Monday, July 30, 2018


Did New York Times Publisher A.G. Sulzberger make a mistake offering such a strong rebuttal to Donald Trump's unethical breach of their private meeting, which apparently also included a misleading account?

Or did the rookie publisher -- who took the helm in January, at 37, as the fourth Sulzberger to hold the post -- make a necessary move to counter a president who insists on wrongly attacking news outlets as fake and calling the news media the "enemy of the people?"

It may depend on who you ask. And on how you view presidential coverage today.

The Times has been in the cross-hairs of Trump for years, and most recently since he took office. Anyone who watched the great Showtime mini-series, The Fourth Estate -- which chronicled the paper's coverage of Trump's first year -- saw how editors deal with keeping to ethical rules while overseeing a president who name-calls, refers to them as "failing" (when circulation is actually up), and drumbeats against the overall press as the enemy.

Reporters nationwide have had to face a new challenge with this administration given not only how it lies so often, but how Trump changes his mind and facts to fit the situation. News outlets are being criticized if they do not stick to the rules they have followed for years while dealing with a president who constantly breaks the White House traditions of decorum, civility and truth.

So when Trump disclosed on Twitter that he had a private meeting with Sulzberger on July 20 to discuss coverage and Trump's claims of fake news -- and hinted that Sulzberger agreed with that stance -- the publisher shot back.

As the Times reported in a story late Sunday: 

Mr. Trump said on Twitter that he and Mr. Sulzberger had discussed “the vast amounts of Fake News being put out by the media & how that Fake News has morphed into phrase, ‘Enemy of the People.’ Sad!”

But Sulzberger then released a statement claiming that was not the case and noting Trump disclosed contents of a private meeting -- and inaccurately it seems. His statement said, in part:

Earlier this month, A.G. received a request from the White House to meet with President Trump. This was not unusual; there has been a long tradition of New York Times publishers holding such meetings with presidents and other public figures who have concerns about coverage.

On July 20th, A.G. went to the White House, accompanied by James Bennet, who oversees the editorial page of The Times. Mr. Trump’s aides requested that the meeting be off the record, which has also been the practice for such meetings in the past.

But with Mr. Trump’s tweet this morning, he has put the meeting on the record, so A.G. has decided to respond to the president’s characterization of their conversation, based on detailed notes A.G. and James took.

It later added:

I told the president directly that I thought that his language was not just divisive but increasingly dangerous.   

I told him that although the phrase “fake news” is untrue and harmful, I am far more concerned about his labeling journalists “the enemy of the people.” I warned that this inflammatory language is contributing to a rise in threats against journalists and will lead to violence.
I repeatedly stressed that this is particularly true abroad, where the president’s rhetoric is being used by some regimes to justify sweeping crackdowns on journalists. I warned that it was putting lives at risk, that it was undermining the democratic ideals of our nation, and that it was eroding one of our country’s greatest exports: a commitment to free speech and a free press.

It would seem Sulzberger was left with no choice but to both correct Trump's false description of their meeting and properly chastise him for breaking the rules of the one-on-one chat being off the record. 

As the Times story mentions, presidents have long met with newspaper publishers and other media heavyweights throughout history to discuss issues and concerns of coverage. The story notes examples with George W. Bush and Bill Clinton and the Times

In his 2016 book, The Tunnels, about the underground escape efforts at the Berlin Wall in the 1960s, my former boss Greg Mitchell writes about the Kennedy Administration lobbying to stop the broadcasting of two news reports at the time by CBS and NBC about the tunneling. 

Even further in history, Theodore Roosevelt famously sparred with  William Randolph Hearst and Chicago Tribune publisher Robert McCormick, while also befriending "muckrakers" of the day that included Upton Sinclair and Ida Tarbell. 

"Roosevelt had established a unique relationship with numerous journalists," Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote in her 2013 book, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and The Golden Age of Journalism. "He debated points with them as fellow writers; regardless of the disparity in political rank, when they argued as authors, they argued as equals. He had read and freely commented upon their stories, as they felt free to criticize his public statements and speeches."

So Sulzberger's meeting with Trump is nothing new and likely a good chance to clear the air on many issues. But, when Trump breaks the agreed silence and reportedly misrepresents what happened, the publisher needs to correct the record.

It is sad that we are in a position where the press must do so much correcting of the record and defense of our work. But when you have a president who is constantly attacking without cause and misrepresenting the facts, all of those who are affected need to point out the truth.

Thursday, July 26, 2018


We shouldn't be surprised when President Trump mistreats the press. He's been attacking reporters, wrongly accusing them of fake news, and banning them from events since he first launched his campaign in 2015.

Still, the latest act of barring a CNN reporter from a White House event on Wednesday should signal some kind of retaliation from the White House Correspondents Association and others beyond simple criticism.

But what can they really do? Yes, Trump loves press attention when it is to his benefit, but any press boycott of coverage would play into his hands. It would also be irresponsible to stop covering the president. 

Or would it be a serious move that could be necessary?

Such a boycott threat is not unheard of. In 1999, when the Indianapolis 500 refused to credential Sports Illustrated auto racing writer Ed Hinton after he wrote a critical piece on auto safety, the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times were among those who were considering a boycott of the race. The threat died after racing officials reversed the credential denial.

Obviously the White House is not an auto race. Still, the continued press restrictions may need some serious response to be effective. 

In the latest incident, CNN reporter Kaitlan Collins was apparently being punished for shouting questions to Trump earlier in the day during a joint appearance with Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission. 

As CNN wrote: 

On Wednesday afternoon Collins was representing all the television networks as the "pool reporter" in the room during a meeting between Trump and Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission.
As is customary, Collins lobbed a few questions at the president. She asked about Vladimir Putin and Michael Cohen. Trump did not answer the questions.
Later in the afternoon, the White House surprised the press corps by announcing a press availability with Trump and Juncker in the Rose Garden. It was said to be open to all press, not just the small pool.
A few minutes later, Collins was asked to come to Bill Shine's office. Shine, a former co-president of Fox News, is the new deputy chief of staff for communications. Shine and press secretary Sarah Sanders met Collins there.
"They said 'You are dis-invited from the press availability in the Rose Garden today,'" Collins said in an interview. "They said that the questions I asked were inappropriate for that venue. And they said I was shouting."

CNN later revealed that Sanders confirmed the move and claimed Collins "shouted questions and refused to leave despite repeatedly being asked to do so." She then amazingly said, "To be clear, we support a free press and ask that everyone be respectful of the presidency and guests at the White House."

What a sham. 

And it's not unusual for Trump, who openly refused to let CNN reporter Jim Acosta ask a question just two weeks ago in England during his joint press event with Prime Minister Theresa May. Last year he chose to bar reporters from The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Buzzfeed, CNN, and Politico from a press news "gaggle."

It was great to see so much backlash by news outlets to the latest incident, even Fox News. White House Correspondents Association President Olivier Knox issued a statement that declared: 

We strongly condemn the White House’s misguided and inappropriate decision today to bar one of our members from an open press event after she asked questions they did not like. This type of retaliation is wholly inappropriate, wrong-headed, and weak. It cannot stand. Reporters asking questions of powerful government officials, up to and including the President, helps hold those people accountable. In our republic, the WHCA supports the prerogative of all reporters to do their jobs without fear of reprisal from the government.

Other objections have been flooding in from The Washington Post, MSNBC, and even the conservative Washington Times, which said it "goes too far." The right-wing Weekly Standard also ripped Trump, calling the move "irrational."

But don't be surprised if it happens again and again with this White House. Sadly, the press may be unable to do much. The only action beyond protest would be to boycott White House events.
And that is probably what the administration wants.

This is not the only time such action has occurred. You may recall in 2009 President Obama said he would no longer respond to Fox News reporters at the White House. That prompted a similar outcry from the press corp, including CNN. Obama quickly ended the practice.

With Trump, however, I fear his stubbornness and hatred will continue against CNN and likely other news outlets. The best the journalists can do is stay united and speak out against the restrictions. Although it would be interesting to see a boycott of White House news, even for one day.