Andrew Tyndall on Media's Lessons From Trump's Presser: Keep Questions Simple, Seek Specifics

Donald Trump Press Conference 2 - Getty - H 2017
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Next time around, reporters should agree that all questions will be single-part, will require yes-no answers or will seek specific factual information, writes the news analyst.

The major news generated by Donald Trump’s first press conference since he was elected president was the question that was not asked. Trump went out of his way to get into a shouting match with Jim Acosta of CNN. Instead of taking Acosta’s question, Trump blackballed him.

Thus the press operation of the incoming White House laid down a marker. Its arsenal of media-management techniques will include the weapons of vendetta and disqualification. And disqualification as a tactic will not be reserved for news operations on the fringes, or those that have a clear partisan ax to grind, or those whose journalistic practices are clearly questionable.

No, the signal was sent, this White House will be willing, even eager, to take on the most established and centrist of the mainstream media. Even CNN, the self-styled most trusted name in news.

Talk about ingratitude. The hours of free airtime lavished on the Trump campaign by Jeff Zucker’s network during the primary season — when Trump’s main task was to project himself as prominent amid his undifferentiated Republican rivals — did not earn CNN the mere courtesy of a simple question.

The snub of CNN from the president-elect was no fit of pique in the heat of the press conference. It was no spur-of-the-moment reaction to Acosta’s shouting. Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, had announced his disapproval of CNN at the start of proceedings when he introduced his boss. In doing so, Spicer misleadingly conflated two separate pieces of reporting — by CNN and by BuzzFeed.

CNN’s exclusive, under a byline that included senior correspondent Jim Sciutto and star anchor Jake Tapper, had reported — accurately, fairly and judiciously — that intelligence briefings about Russian interference in the election delivered both to President Barack Obama and to President-elect Trump had included an addendum that gossip is circulating that the Kremlin had obtained compromising information against Trump.

BuzzFeed’s reporting consisted of a document dump of the underlying opposition's research dossier itself. BuzzFeed provided no guidance about how to read the dossier: what was accurate, what was likely true but unsubstantiated, what was plausible, what was fabricated, what was a deliberate defamatory smear. BuzzFeed’s dump added no journalistic value to the dossier. In fact, it subtracted value by causing confusion.

Thus the incoming White House press operation was mischievous to conflate the two pieces of reporting and devious in making CNN the primary target of its wrath. CNN falsely appeared to be responsible for BuzzFeed’s irresponsibility. And Trump was able to dodge the underlying question of consequence: Namely, was his campaign complicit in the Kremlin’s propaganda campaign against Hillary Clinton?

It turns out that being blackballed by Trump was no calamity for Acosta and his network.

First, the shouting match provided a boost of publicity for the Sciutto-Tapper exclusive. It burnished CNN’s reputation for fearlessness in the face of power. And it sent a clear signal to would-be leakers inside the Trump Administration that CNN will be a go-to place with an open ear for whistleblowers. And given this president — so injudicious, so mercurial, so defiant of tradition — the federal civil service is certain to spring leaks aplenty.

Second, the contretemps set CNN’s Acosta aside from his colleagues in the incoming White House press corps, who were handily outmaneuvered by the show Spicer’s team orchestrated. The array of manilla folders, laid out like so many Trump Steaks at a golf-course country club, became a symbol of Spicer’s determination that this press conference would privilege spectacle over information. The folders were a mere symbol of the wealth and reach of the Trump Organization — not presented in order for their contents to be scrutinized.

This press conference was a display of power, rather than an exchange of information. The shouts of the press corps’ questions were balanced by rounds of applause from the cheering section for Trump’s talking points. The give-and-take momentum of question and answer was stymied by the interruption of a prepared statement from Trump’s corporate lawyer.

And the reporters themselves seemed to have learned nothing about Trump’s techniques for answering questions in the one-on-one sit-down interviews he granted during their impatient six-month wait for this grudgingly granted press conference.

Sure enough, Trump did what he always does: He picks up on one facet of a question — perhaps even something only mentioned in passing — and takes it as his theme for an extended digression on his past achievements and current fixations and future glories. This was made even easier for him by the frustrations of his questioners. Having waited so long to ask anything, they each seemed to try to ask everything.

Posing a four-part series of unrelated open-ended questions with no ability to follow up may feel like getting things off one’s chest. It turns out to be mere catnip for Mr Trump. He picks on the single thing he wanted to expound on, even before the question was asked — and all else is safely ignored.

So, next time around — if there is a next time — Acosta should get together with his colleagues and agree that all questions will be single-part, will require yes-no answers or will seek specific factual information and will be easily followed up by repetition in the face of evasion. These are the style of questions that CNN’s Tapper has developed in his one-on-ones with the president-to-be. Remember Tapper’s stick-to-it attitude concerning Trump’s racist demand for recusal by Judge Gonzalo Curiel.

So, keep it simple and factual:

Which is the most recent year for which your taxes have been audited?
Will you veto a bill to repeal Obamacare that does not include its replacement?
Did your campaign have any contact with the Kremlin?

Or maybe try one asking for an opinion:

Is CNN a fake news operation?

Tyndall is an independent news analyst and publisher of the Tyndall Report.