WASHINGTON ― Let’s stipulate two things right away.
One: Americans have lost faith in the press. Two: Much of that faith was drained away either by the press’s own mistakes, or by economic and technological changes that (so far) have done more to undermine the press’s credibility than to enhance it.
In one poll last April, for the AP, an astonishingly low 6 percent of voters said that they possessed a lot of confidence in the media.
Media mistakes are hideously glaring, and on all sides, on all scales, and all shades of the political spectrum ― from under-covering unjust police tactics used against minorities to utterly missing the rise of Donald Trump in the old industrial states of the North.
The structural flaws are growing: “fake news,” ideologically blinkered sites, anonymously floated viral rumors, Russian hacks and leaks, “agnostic” platforms that deliver it all unfiltered to everyone every second, the decay of the idea of facts themselves.
We have come a very long way since a half-century ago, when an avuncular, mustachioed TV anchor named Walter Cronkite could end each broadcast by declaring “that’s the way it is” ― and the American public by and large nodded in agreement.
But all of that has changed.
President-elect Trump has many gifts, one of which is an unerring feral sense of when to manufacture a foe out of someone or something, and then attack the weaknesses of that “foe” to his advantage. He knows precisely how unpopular the media is; even as he rode the press to power like a rented mule, he beat it like a rented mule, too.
He is now of two minds about how to proceed.
At times, he’s opened the golden spigots of Trumpian charm a bit to provide access and scoops and interviews to favored outlets. He even candidly mused aloud at his first press conference in months last week that it was the press that had made him, and so perhaps it would be in his interest to be respectful.
But then he lashed out at BuzzFeed and CNN, seeking to divide the press corps (which he quickly did), and now someone in his inner circle has leaked to Esquire that Trump is going to kick the press corps out of its long-held perch in the White House.
There are wise guys in the media itself (they tend to be based in New York) who think the White House press corps is so brain-dead that a physical presence is either meaningless or false advertising.
The press area itself looks like a place in need of reform if not fumigation. The familiar little auditorium is built over top of the old White House swimming pool and solarium that connected the house proper to the famous warren of offices in the West Wing. In rooms behind the auditorium, and in the basement, there are dozens of desks and tiny booths for reporters and broadcasters. Cockroaches and rats are known to enjoy the amenities.
And now Trump is about to arrive with his tens of millions of social media followers and armies of fervent supporters and unrivaled ability to make worldwide news at the burst of a tweet. Demand for space in the White House probably will grow.
Thus the Esquire leak.
Sensing a political vulnerability and a logistical excuse, Team Trump thinks it is luring the media into what the public will regard as a whiney, self-serving case of special pleading by hated elites.
Why not remove all of that White House mess, and put the press out of the building altogether, to a conference center or building across the street?
Well, let me plead: Close physical proximity to the press secretary matters, and is still and only possible in the current arrangement, where his or her office is 100 feet from the auditorium of the press room.
The driveway entrance to the West Wing outside the press room is equally important territory, for it is the main way into and out of the building for invited political guests and officials. West Wing offices are for the most part off limits to the hordes in the press room, but those officials sometimes can and do come to meet the media ― and the proximity saves time. The Oval Office itself is only steps away, and presidents have been known to make haste to get to the press room when it serves their purpose.
Most important, despite its many flaws and shortcomings, the press still ― and arguably now more than ever ― has an indispensable role to play in what we regard as our representative democracy. Without steady, up close and not-always planned interchange between reporters and officials, the Founders’ idea fails.
And then there is the sheer symbolism of it. Don’t laugh, and don’t dismiss it. The White House belongs to all of the American people, and we all have a right ― and even a responsibility ― to know as much as we can about what is going on in the place.
Even conservatives know that ― or should.
So should the big news network executives and communications CEOs and other honchos of the digital age who have become the pipelines of news even though they don’t want to admit it.
In the end, Trump will probably not shut the place down. No one recognizes valuable ― salable ― real estate better than The Donald.
Here’s betting he will turn the press room into Mar-a-Lago North. Reporters and news organizations can pay various rates for seats, desks and booths: silver, gold, platinum and titanium.
The biggest of the “big-league” outfits can become members of the exclusive Trump Club, featuring front-row briefing room seats, drink and concierge transcription service and 24-hour walk-in access to Sean Spicer, Steve Bannon and a team of spin butlers.
It’ll be yuge.