For TV news anchors, the Trump era has turned the workplace into a minefield of combative interviews, “alternative facts,” Twitter mobs and out-of-the-blue calls from the Oval Office. “At what point, when a White House [official] or a member of Congress refuses to accept reality, do you say, ‘You’re not allowed to come on [our show] anymore’?” asks George Stephanopoulos, 56, who as anchor of ABC’s Good Morning America and This Week has sparred on-air with Trump officials (and received calls from the president himself). “We put them on, we challenge them, but then you’re also facing the question of: Is this really serving [our viewers] by allowing falsehoods to propagate?”
The situation in Washington has made “every day feel like Monday,” says Jake Tapper, 48, who anchors CNN’s The Lead and State of the Union and had a memorably uncomfortable encounter with Vice President-elect Mike Pence in December.
When Tapper and Stephanopoulos joined Fox News’ Bret Baier, 46; Savannah Guthrie, 45, of NBC’s Today; and CBS This Morning‘s Gayle King, 62, for THR‘s first Anchor Roundtable on March 21, Trump’s penchant for ad hominem attacks (declaring the media the “enemy of the American people!”) was a recurring theme. And as some of the most prominent voices of their besieged profession, these leaders acknowledged that the stakes are only rising as “fake news” proliferates and “the price for making a mistake now is incredibly high.”
What is the biggest crisis facing journalism in the 21st century?
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS The fact that so few people believe us. That they’re looking for narratives that reinforce their beliefs rather than challenge them.
BRET BAIER Trust.
SAVANNAH GUTHRIE Credibility.
BAIER People want to turn to someplace they feel they can get the straight scoop. There’s so much online that is bombarding people every day.
JAKE TAPPER There are news sources that are just out-and-out lies coming from Europe, coming from other parts of the world …
GAYLE KING … coming from people’s basements. [They] are putting things out that have no resemblance to reality.
What do you do when you’re reporting something that might not, as George noted, align with what somebody wants to believe?
STEPHANOPOULOS The most important thing we can do is to get things right. Be absolutely accurate, absolutely factual, because we know — we all know it — the price for making a mistake now is incredibly high.
GUTHRIE There is definitely, in some corners of the media, an emphasis on snark. We can’t forget that we are journalists and we’re supposed to be neutral.
BAIER And if one side gets over their skis on something, [is] a little bit more aggressive, passionate, opinionated, then it empowers the other side.
GUTHRIE Consumers also have to think about how they are consuming the news. I mean, it’s not bias if you point out that when [White House press secretary] Sean Spicer says Paul Manafort played a limited role in the campaign, the natural retort is, “Well, he was the chairman of the campaign.” Those are just facts.
KING There were always two sides to every story. Lately, though, it seems like three or four sides.
STEPHANOPOULOS I’m not sure there always are two sides to every story. I think that is actually one of the challenges we’re dealing with right now. How do you contend with a situation where we know there is a true [side] and we know that there is a false one?
KING George, I’m not saying that [the administration’s] side is the truth, but they do believe that they have another point of view. And it’s OK for them to put out their point of view. But it’s upon us to say, “OK, but this is also what is happening here, this is really the true story.”
We now have the president saying things that the FBI director and NSA chief are saying …
STEPHANOPOULOS You can say it. They’re not true. (Laughter.) OK? They’re not true.
KING There is not another side to that.
STEPHANOPOULOS It’s not true that President Obama ordered a wiretap on President Trump.
But do you feel pressure to walk that line, to take into account the people who want to believe what the president says?
STEPHANOPOULOS I don’t think that’s our job.
KING I don’t know if “pressure” is the word, either.
BAIER But they’re going to get a response. This is what the FBI director says, this is what the NSA director says, what does the administration say? You have to factor that in.
GUTHRIE To George’s point, the president says he was wiretapped; all evidence is that he was not. That’s not one where you feel a ton of pressure to be seeking the other side because, as it turns out, there is no other side.
STEPHANOPOULOS But that leads to a secondary challenge for us. At what point, when the White House, a member of Congress, a senator, refuses to accept reality, at what point do you say, “You’re not allowed to come on anymore”? It’s not serving our viewers to allow people to come on and say things that are not true. We’re all dealing with it. We put them on, we challenge them, but then you’re also facing the question of: Is this really helping people by allowing falsehoods to propagate?
TAPPER We all know members of the House and Senate — especially the House — who are just crazy and say things that aren’t true, Democrats and Republicans. I’m sure we’re probably all thinking of some of the same people. (Laughter.) And typically we don’t have them on our shows. But there’s a difference when it’s the White House or somebody who is definitely a big player.
George and Savannah, you both had contentious interviews with Sarah Huckabee Sanders about the wiretap issue. What’s the fallout after those interviews?
GUTHRIE This is where it’s like the “Choose Your Own Adventure” on Twitter if you dare to read your tweets after you conduct a political interview. (Laughter.) I can’t really recommend it for your mental health. But you will have some people say, “Why can’t you ask a hard question of those people? Do your job! You just lay down for their lies!” And the other one will say, “You are so biased! I can’t believe that you are so in the tank!” Sometimes I want to do a screen grab and be like, “You guys should meet.”
STEPHANOPOULOS What you need to do is not read it! (Laughter.)
BAIER It’s a dark place.
KING It is hard not to read it.
GUTHRIE Honestly, I’m interested in constructive feedback. I’m not a perfect person. I want to know, was I fair? Did that come off in a way that didn’t seem straightforward? I’d like to know. But fair criticism is in short supply in that particular medium.
STEPHANOPOULOS You have to log far more time now in order to get anything done over the course of the interview. We usually do two to four minutes on Good Morning America. We’ve had to double that.
GUTHRIE Yeah, us too.
STEPHANOPOULOS And you can still maybe not get anything done.
KING It’s important to be more focused, too. Because there are so many different elements going on at the same time, and if you try to hit all of them, you go nowhere.
TAPPER One of the things that I have found myself more willing to do is have an interview and bear down enough that it’s possible that person won’t ever come back. It’s an ugly reality of what we do; even though you want to challenge them, you don’t want to piss them off so they boycott you for years or forever. When I interviewed Vice President Pence in December, it was the morning that they had just fired [former National Security Adviser] Mike Flynn’s even less tethered son, Mike Jr., from the transition team. [Mike Jr.] had been putting out crazy tweets about pizzagate and all this other nonsense. And they had put in for a security clearance for him. And the vice president wouldn’t answer the question. I tried to be polite about it, but I kept asking him about it because a guy with a gun had just walked into the pizza parlor in question in Washington, D.C. But I knew that [Pence] might not ever come back again. And indeed, he has not.
BAIER You have to pick the hills that you die on. Because people at home look at it and say, “Why are you focusing on this? I care about my job, I care about my health care.” You heard that through the campaign. And I think that sometimes we get [so focused] on what’s happening day to day in Washington that we forget about bouncing around to those small markets in Michigan and Ohio and Wisconsin.
The 2016 campaign was unprecedented and long …
STEPHANOPOULOS Every day is unprecedented. (Laughter.)
There’s been a lot of criticism about the way the campaigns were covered. What would you do differently?
TAPPER More policy.
BAIER I’d focus less on polls.
TAPPER Looking forward to the 2018 [midterms] and 2020, one thing that I want to do more of are pieces highlighting policy differences.
STEPHANOPOULOS Well, except that was a challenge, too. On any given issue, it was actually often quite difficult to figure out what President Trump’s policy was.
KING And policy was always changing.
STEPHANOPOULOS We all drilled down in interviews; how is the wall going be paid for, what exactly are you saying about health care, how are you going to cover everybody? And [we] would get contradictory answers. Or no answers.
TAPPER Let’s say going forward, Republican X has a 10-point plan for dealing with the opioid crisis and Democrat Y has nothing, just a lot of rhetoric. Maybe there is a way for us to highlight that better.
BAIER Yeah, but we all missed it. We all missed the whole thing, I think, collectively. We didn’t see all the people who said, “Neither side is working, kick the table over and start over, I’m for change, even this change.” When I was on my 12th Uber driver of all different races and backgrounds [saying] that they were voting for Trump, in different places around the country …
KING Also the crowd size, too, guys. At 1, 2 in the morning, the [crowds] that turned out for Donald Trump were a very big indication that I don’t think enough of us paid attention to.
TAPPER I agree 100 percent. We would see tens of thousands of people in the middle of a very rural area at midnight to see then-candidate Trump, versus a school in a very populous area outside Philadelphia at 2 in the afternoon to see Hillary Clinton, and there’s like 100 people.
BAIER And the Clinton campaign said they liked the intimate setting. It just didn’t sell that well. (Laughter.)
What is your tactic for getting a reticent interview subject to open up?
BAIER Hone the question tight enough so that they don’t have the exit ramp to the traditional talking point.
KING They’re there because they want to be interviewed. Nobody is strapping them to the chair. I do believe that any question can be asked, there’s just a way to ask it respectfully [so] people can walk out with their dignity intact.
GUTHRIE In law school, if you wrote a legal brief and never addressed the strongest counter argument against your position, you would get an F. You’re not persuasive if you haven’t answered the primary critique against you. So if I’m asking a difficult question, I view it as an opportunity to give a compelling rebuttal. [If] they hit it out of the park, well, now their position is that much stronger. They may not view it that way.
What’s the worst interview you’ve ever done?
KING Frank Zappa. [It was] years ago, and [two of] his children’s names are Dweezil and Moon Unit. We talked about music, and then I said, “You know, I’m just so curious about the story behind your children’s names.” And he said, “They’re names, just like Gayle.” And I go, “Well, I’ve heard some other Gayles, I don’t know any Dweezils and Moon Units.” And he goes, “Well they’re names, just like the name Gayle.” He was so combative. And I’m thinking, “Frank, I’m just here to help you promote your damn concert.”
GUTHRIE When I first started at the Today show, I interviewed Khloe Kardashian, and it was at 8:30 or something. And on these morning shows, you have to hit the time exactly.
KING Yes, because you’re shut off by the computer if not.
GUTHRIE Right, because the local news comes in. So there had been some rumor somewhere that maybe Robert Kardashian wasn’t Khloe’s father. I didn’t want to ask it, but I kind of felt like, ugh, I guess I should. So I saved it to the very end. They were literally counting me down, 10, nine, eight. … I was like, “And just one other thing, is Robert Kardashian really your father?” She’s like, “Yup!” And I was like, “And we’re back after your local news!” (Laughter.) And Matt [Lauer, Guthrie’s Today co-anchor] gave me such a hard time.
STEPHANOPOULOS You could go back to my first two years of GMA, take anything from the second hour …
TAPPER Actors are tough because they’re not used to challenging questions — other than from paparazzi. And so you just ask one perfectly legitimate question, but one that they’re not comfortable answering, and all of a sudden they look at you and you’re the paparazzi.
Donald Trump has been known to call reporters. Has he ever called any of you?
STEPHANOPOULOS Oh yeah.
TAPPER Yep. As candidate.
STEPHANOPOULOS I got one as president-elect. And again, it just shows how closely he watches these things. It was right before the inauguration. I was on with [ABC News White House correspondent] Jon Karl, it was when George H.W. Bush was in the hospital. This is a 90-second two-way on GMA, we pointed out that George H.W. Bush didn’t vote for him. Bam. He calls up two hours later. He read Bush’s letter [apologizing for missing the inauguration] to us over the phone and said, “I just wanted you to know this.”
KING And what was your response?
STEPHANOPOULOS I kept him on the phone as long as I could, you know? (Laughter.)
BAIER He used to call about polls at the beginning of the race when he was kind of low in the polls. He’d [say], “Where’s this poll?” And, “You’re putting out the wrong poll.”
STEPHANOPOULOS Polls and ratings. He would call after the Sunday show and say, “How did you do,” or “Did I put you over the top?”
GUTHRIE In 2011, when he was flirting with the run, Chuck [Todd, NBC’s political director] and I used to have [an MSNBC] show, so we’d sometimes mention him, and he would call us and be kind of irritated if he didn’t feel like we were taking it seriously. And I don’t think it was Trump, but somebody from the Trump Organization forwarded us some Apprentice ratings as proof, I guess, of his political viability.
KING He is very ferocious about his children. I got a call from [someone in] his office; “Mr. Trump wants to get in touch with you. What’s the best address?” And he ended up sending me a picture and a note about an interview I’d done with Ivanka, just to say how much he enjoyed that.
Bret, what’s it like to have Rupert Murdoch running the morning meetings at Fox News?
BAIER I don’t deal with him day to day [because] my show [is] in D.C. He is a news guy at heart, and he has pledged to really pump up the news side of the operation, which is great for people like me.
You worked with Megyn Kelly for a long time, Bret. Now Savannah is going to begin working with Megyn. What is the one thing Savannah should know about Megyn?
BAIER She has an amazing sense of humor. And she can cut up, like just suddenly turn it on.
GUTHRIE She and I have a lot in common, actually. We both went to law school and then ran screaming for our lives away from the law. We both came up in D.C. But yeah, we’re excited to have her. I think she’s going to be great. We feel lucky. We feel like it was a great get.
KING Well, not if you believe what we’re reading in the papers.
GUTHRIE Well, I appreciate that, Gayle! You need to read a better paper. (Laughter.)
BAIER There is fake news out there, Gayle.
GUTHRIE Yes, there is.
KING So I’ve heard. (Laughter.) But Megyn Kelly is terrific. I’m excited that she’s coming back on TV.
Final question: Who would you most like to interview?
GUTHRIE [FBI Director] James Comey.
KING Comey and O.J. Simpson if he would tell the truth.
BAIER Pope Francis. If [he would] really talk. You’ve got a lot of Catholics out there; it might be good ratings.
STEPHANOPOULOS Oh, today you’ve got to go talk to Vladimir Putin.
TAPPER Are these interviews-interviews or are they sodium pentothal interviews? (Laughter.) I mean, as long as we’re doing a dream [interview], a Putin interview with sodium pentothal would be fantastic.
This story first appeared in the April 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.