There is a great scene in “All the President’s Men,” the film about The Washington Post’s reporting that eventually led to Richard Nixon’s resignation as president of the United States. Executive editor Ben Bradlee is talking with reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward about a strange interaction they just had with a source.
“All non-denial denials,” Bradlee says. “They don’t say the story is inaccurate.”
“Did you understand one thing he was saying?” Woodward asks.
“What I can’t figure out is what is a real denial?” Bernstein quips.
“Well if they start calling us goddamn liars, we better start circling the wagons,” Bradlee answers.
I have a picture of Bradlee, Woodward and Bernstein at my desk that I took at an SPJ conference in 2008. I look at that photo every single day and remind myself that some of the most important reporting of the 20th century was done by a couple of stubborn reporters who worked with an uncommonly remarkable editorial staff and owner. It also helps remind me to strive never to take stories at face value.
Those three wise men, as I’ve come to call them, were not the first — or last — reporters to get a non-denial denial from a source. It’s common practice.
A recent, stark example of a non-denial denial is the press conference held by Donald Trump on Jan. 11, before his inauguration. If it is a harbinger of what’s to come, the press is in for a very long four years. It was his first press conference as president-elect, complete with cued music and awkward bursts of applause (six times) and cheering, bizarrely out of place in such a setting.
Most remarkable was the time spent making non-denial denials about a story that had been reported by CNN and BuzzFeed and then picked up by, well, everyone. Trump, Vice President-elect Mike Pence, a lawyer for Trump and press secretary Sean Spicer spent the first 30 minutes of the press conference taking jabs at the press in a backdoor approach to discredit the reporting, not the information reported. The story dealt with a 35-page document claiming that Russia has compromising personal and financial information on Trump. CNN’s report revealed that both Trump and President Obama had received intelligence briefings on the matter. BuzzFeed went deeper, further and more controversial in publishing the entire dossier.
The term “fake news” was repeated 10 times at the press conference. Ultimately, after Trump made disparaging comments about CNN, the news network’s senior white house correspondent, Jim Acosta, attempted to confront him.
“Since you’re attacking us, can you give us a question?” Acosta yelled.
“Your organization is terrible,” Trump replied. The two volleyed back and forth for a few moments until Trump told Acosta twice to be quiet. He then refused to give Acosta a question and lobbed one final insult.
“You are fake news,” Trump said.
The exchange was followed by a bitter string of tweets from Spicer’s account, demanding an apology from Acosta.
The press conference covered a variety of other topics, in relatively vague terms, including the border wall (not the “fence”!) between Mexico and the U.S., the Affordable Care Act, Veterans Affairs, Russia, and the domestic and foreign intelligence communities.
THE DEADLINE TO END ALL DEADLINES
Reporters from around the world seem just as dumbfounded by what to make of the new leader of the free world as many American journalists are.
Nobody wants to speculate about what might happen after the inauguration, or for the four years following it. Ever optimistic that the incoming Trump administration will somehow play by the rules, journalists around the world are working overtime to normalize what has time and again proven to be anything but a normal situation.
There’s a certain decorum that has long been associated with the office of the president of the United States. Regardless of the politics of the person holding that office, a semblance of normalcy and a certain demeanor have long been associated with the position. When President Woodrow Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke in 1919, his wife, Edith, buffered him from the nation and even his own cabinet and Congress while he recovered, giving the appearance that she was delivering and reading to him important papers of state for his review and maintaining the image of a president in power but recovering.
The bottom line is that whatever the U.S. president does, it’s news. There’s no way around that, no denying it, no comparing that position to any other world leader. It is the alpha position of all politicians the world over. The problem with the newest U.S. president is that the alpha is so far from the norm of what Americans and the rest of the world have been accustomed to that it’s hard to see how he or members of his administration will ever be able to steer the ship toward some semblance of normalcy.
That would include, as things relate to the media, basic protocols and traditions that have long been followed by every modern president. Regular press briefings, speeches and press conferences. A presidential reporter pool assigned to follow POTUS. Announcements and interactions made through traditional channels, such as spokesman statements and announcements, press releases and so on.
Trump makes announcements and commentary via Twitter, a practice so unprecedented that there is no protocol to govern his use of social media after he takes office.
Eetta Prince-Gibson is an Israeli freelance journalist who writes about news and politics for domestic and foreign press in both Hebrew and English. She said she’s finding it difficult to come to terms with the new global reality vis-a-vis Trump.
“This has to be some sort of a cosmic joke; this can’t be real,” Prince-Gibson said. “I don’t think we (in the Israeli press) feel much different than the American press, yet we have a job to do.”
She’s worked as a journalist for more than 20 years and said she has been consulting resources from Poynter to study up on tactics for reporting news about Trump. One of those pieces of advice is to “report on what’s not normal.”
But Prince-Gibson said she’s finding it hard to get grounded in any solid approach or tactic.
“How do you do this right?” she said. “I’m reading some of the revelations this morning (on Russian intelligence claims) and I’m thinking ‘Really? How am I supposed to present this?’”
In her opinion, a visit to Israel by Trump would present a “professional and moral quandary” for the Israeli press, given its close economic and cultural ties to America.
For the most part, the lively media scene in Israel is defined by a more individualistic bent, according to which journalist is reporting for which media outlet. That means some outlets will likely embrace what Prince-Gibson describes as the “bromance” between Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Others will likely focus on his opinion about possibly relocating the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, his stance on Israeli settlements in the West Bank and his choice of ambassador as potential threats to a peace process that is already dangling by a very raggedly thin thread.
Then there are the insults, such as Trump’s mocking gestures of a disabled reporter (which Trump has vigorously denied).
“What do you do when somebody comes out with a comment that is absolutely not acceptable in terms of the liberal modern Western values in the broadest sense?” Prince-Gibson said. “As emotional as it is, and as horrible as it is, our job doesn’t change. Our job is to report, to inform readers, to challenge readers through multiple opinions. What’s different is the tone, some of the crudeness and the anti-intellectual bent that’s everywhere in the Western world.”
FROM RUSSIA WITH …?
Some journalists are taking a more tongue-in-cheek approach to looking ahead at the next four years. Alexey Kovalev is a Russian journalist and media analyst who writes about propaganda, fake news and Russian state media on noodleremover.news. The site is in Russian, but on Jan. 12 he posted an essay on his newly created Medium account that reads like satire. Chillingly realistic satire.
Titled “A message to my doomed colleagues in the American media,” the essay explains that the American press is in for a rough ride.
Kovalev describes Trump as “an authoritarian leader with a massive ego and a deep disdain for your trade and everything you hold dear,” then explains that Russian journalists have long experienced the same under Vladimir Putin.
Within two days, the piece had 100,000 views on Medium, according to Kovalev, and was republished on The Huffington Post, where it received hundreds of comments.
“That was actually a bit of a joke, suggested by one of my American colleagues,” Kovalev said. “I didn’t expect it to get so many comments.”
He added that he thought the similarities he pointed out between Trump and Putin — including making press conferences into choreographed media events, showing a blatant disregard for facts, enduring abusive behavior from POTUS himself, and rough jockeying amongst journalists just to get a question in — would have already been obvious to Americans.
“Living in Russia, I somehow myopically assumed that people outside of Russia are following Putin’s press conferences as closely as we do,” he said, adding that Putin holds one major press conference every year. “Everything is focused on Putin and what he says during that four-hour press conference.”
Kovalev predicts that Trump will be a huge hit with the Russian media.
“The first state visit of Donald Trump to Russia will be covered by every state media in Russia; they will heap praise on him,” he said, adding that Trump’s aides have been traveling to Russia “for a couple of months now” and have been treated like “royalty.”
Editorial independence in a country that is dominated by state-controlled and -funded media is going to be a challenge, Kovalev said — particularly given the recent explosion of interest in Russia.
“I can see on Facebook that quite a few of my colleagues are really disillusioned,” he said. “In my decades as a reporter, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Kovalev predicts that Putin might prevail on Trump during his first visit to Moscow to coach Trump on controlling reporters.
“Putin is a huge fan of discipline; you will never see him lash out at reporters at a news conference,” he said. “If you watch Putin’s press conferences, you will see how he deflects questions. One thing you’ll never see is Putin lashing out; he completely destroys you without insulting you. He’ll shred you to pieces just by smirking at you.”
STIFF UPPER LIP
If Trump pays a visit to the U.K., though, he could meet with a much different breed of journalist than he’s accustomed to. British journalist Sophie Cohen reports for Jane’s Intelligence Review and thinks that although the populist movement is well understood in the U.K., Trump may not get a very warm reception.
“Britain is such a traditional place, and it has such set, formulaic structures, and Trump is this kind of an anti-establishment figure,” Cohen said. “They will have a field day.”
Though Cohen notes that British sentiment is generally that Trump could reinvigorate the U.K.’s “special relationship” with the U.S., there might be some awkward moments if there are face-to-face interviews.
“Because of our cultural differences, the tone might be different,” she said. “He might be met with a certain amount of irony, or if he’s rude to British journalists, the reaction might be kind of cutting. I think it will be amusing.”
She added that Brits, and the international press in general, may have unique opportunities to do what the American press can’t, or won’t.
“We have a tabloid culture; the British press aren’t shy at awkward questions,” she said. “There is that element of freedom that the international press has. They don’t need to worry about possible consequences.”
Ultimately, how demanding the British press is of Trump in getting to the hard questions could simply come down to perception.
“He’s not quite taken seriously; he’s seen as a sort of a comic figure,” she said.
Closer to home in Canada, some reporters are wary of what’s in store.
Tom Korski is managing editor of the political electronic daily Blacklock’s Reporter and has been a working journalist for nearly four decades. He said by email that most Canadians rely on American media for their news, so much of the coverage of Trump so far has been of the “chat room variety.”
That could change, though. He describes public sentiment toward the incoming president in somewhat nihilistic terms, saying that there is a “wariness, fascination, a vaguely smug sense of superiority, a nagging fear he will hammer Canadian negotiators in any trade negotiations.”
The real issue in Canada in regard to Trump, according to Korski, is trade.
“Legislators are chewing their fingernails over Trump on trade,” he said. “Millions of Canadians have opposed free trade in the past — 57 percent of voters opposed it in a 1988 general election — but it’s now so accepted as necessary that any revisions are treated like a death in the family. They are truly terrified. I’m serious. Petrified.”
Korski said America’s two-party system, with all its “tribalism” and limitations, is a big part of the problem. But he warned that journalists need to find a way to drown out the noise and just keep at it.
“If I was a managing editor in the states, I would take careful note that a game show host just won an election by campaigning against media as corrupt partisan hacks, and a lot of reporters were so busy feeling sorry for themselves they missed the biggest political story of their generation,” he said.
“The only refuge for reporters is reporting. Drop the sniveling. Get back on the beat.”
Genevieve Belmaker is an editor for Mongabay and a freelancer based in Jerusalem. On Twitter: @Gen_Belmaker