The White House press office’s decision to strip CNN reporter Jim Acosta of his credentials – on the basis of doctored video, no less – demands a response from our major news organizations.
Boycotting the laughable White House press briefings, staging a walkout, and suing are all fine ideas. But they’re not going to solve the fundamental problem, which is the broken relationship between the Trump White House and the press.
Trump has played news organizations for fools from Day One, using them as his personal megaphone, delighting in their attention, getting them to spread his hate and lies even while decrying them as the enemies of the state.
The necessary response to that is a total rethinking of how to cover a president who makes stuff up all the time, contradicts himself, considers himself infallible, spouts gibberish, lacks empathy, and is a racist, a misogynist and abusive to boot.
But speaking as a journalist myself, it’s hard to break old habits, even when they’re being used against us. When Trump says something new, especially if it’s outrageous, it’s news. (Check this out!) We certainly can’t bring ourselves to look away. We remain shockable. And we remain oddly optimistic that maybe this question or that story will get a different kind of response, or will shame him, or will change him.
So what to do? We need to put everything Trump says in its truly radical context as part of an ongoing assault on truth, pluralism, and constitutional government. And we also need to start focusing on the future, on lessons learned, and on what sort of reform we need to pursue once he’s gone. In fact, those are the two main reasons I launched this website.
But even that’s not enough.
What we really need to do is start ignoring what he says as much as possible.
To the extent that we simply can’t do that, we need to make the story primarily about how he is lying, or projecting, or contradicting himself, or speaking nonsense.
And most importantly, instead of letting him set the agenda, we need to set the agenda, by focusing on critical issues, real facts, and unanswered questions.
Luckily, there is finally another center of gravity in Washington that we can legitimately shift our attention to — especially if House Democrats start demanding answers to important questions about how the Trump administration does business.
My thinking on this is profoundly influenced not by a journalist, but by Justin Frank, an eminent Washington psychoanalyst whose new book, “Trump on the Couch,” attempts to take us inside Trump’s mind.
It’s not a journey for the faint of heart.
It’s an extraordinary book, and I’ll write about its major points in a separate post or two in the near future. In short, Frank draws a portrait of Trump’s parenting, his pathologies and his disabilities, and reaches some conclusions that I, as a journalist, found hugely enlightening.
One, which you can take more or less literally as you see fit, is that Trump is in many ways a big baby, stuck in a primitive way of seeing things and expressing himself, with enormous, primal needs and a wildly inflated self-image.
So after reading the book, I called Frank and asked him what advice he would give the journalists who cover the White House.
The first thing to do, he said, is to realize that no matter how hard they try, they’re not going to throw Trump off his game
“You can’t get to him,” Frank said. “It’s not that he won’t change, he can’t change.”
“Once you give up on trying to get through to him – you accept that he is impervious — then you have to take care of business yourself,” Frank said.
The only effective way to win is to stop playing.
So when Trump lies, the press corps should report that he lied – then move on quickly. “Now let’s talk about the problems we have to face. Forget about him. He is who he is,” Frank said.
“He is brilliant at projecting,” Frank said. So reporters could say to themselves: “I’m not going to report on him. I’m just going to report on how everything Trump says about somebody else is about himself.”
Frank said it would work a lot better if news organizations spoke with one voice and said, “We are not doing this anymore. You show us your taxes, otherwise you’re out of the news.”
That’s too much to ask. The press corps probably won’t even agree on an immediate response to the yanking of Acosta credential. But every major news organization, independently, should take advantage of this moment of clarity — and the rise to power of an opposition force in the House — to reassess how they cover Trump, and whether they are doing their readers and viewers a disservice if they continue business as usual.
Coming soon: Frank’s diagnosis of Trump – and his explanation for why Trump connects so well with his base.