WH Reporters: Obama Disliked Press, But Trump Bashing Us Poses ‘Serious Danger’ to Our Lives!

Four White House correspondents flew out to Las Vegas for this past week’s 2019 National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Show and, as is usually the case with such public events, journalists offer revealing takes that are both good and bad. Most notably, they condemned the President’s rhetoric toward the media, suggesting it places their lives in “serious danger.”

CEO and former Republican Senator Gordon Smith pivoted to the discussion of media credibility by recalling how he recently gave a speech in his home state of Oregon in which he “decried the notion of the enemy of the people or the fake news and yet, a very distinguished, former supporter of mine — a Republican really chastised me afterward and said you must know that there is an unmitigated kind of bias against Donald Trump and that a lot of what he says is true.”

 

 

Smith then asked colleagues how they grapple with that sentiment and PBS NewsHour’s Yamiche Alcindor emphasized that “it’s a privilege to be a reporter because I think every time I interview somebody, every time I try to write a story, I’m not trying to convince them that we’re right” but that she has “integrity.”

ABC senior White House correspondent Cecilia Vega initially was blunt about being factual and not giving “them...that argument” that they peddle fake news, but then she channeled CNN’s Jim Acosta by talking about how dangerous their lives are because of Trump (click “expand”):

[T]o not screw up. To not get it wrong. To get it right. The bar for us is so high right now. We cannot give them — whoever ‘them’ is — that argument that we’ve screwed it up and it happens, and it will happen again. But, every time we mess up, factually, it gives them ammunition to call us fake news, to call us the enemy of the American people and I’ve got to say, you know, I was at that rally two months ago when a supporter jumped into the stands and clocked a photographer in the head and I have, I’m sure as we all have, looked both ways when I walk outside of the White House gates because you’re like “Who’s out there today? Like, who’s ticked off? Who really thinks we are the American — the enemy of the American people?” There is serious danger in that rhetoric, not just to the people doing the job, but to democracy and the First Amendment and the foundation of our country. It’s very dangerous language. [APPLAUSE]

CBS News Radio’s Steven Portnoy played the role of historian and he actually offered this important point about journalism and the First Amendment’s origins (click “expand”):

It seems to me — basically, we’re talking about the standards of objectivity that we — each of us broadcasters — we subscribe to and why we do. We do it for a number of reasons. We do it because there’s a business imperative behind it because we want to reach the largest possible audience and appeal to the largest number of advertisers. We — and that, by the way, is the historic business model of mainstream American journalism. But it’s not what the First Amendment was written to protect. There was no such thing as independent, objective journalism in 1789. There were pamphleteers and there were party organs. The First Amendment, freedom of press and freedom of speech, was meant to protect the right of authors, writers, the journalists of that era to criticize the government. I strongly believe that no man or woman who hopes to be in power in this country is above being questioned. We are very fortunate to privileged to have the opportunity to ask questions of those who hope to spend our money and wield power in our name. That is our obligation. We, as broadcasters, must remain objective, dispassionate observers, but we must make sure that we hold people to account.

Though Alcindor undercut her point later on, NBC’s Hallie Jackson offered some doses of humility to the mix, admitting that the media have gotten things wrong as of late, that they must avoid speaking in condescending tones, and how they must break out of their New York and Washington bubbles (click “expand”):

[T]here is a moment and we are in this moment where broadcasters have to check themselves and — and figure what we have done wrong because we have done some things wrong and to do better and there are things that we have not succeeded at. I’m talking about over the last four years or so when it comes to sort of a bubble mentality in New York and D.C. That exists. It existed in 2016. It was a big part, I think, of why a lot of folks missed the rise of Donald Trump and I think, and this is something I think about covering every single day in my sort of role covering the White House and then doing the cable news side, which is check your tone. Because there is so much, I think, of what people in the media say that viewers take offense to not because of the facts and not because of what you’re saying but how you’re saying and I get it. Snark sells. That’s a thing, right? That’s the click on Twitter. That’s the thing that somebody’s going to click on your link for or watch your show for, but it’s not — it’s not what we are on this stage to do and to talk about and it’s something that I think about every single day. Every time I open my mouth of “are you — are you hitting the right tone?”

Smith then claimed that, in knowing Barack Obama, “I remember there was a lot times he was actually troubled by his coverage to the point where he literally wrote you off.” With that in mind, Obama was either lying or denying reality about how much the press adored him.

Later, Smith observed that “[t]here is a line, it seems to me, that you have to walk all the time and tell me if I’m right or wrong where you have to report the story without becoming the story,” and how, without naming him, Acosta has been someone “who seemed to cross that line and become the story or want to become the story.”

Vega first replied that the Trump has “unwilling...turned us into the story by the manner in which he speaks to us or the tone or the language or the words he’s used” but her mindset is to persist with the questioning. 

She then seemed to take a shot at Acosta being a carnival barker relishing the fight (click “expand”):

It’s not about you getting in the mud with the President. It’s about you getting your question answered and if you get in the mud and some of our colleagues do and have and that’s their style. It’s not mine. You’re — I don’t think I’m going to get my question answered. I think it becomes this antagonistic thing and — and it’s a clip for TV and that’s not why I’m there. I’m there to get my questions answered. You’d asked if we feel the need to defend each other, I think what we do and we do well as a press corps, particularly in this one where I say, in some ways, you know, it is very cutthroat, but there is this sense of unity because it has become — not by our choice and us against them sort of situation where it’s not a “I’m going to defend you when the President picks on you or attacks you.” It’s “if you didn’t get your question answered, it’s my responsibility to pick up that question and carry on where you left off” and I think that people do that here. 

Amusingly, Smith followed up by wondering if reporters “coordinate” their questions and all four vehemently interjected to deny that’s ever the case. Okay, sure, guys. You must have been asleep.

But just as one thought it’d be an hour with moments of common sense and humility, things can evaporate with Portnoy rallying to Acosta’s side when the White House yanked his credentials:

I was very proud to see the White House Correspondents Association join CNN when it sued the government when a CNN reporter did have his pass yanked after an incident and the association filed an amicus brief and it was joined by most — all of our organizations, including Fox News because, at that moment, what we’re talking about is the action of the federal government of the United States to strip a reporter of his access in a punitive matter without any due process and the principle has to apply in perpetuity[.]

To see the relevant transcript from the 2019 NAB Show, click “expand.”

NAB Show 2019
April 9, 2019
28:03 mark

GORDON SMITH: At one — you know, we’re one of your trade associations. NAB stands four square for the First Amendment and the right of the press to report the truth and call out falsehoods and do investigative journalism. We feel that in our bones and I made a comment like that in a group of my former supporters and I — you know, I decried the notion of the enemy of the people or the fake news and yet, a very distinguished, former supporter of mine — a Republican really chastised me afterward and said you must know that there is an unmitigated kind of bias against Donald Trump and that a lot of what he says is true. I’m not saying that’s true, but I know how deeply the feeling is setting into the American people that — that the media’s credibility is — is in questioning. I’m not questioning it, but I am saying that is out there and do you have — each of you, I’d love to get your response, do you feel your sense of I’ve got to help fix this or am I really that prejudiced against Obama or how tethered am I to the truth? Is there any credibility I need to help push back on.

YAMICHE ALCINDOR: I would say this as someone who covered race for a long time, and as someone who went to African American neighborhoods who had the feeling that media never covered those directly, had the feeling that — that if a shooting happened, the media would automatically believe that the police's side and not listen to the community side. I think for a long time, people have doubted the media and I think that’s why, at the beginning of this, I said it’s a privilege to be a reporter because I think every time I interview somebody, every time I try to write a story, I’m not trying to convince them that we’re right. But I am trying to convince them that I as an individual have integrity, and I as an individual cannot wake up in the morning to write fake stories. So there’s this sense that, in politics, we have to call out Donald Trump when he’s not telling the truth, but we also have to remind people that even if you write all these stories about him not telling the truth, there are a lot of people who believe what he’s saying because they simply don’t trust us and I think that’s something we shouldn’t ever lose sight of because I think there is this idea, you go in as a national reporter, that people should automatically take your side. People should automatically believe the story that you spent six months on when, in reality, I would say long before Donald Trump, there were whole communities who did not believe a lot of the things that the media was saying.

SMITH: I’d love to get each of you to respond. What is your responsibility? What is the — what do you sense is the right response to this critical time for the credibility of the media?

CECILIA VEGA: to not screw up. To not get it wrong. To get it right. The bar for us is so high right now. We cannot give them — whoever ‘them’ is — that argument that we’ve screwed it up and it happens, and it will happen again. But, every time we mess up, factually, it gives them ammunition to call us fake news, to call us the enemy of the American people and I’ve got to say, you know, I was at that rally two months ago when a supporter jumped into the stands and clocked a photographer in the head and I have, I’m sure as we all have, looked both ways when I walk outside of the White House gates because you’re like “Who’s out there today? Like, who’s ticked off? Who really thinks we are the American — the enemy of the American people?” There is serious danger in that rhetoric, not just to the people doing the job, but to democracy and the First Amendment and the foundation of our country. It’s very dangerous language. [APPLAUSE]

STEVEN PORTNOY: I think about this every hour of every day and I think of it from a historical perspective. It seems to me — basically, we’re talking about the standards of objectivity that we — each of us broadcasters — we subscribe to and why we do. We do it for a number of reasons. We do it because there’s a business imperative behind it because we want to reach the largest possible audience and appeal to the largest number of advertisers. We — and that, by the way, is the historic business model of mainstream American journalism. But it’s not what the First Amendment was written to protect. There was no such thing as independent, objective journalism in 1789. There were pamphleteers and there were party organs. The First Amendment, freedom of press and freedom of speech, was meant to protect the right of authors, writers, the journalists of that era to criticize the government. I strongly believe that no man or woman who hopes to be in power in this country is above being questioned. We are very fortunate to privileged to have the opportunity to ask questions of those who hope to spend our money and wield power in our name. That is our obligation. We, as broadcasters, must remain objective, dispassionate observers, but we must make sure that we hold people to account. That’s why people come to us. That’s why they listen on the hour, that’s they watch ABC World News Tonight, or Nightly News and PBS NewsHour. They want the report. We give them the report. As long as we keep doing that, we’ll be fine.

SMITH: Hallie, what is your north star in this? 

HALLIE JACKSON: The whole part — I vehemently with what my colleagues have said on the stage. I will say, though, and I will say in addition to that, that there is a moment and we are in this moment where broadcasters have to check themselves and — and figure what we have done wrong because we have done some things wrong and to do better and there are things that we have not succeeded at. I’m talking about over the last four years or so when it comes to sort of a bubble mentality in New York and D.C. That exists. It existed in 2016. It was a big part, I think, of why a lot of folks missed the rise of Donald Trump and I think, and this is something I think about covering every single day in my sort of role covering the White House and then doing the cable news side, which is check your tone. Because there is so much, I think, of what people in the media say that viewers take offense to not because of the facts and not because of what you’re saying but how you’re saying and I get it. Snark sells. That’s a thing, right? That’s the click on Twitter. That’s the thing that somebody’s going to click on your link for or watch your show for, but it’s not — it’s not what we are on this stage to do and to talk about and it’s something that I think about every single day. Every time I open my mouth of “are you — are you hitting the right tone?” Because I do think it’s sometimes less about the actual facts. I think that when you explain to folks, “hey, here’s how it is. Here’s x, y, and z.” But if you say it in a kind of nasty way, that does undermine your credibility.

SMITH: Well and I think lest we be picking on Donald Trump here. Since George Washington’s time, there’s been a tension,.

JACKSON: Right. 

SMITH: Between the media and the press and I remember I served with Barack Obama. I regard him as a friend. We did some great things together and yet, I remember there was a lot times he was actually troubled by his coverage to the point where he literally wrote you off. Do you remember that? 

ALCINDOR: I didn’t cover Obama.

SMITH: You didn’t?

JACKSON: I mean, every president doesn’t like the media.

ALCINDOR: Yeah.

JACKSON: No president looks and goes to the media and goes, “hey, I loved that piece you did on the thing that I did wrong. Like, nobody says that. That doesn’t actually happen. So, that’s not a new thing. What is new is what Cecilia has talked about, which is the level of rhetoric coming from the White House and the President very freely has sort of talked about it and has shifted from saying “fake news” this is a subtle nuance, but it’s important. “Fake news is the enemy of the people” to “all news is the enemy of the people.” There’s no longer that distinction being drawn. I think that is in vivid relief when he is on the world stage, when any president is on a world stage and we’ve all traveled internationally together and with the President and there is a difference in sort of the way that you talk about the media when you’re outside the bounds of home, if you will. So that is a change.

ALCINDOR: I will also this. I think that you can’t also — I think — all of what Hallie said is right. I think you also have to add to that that there have been personal interactions where friends — friend — people that I regard as friends have been personally insulted by the President, but I think you also have to check your tone which is, at the end of the day, I don’t take anything personal because I’m here to do a job and as someone who — I’ll say, from my background, I was raised by Haitian immigrants, they were like, “you are here to do a job.” I feel a deep sense of privilege every time I walk in the White House to really think, “okay, why am I here? Why are you doing this right now?” And because I’m someone who didn’t cover politics for a long time, I think that same sense of getting it right needs to be spread out across all beats. I think when you’re a police reporter in Chicago or a science reporter in Miami, you should be thinking “how am I really making sure that I’m getting this right and how am I making sure that I’m not adding to this sense that people think that the media has somehow already written the story before they’ve ever talked to anybody.

SMITH: There is a line, it seems to me, that you have to walk all the time and tell me if I’m right or wrong where you have to report the story without becoming the story.

PORTNOY: Yeah.

SMITH: And I had — this is my own personal reaction. It’s not so much a criticism as it is an observation that there was a scene at the White House. I suspect you were all there where there was a CNN reporter who seemed to cross that line and become the story or want to become the story. Do you feel an obligation to defend each other when you’ve — when you’re attacked or someone else is attacked by the President? And what keeps you from going over to that line where you are the story as opposed to what you’re covering.

VEGA: We can speak., I think — most of us — 

JACKSON: I think you can. Right. Right.

PORTNOY: Literally

VEGA: — first-hand experience where you — we — have become the story unwillingly. The President has turned us into the story by the manner in which he speaks to us or the tone or the language or the words he’s used, but we all — 

JACKSON: But let me just jump in because Cecilia and Yamiche both have had moments where, Cecilia — 

VEGA: — right.

JACKSON — the President seemed to say that you were stupid. 

PORTNOY: Or you never think

JACKSON: Right.

VEGA [TO ALCINDOR]: Yeah and you’re a racist, right?

JACKSON: And these two and I would just say — 

VEGA [TO ALCINDOR]: Yours was a woman one.

JACKSON: But they’re in these moments in these press conferences — yours was in the Rose Garden because I was behind you and yours was in the Rose — in the East Room, right? And I was down from you and both of you handled that, I thought, with such grace and class because you — you pushed on your question and the facts that you were trying to get out of — but that can be a difficult moment.

VEGA: Well, that’s all you can do, is to keep going because you’ve got to do your job. It’s not about you getting in the mud with the President. It’s about you getting your question answered and if you get in the mud and some of our colleagues do and have and that’s their style. It’s not mine. You’re — I don’t think I’m going to get my question answered. I think it becomes this antagonistic thing and — and it’s a clip for TV and that’s not why I’m there. I’m there to get my questions answered. You’d asked if we feel the need to defend each other, I think what we do and we do well as a press corps, particularly in this one where I say, in some ways, you know, it is very cutthroat, but there is this sense of unity because it has become — not by our choice and us against them sort of situation where it’s not a “I’m going to defend you when the President picks on you or attacks you.” It’s “if you didn’t get your question answered, it’s my responsibility to pick up that question” and carry on where you left off and I think that people do that here. 

SMITH: So you do coordinate in that way? 

VEGA: No, It’s not coordination.

PORTNOY: No, no, no.

VEGA: It’s just instinctive and collegial.

PORTNOY: Right.

SMITH: But you have a sense of what needs to be answered —

VEGA: Yeah, I think we all have a clear sense of what the story of the day is, yeah. I mean —

SMITH: — and you just intuitively know. 

PORTNOY: I was just going to say that, you know, in as much as we do act in a collective way, it was — I was very proud to see the White House Correspondents Association join CNN when it sued the government when a CNN reporter did have his pass yanked after an incident and the association filed an amicus brief and it was joined by most — all of our organizations, including Fox News because, at that moment, what we’re talking about is the action of the federal government of the United States to strip a reporter of his access in a punitive matter without any due process and the principle has to apply in perpetuity and, in fact, the case was thrown out by a judge who the President had appointed because the basis of an appeals court case in the 1970s that actually was in the same circuit that basically said that, you know, you can’t just decide you didn’t like the question or the way that the question was you asked. You can’t — the government can’t act that way. 

SMITH: Right. 

PORTNOY: And, so, I was very proud to see the association step up.

NBDaily Media Bias Debate Trump-Russia probe ABC CBS NBC PBS Jim Acosta Cecilia Vega Hallie Jackson Yamiche Alcindor Donald Trump
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