Trump’s off-the-record meeting was an outrageous forum to intimidate reporters
President-elect Donald Trump convened an off-the-record meeting with television news journalists and the heads of their networks. Unsurprisingly, the meeting went completely off the rails, veering wildly from the standard purpose of such meetings. This was not about information, but intimidation.
President-elect Donald Trump has made no secret of his contempt for the press, but his assault on the First Amendment entered a new phase on Monday when he met with executives and journalists from ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News, and NBC for an off-the-record confab that was described by one participant as “a f*cking firing squad.”
In a report that I have independently confirmed with several sources, participants said that Trump used the meeting to blast the assembled outlets, and tellingly attacked two women in particular:
“Trump kept saying, ‘We’re in a room of liars, the deceitful, dishonest media who got it all wrong.’ He addressed everyone in the room, calling the media dishonest, deceitful liars. He called out Jeff Zucker by name and said everyone at CNN was a liar, and CNN was [a] network of liars,” the source said.
“Trump didn’t say [NBC reporter] Katy Tur by name, but talked about an NBC female correspondent who got it wrong, then he referred to a horrible network correspondent who cried when Hillary lost who hosted a debate — which was Martha Raddatz, who was also in the room.”
What is missing from this account is even more chilling than what is included — namely, any mention of the network heads who were present jumping in to defend their journalists.
Instead, in the aftermath, Tur, whom Trump has repeatedly attacked, attempted to normalize the meeting while insisting she was not:
Donald Trump isn’t the first politician to do this, and he likely will not be the last. President Obama often used his social media to circumvent the press. Not quite to this extent whatsoever… I’m not trying to normalize it, but I am putting it into context. Hillary Clinton did go quite awhile without going and doing a press conference. That being said, she was called out for it, there was a lot of pressure put on her and she started doing them very regularly after she got the nomination. Donald Trump stopped doing them altogether. He has not had a press conference since, I believe it’s July 27th. That’s the middle of the Democratic National Convention.
As someone who covered the White House for over six years, I am no stranger to the off-the-record session, but the purpose of a normal OTR is for journalists to gain insights from newsmakers that they otherwise might not get. OTRs can inform your reporting in a broad sense. Yes, the news sources would also like very much to influence your point of view. But in every OTR meeting I have ever attended, it was understood that I retained the right to negotiate for attribution on anything I thought should become public.
Even this established practice has come under criticism, and journalists need to be careful that they are getting real value from them, but they are routinely conducted with the ultimate goal of informing the public.
However, that was clearly never going to be the aim of the Trump meeting. Trump’s sustained attacks on the press have continued unabated since his electoral victory, and have even begun to target political satire. If the purpose of the meeting had been to allow journalists to gain insight from Trump and his team, there would have been no reason to include the executives. Their inclusion made the meeting’s purpose self-evident: to provide the president-elect with a forum to intimidate journalists.
It is unnerving to be professionally undermined by a superior who is not a journalist. By agreeing to this meeting, and by watching Trump abuse their employees, that is what these executives did. They also gave Trump and his team carte blanche to spin it however they wanted, because non-journalists are not bound by OTR rules the way journalists are.
In this case, The New York Times did the right thing, assenting to a short off-the-record session for the paper’s executives, but demanding an on-the-record session for their journalists. It was a tough ask that got their meeting canceled and then rescheduled, but it sent the clear message that the Times stands with its journalists.
Reporters bristled at the Obama White House’s use of social media to get around the press. But it is imperative to view what Trump is doing through the proper context, which is that he is also actively trying to intimidate and manipulate the press.
As Tur mentioned, Trump has not had a press conference since before Hillary Clinton accepted the Democratic nomination. When he does hold one again, it will be in front of reporters who have been shown that Trump’s feelings are more important to their bosses than they are.