Last Monday night’s edition of “NBC Nightly News” featured a report on President-elect Donald Trump’s transition. “President-elect Donald Trump met today with more prospective members of his administration as his team released a video of Trump talking about his legislative priorities. At the same time, questions remained about how Trump will separate the work of his businesses from his work on the nation’s business.” Hallie Jackson followed up with a detailed account of Trump’s overseas holdings and their implications for a Trump presidency.
All well and good. But what anchor Lester Holt didn’t detail was a meeting that he himself had attended at Trump Tower earlier in the day. He wasn’t alone, as a number of other network dignitaries from five outlets – CNN, ABC News, NBC News, Fox News and CBS News – huddled with the president-elect. Attendees included Chuck Todd (NBC News), Phil Griffin (MSNBC), Norah O’Donnell (CBS News), Gayle King (CBS News), Charlie Rose (CBS News) and Jeff Zucker (CNN).
So what did Trump tell all these icons of mainstream media? Well, pretty much what he has been saying for about 18 months. “It was like a … firing squad,” a source told the New York Post. As per custom, Trump allegedly teed off on CNN, a network that he allegedly mentioned in close proximity to the word “liars.”
That, at least, was one perspective on the proceedings. Another came from Politico, which cited a source describing the meeting as less intense, and said the discussion included Trump expressing the possibility of a ‘reset’ of the tumultuous relationship between the president-elect and the media and that all he wants is ‘fairness.’ ” And various reports concur that Trump expressed particular dismay that NBC News had used a photo of him that accentuates his double chin.
So there are two competing versions of what happened in that Trump Tower conference room: one that portrayed Trump as a conquering hero, dissing the masters of the mainstream media; and another that portrayed things as somewhat conciliatory. Guess which version came from Trump aides eager to please the folks that vaulted them into the White House and which came from TV types wishing to save a bit of face.
Whichever you believe, sit back and appreciate that the most exalted executives in the U.S. news business Monday got into what amounts to a leaking war with the president-elect of the United States and his staffers. How did this happen? It happened because the media folks participated in an off-the-record discussion with Trump, meaning that they couldn’t turn around and publish or broadcast the words and sentiments bandied about in the meeting. Three dozen news luminaries, silenced.
As any media historian will tell you, there’s ample precedent for such off-the-record sessions. There’s a tradition of news anchors hanging with the president in a pre-State of the Union luncheon, for example. And President Barack Obama, like his predecessors, has regularly engaged reporters and columnists in off-the-record chats so that they’re familiar with his thinking on contemporary issues – which is a euphemism for spinning them.
Of all people, though, the folks in attendance Monday at Trump Tower should have known better than to meet with Trump under such circumstances. This is the guy, after all, who put their camera operators in peril by shouting them down at rallies; the guy who screamed “Katy” to single out NBC News reporter Katy Tur at a late campaign rally; the guy whose former campaign manager manhandled reporters; the guy whose campaign replaced policy pronouncements with media denunciations; the guy who vowed to erode First Amendment protections for news organizations.
The guy, too, who harassed Fox News host Megyn Kelly for months and months, ostensibly over the historic question that she posed at the first presidential debate on Aug. 6, 2015, regarding his mistreatment of women. Over Twitter, Trump called Kelly a “lightweight,” among several other insults that were repeated over and over. Throughout this roughly eight-month period, Fox News chief Roger Ailes held countless off-the-record meetings with Trump, as did others at Fox News. It all accomplished nothing, as Kelly writes in her memoir, “Settle For More”: “Roger had tried. (Sean) Hannity had tried. Bill Shine had tried. Time had passed. Trump wasn’t stopping.” So Kelly traveled to Trump Tower for an off-the-record session with Trump. Though he finally stopped the harassment and appeared on a soft-focus interview show with Kelly on the Fox Broadcasting Co., he never came on “The Kelly File,” the host’s highly ranked Fox News program.
The lesson? Don’t negotiate with Donald Trump. Cover Donald Trump.
Erik Wemple is a media critic for the Washington Post.
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