No One Promised Media a Rose Garden

Methinks my former press colleagues doth protest too much about Trump's war on the media. He is an asshole but the media's job is to cover him as he is, not as we want him to be.

His lies, his distractions, his bizarre and potentially treasonous infatuation with Vladimir Putin, his conflicts, his religious and racist bigotry, his ignorance, his xenophobia, his narcissism, his disdain for the voters who elected him, his disregard for the domestic and international consensus that has kept the country and world afloat, his cabinet of plutocrats and right wing apparatchiks, all those can and must be covered without whining that he is being disrespectful to the media.

I think Carl Bernstein had it right that Kelly Anne Conway is the minister of propaganda. I have been on shows with her. She is smart and open-minded and funny in the green room and then nothing but talking points on the set. So the job is to try and cut through the blather to find the closest approximation to truth that you can, even if the administration is stiff-arming or cherry-picking reporters to control its message.

I did battle with Rudy Giuliani on a daily basis when he was mayor. Like Trump, he acted as if history began with him, and that anything other than parroting his talking points was akin to heresy, albeit without his having access to nuclear weapons. But he was far more open-minded and accessible than the right-wing robotic acolyte he has become on the national stage, in large part because he exposed himself to daily jousting in City Hall's Blue Room with the Room Nine scribes down the hall.

I did battle with David Dinkins as well, someone I liked and respected. I cannot remember the exact topic, but I remember a call from Dinkins saying he was disappointed in me because of something I wrote that was critical of him. I told him maybe the problem was that he had expectations of me - my job was to cover him whatever my personal relationship with him was.

Ed Koch, who I also covered, was a whole different phenomenon, someone my former bureau chief described as unavoidable for comment. Koch would have two or three interactions reporters each day, whether in formal press conferences or informal gatherings around a radiator in the City Hall rotunda. He would give as good as he took, but he understood the role of the press as an institution he could use to reach the citizenry as broadly as possible.

Of course that was a time before the Internet and cable television fragmented journalism into self-reinforcing echo chambers. We are in a time when there is far too much navel gazing among the chattering classes, of which I am now one, and that chattering becomes more and more tied to the ideological and competitive silos we all spend too much time in.

Breaking out of that echo chamber is the challenge of the day, even if the noble idea of mass media as a common mediator of public discussion across ideological and partisan lines will be less and less reachable going forward.

I had a few simple rules as a reporter, the main one being that when two people called each other assholes, I agreed with both so long as they told me. If you two wanted to fight, I would hold your coats. I was in it for the conflict.

But refusing to talk to me would not dissuade me from chasing a story. Nobody - except an editor, of course, but that is a different story - would get a veto or the right to kill a story. I would still write it and try hard to accurately reflect your view. And if I depicted that view inaccurately or incompletely, and you called to complain the next day, that would give me a reason to write another story.

That is why, as a recovering journalist now on the political PR side, I explain to clients that the best strategy is to get in that first day story. Cooperating will not make the story longer, and stiffing a reporter will not make it shorter. Cooperating means the reporter will have to include your point of view which will take up space or air time that can otherwise be dedicated to further bashing you.

And whatever I personally thought of the subject of a story, whether an individual or an issue - and I never understood the idea that journalists were somehow supposed to be objective cyphers when they are often the only ones talking to all sides of a dispute - I would admonish myself every day not to try to get even with anyone in print the next day. That was not the job either.

We are in for a rough ride as Trump ascends to the presidency, a man whose cynicism and uncaring egotism presages attacks on norms that have defined civic life for generations. His press conference this week - best described by Glenn Thrush in the New York Times as "buoyantly belligerent" - was a harbinger of chaotic times that call for clear-eyed and unflinching coverage of the man and his administration, whatever the selective personal attacks and threats he and his minions fling back.

That is the proper Rose Garden strategy in the face of the impending onslaught.