtick uniquely works for him, at least so far.

Journalists covering the White House must always be at the top of their game.

To pin him down, journalists need to be laser focused, concise and to the point. The best, potentially most revealing question came only at the very end of his news conference when someone asked him whether he could categorically deny that his people had colluded with the Russians. But the reporter fumbled the opportunity when she added a sub-question about Vladimir Putin. Trump latched onto the Putin part, then walked away from the podium, dodging the issue that was most potentially damaging.

The competition among reporters to have your voice heard in a high-pressure news conference often works against an effective line of questioning. A smart politician can play them off against each other. Trump, an instinctive showman, did it expertly.

Journalists covering the White House must always be at the top of their game: tenacious, fearless and dedicated to a fair accounting of the truth. But the Trump presidency will challenge them like no other in our lifetime.

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