Don’t take the bait.
See it for what it is.
Be on guard about making errors and worry about being safe in ways that never seemed necessary before.
That’s what Julie Pace, the new Washington bureau chief for the Associated Press, and Peter Baker, the chief White House correspondent for the New York Times, told me in the latest episode of POLITICO’s Off Message podcast about how they approach covering a president and White House that clearly wants a war with the media and looks for every opportunity to pick a fight.
Pace and Baker were regulars at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue long before Trump arrived, and now both are trying to cover President Donald Trump on days when he’s attacking television hosts and posting fantasy wrestling videos, and days when he isn’t. Both are among the reporters actually talking to him and his aides regularly, trying to sort out what’s happening in his administration by having conversations people who might turn around and trash them and their whole profession as soon as the cameras and microphones go on.
“To some extent, I expect that, because that that is their job, that is something they have made central to this presidency. The attacks on the media, the attempts to undermine our credibility, they see as very much part of the Trump agenda,” Pace said. “I don’t think it’s a show in the sense that I do think that they see this as part of the agenda. This is something that they believe is central to Trump’s success, is to try to undermine negative coverage about him. And I think they believe in that mission, I really do.”
For all the ways Trump has already changed Washington, some of this is very familiar territory for two seasoned reporters who are used to fending off attacks from presidents and their aides. Both are respected among their colleagues for their fairness and reporting talents: Baker made his name covering the Lewinsky scandal and the subsequent Republican effort to impeach Bill Clinton, and went on to cover everything from Vladimir Putin’s rise in Moscow to the Bush and Obama White Houses; Pace has been with the AP since 2007 and spent much of the Obama years as the news service’s senior reporter in the front row of the briefing room and traveling all around the world, covering the president’s every move.
Some of what they see, though, is very much abnormal—starting with a president who airs his grievances 140 characters at a time, at all hours of the day. Among the smaller life changes in covering Trump, Baker said, is setting an alarm to go off early in the morning whenever the president tweets.
“It is sometimes frustrating that in private, White House officials—not just this White House—can be pretty bracingly honest about their own problems, challenges, setbacks, mistakes, but when they come on camera, they act like anybody questioning them is disloyal to them, disloyal to the country, somehow nattering nabobs, whatever,” Baker said. “This is not the first president who thought all this. This is the first president perhaps who’s said it so loudly. This is basically the Nixon tapes as if they were played live on television every day, or on Twitter.”
Pace and Baker see a White House still trying to understand what it is, led by a president who wants to be successful but hasn’t detached from the day-to-day battles, who seems to know he’s against everything Barack Obama did but doesn’t yet seem to know what he’s for doing himself.
If there’s one consistent theme to all of it, it’s trashing the press—which to the White House is either the fake news, the opposition party or the enemies of the American people, depending on the day.
Covering any politician means finding the balance between having relationships with sources and keeping those sources at enough of a distance to cover them fairly and accurately, whether that means highlighting successes or dissecting stumbles and failures. It also means learning when you’re being spun or lied to, and what to do about it.
Trump and his staff have made that particularly challenging, not just because they’ve at times frolicked in alternate realities and have a tendency to say things that anyone with access to Google can prove aren’t true, but also because they tend to pounce on errors and weaponize them. Just ask the reporters who’ve been fed false information, or fired, or received threats, or had protesters appear at their homes.
It’s dangerous, and for many, the instinct to fight back is almost impossible to ignore. CNN has leaned into the fight, having reporters and even the network’s PR shop punch back.
But is that just falling into the president’s trap? Trump’s amped-up attacks on the media are dangerous, Pace said, but so is getting drawn in.
"We have to get better at this. When he goes after the media, we can’t make it about us. Every time, we make it about us, every time one of us becomes the face of the fight, I think we fail—because we lose the whole point of what we’re doing,” Pace said. “The whole point of what we’re doing is to be conduits to the public and to provide the public information that they can’t get on their own to provide them the backstory when the White House is putting the sunny face on something.”
And yet, everyone dreads where this could be heading. Journalists in the Trump era worry there are worse things lurking out there than nasty emails or slurs at rallies—like the armed Trump supporter stormed a Washington pizza shop because he was convinced it was part of a child sex ring frequented, or like the Bernie Sanders volunteer who opened fire on Republican members of the House at baseball practice—and that it’s only a matter of time before the assault on the press stops being a metaphor.
“There’s no reason to think that it couldn’t happen, just like it happened on that baseball field. And that was by a liberal who was upset at Republicans. It could happen the exact opposite way, and it could happen with reporters as well,” Baker said. “It’s a reflection of the climate right now.”