Terry Press on How the "Media Bubble" Became Her Support Group During the Trump Era (Guest Column)

Terry Press Nicolle Wallace
Courtesy of Terry Press

Nicolle Wallace (left) and Terry Press (right) on the set of Wallace’s MSNBC show 'Deadline: White House' in April 2019.

The veteran marketing executive and former CBS Films chief opens up about her devotion to the news "peeps" who helped "this scarred citizen" make sense of chaos and had her scrambling for a Slingbox at international film festivals and tracking their personal lives: "Is it time to say goodbye?"

I blame Frank Capra and John Ford and Aaron Sorkin … and even Steven Spielberg.

Because of them, my idea of American politics was forever captured by the image of a rumpled Jimmy Stewart standing up to the forces of evil in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or, more recently, the decency of President Bartlet in West Wing. I worked on the marketing campaign for Lincoln. It must be a failure of imagination that not once during this administration did Donald Trump — who absurdly insists he’s done more for Black Americans than any president with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln — remind me of the Lincoln that Steven and Tony Kushner brought to the screen, much less the stoic hero of John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln.

Instead, these past four years, I found myself constantly panicking that I was trapped in a combination of Being There, Gaslight (isn’t that the original “alternative facts” film?) and The Truman Show. Every day brought some event that seemed to be from a Will Ferrell comedy, except it was real. The orange glow and red menace emanating from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was infinitely more frightening than any horror movie.

It took me about a year just to process that this country had elected the host of a reality television show — thanks Mark Burnett! — to the highest office in the land. Eventually, I realized I was going to have to get some kind of help to make it through. Paying a therapist to complain about the president seemed indulgent. So I looked for some sort of support group. I found my peeps by becoming completely obsessed with those Trump had proclaimed to be the “enemy of the people” — the media, specifically the journalists who cover politics.

Ironically, I had never watched much cable news before the November 2016 presidential contest, much less MSNBC. I would turn on CNN if there was an earthquake, or to watch the coverage of something like Princess Di’s funeral. But about a month after the election, I happened upon Brian Williams’ 8 p.m. show that was everything the other cable news shows weren't. Nobody was yelling or talking over each other like they did every night on CNN. I know Brian Williams made a big mistake years ago, and I am sure the gods at NBC News thought sending him over to their cable channel was some kind of punishment. But I think it was fate. His exile to MSNBC happened exactly when a lot of people needed him to display his calm, classic anchor demeanor. The 11th Hour is my Must-See TV. Until Nov. 3, 2020, he started each show with a countdown to the election, which gave me hope. My devotion to his show knew no borders. A Slingbox got me through film festivals in foreign countries. If I got up at 8 a.m. in Cannes, I could watch the 11 pm rebroadcast from the previous night.

Because of Williams’ show, I literally started to feel like I was on a first-name basis with dozens of journalists and talking heads. Obviously, I had spent years dealing with entertainment journalists, but this group seemed to have a much bigger challenge: dealing with a leader of the free world who thought nothing of spewing a blizzard of lies every day. Day in and day out, their pursuit of the truth seemed heroic and exhausting. For the record, finger-waggers and well-meaning loved ones often pointed out that I was living in a media bubble, which I freely admitted.

For the past four years, I have spent hundreds and hundreds of hours consuming the work — both literary and televised — of political writers and pundits. In the same way that millions of people find escape in soap operas (“the stories”) that are populated by time-tested characters, the daily ticker tape of news was my soap opera. I quickly became attached to a group of “characters” that I depended on every day to get me through what felt like unending darkness. During COVID-19, I lost track of grosses but I could tell you Betsy Woodruff had married Jonathan Swan from Axios and they had a baby and that Ashley Parker and Kasie Hunt were growing their hair out and that Eugene Robinson has the best book library in his Zoom shot and that I think Alexi McCammond at Axios has ridiculously incredible hair to match her ridiculously incredible work ethic.

Among the MSNBC crew, I am pretty sure I have spent more time with Jonathan Lemire than any of my immediate relatives. A day simply goes better if I get to visit with Philip Rucker, Ashley Parker, A.B. Stoddard (queen of statement necklaces), John Heilemann (the Addison DeWitt of correspondents), Yamiche Alcindor (hands-down winner of the best wardrobe of all White House reporters), Peter Baker (half of the ultimate brainiac couple of Baker and Susan Glasser, although she seems to appear more on CNN), and the ever-shrinking Robert Costa who should seriously get rid of the Washington Post pillow in his Zoom shot.

Sometime in mid-2017, I became a ridiculously enthralled fan girl of Nicolle Wallace, who, because she had been a Republican political operative, seemed to have an enormous amount of credibility. Nicolle’s MSNBC show Deadline: White House, launched in May of that year, became appointment television. For months, my co-workers knew that if they wanted to find me, all they had to do was come down to my office at 1 p.m. because I never took any lunches. Her show introduced me to even more political pundits — whom quickly imagined I could be best friends with — but not in a creepy, Rupert Pupkin, stalker kind of way. I thought about driving to Missouri to meet former Sen. Claire McCaskill, who I think should have her own podcast, television show and radio station. I have no idea how she voted while in office, but she is heaven, and she always has some kind of baked goods in her background Zoom shot. I would then continue my road trip to Nashville, where I would hopefully run into presidential historian Jon Meacham, who seems to have endless knowledge, ridiculous charm, and the ability to pump out best-sellers with ease. My husband, Andy (who has been remarkably tolerant during these media-soaked years), jokes that he wished I looked at him the way I gaze at the screen when Meacham shows up. A crush can make you do strange things, like buy 10 copies of his book about country music (co-written with Tim McGraw).

Nicolle was one of a group of ex-Republicans whom I adopted as make-believe friends: Tim O’Brien of Bloomberg, we missed you when you left for the short period during your boss’ presidential run; Charlie Sykes, you go, Bulwark!; Tim Miller, you are funnier than most of the Hollywood writers who are paid $$$ to pen funny dialogue; Elizabeth Neumann, so brave and always with a perfect strand of pearls; and Olivia Troye, who crashed out of the administration just in time to tell us that Dr. Strangelove was unfolding daily inside the people’s house. Michael Steele is the personification of the adult in the room, but he also says exactly what we are all thinking. David Jolly, a former Republican congressman, can be coolly devastating. The Republicans remind me of the French Resistance guys and gals in '40s Warner Bros. movies: noble, brave and willing to put country over party. And they understand communication way better than Democrats. They know how to craft a soundbite. Stuart Stevens and Mike Murphy are wildly entertaining, but nobody on any cable channel or network captured my complete admiration like the guys from The Lincoln Project. Rick Wilson, who writes for The Daily Beast, is a Southern wise ass with a maniacal commitment to stopping Trump and Trumpism. But when it comes to punditry, Steve Schmidt is in a category all his own. Steve Schmidt doesn’t talk. He preaches. He uses a hypnotic combination of historical knowledge, blistering vocabulary and oratory skills to such profound effect that you not only believe what he is saying, you understand how guys like him could get mid-level politicians elected to the highest office in the land.

I also had my faves at CNN — shout out to John King and Dana Bash (winner of best jewelry collection of any anchor) and the impeccable Abby Phillip. I was kind of sad when Trump stopped having daily press conferences because it was worth the price of admission to watch Kaitlin Collins demonstrate that nothing and nobody, including POTUS, was going to keep her from forcefully looking for answers. CNN also seems to have an exclusive contract with The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman, the POTUS whisperer who can discuss the Trump circus with an even-handedness that is admirable and seems superhuman.

So now that Joe has been elected, I must ask the dreaded question — is it time to say goodbye to my group? How do I stop waking up at 3 a.m. to watch Morning Joe? Should I take my 11th Hour iPhone case off now? Or can we still keep meeting like this until at least Jan. 21? In any event, this scarred citizen thanks all of you for your hard work and dedication. And Claire, if you see a strange, middle-aged woman standing in your front yard, it's probably yours truly.