BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jay Rosen teaches journalism at NYU and writes the blog, PressThink.
So do reporters under pressure simply reach reflexively for familiar frames and phrases? For some perspective, we called Glenn Thrush, White House correspondent for The New York Times, who faces deadlines daily and whose reporting with colleague Maggie Haberman has shed much light on an administration in chaos.
GLENN THRUSH: The truth of the matter is, despite their public hostility in the president's own pronouncements, these people are fairly accessible. You know, the issue here, however, isn't so much about their output but about their internal difficulties, and it's the disorganization, more than any sort of organized efforts to oppose us, that really is day to day one of the bigger challenges that we face.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right. You know, Politico observed that, quote, “The great secret of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is that Trump’s war on the media is a phony one that keeps his supporters fired up and distracted, while he woos the constituency that really matters to him, journalists.
GLENN THRUSH: I think we tend to want to compartmentalize things, discern whether his motive is premeditated on something or if it's visceral. The truth of the matter is with Donald Trump the lines are blurred. His relationship with the press, more than anything else, exemplifies that blurring. This is a guy who I think imputes sort of a moral character to reporters. If they are saying [LAUGHS] nice things about him he thinks they are morally good. If they are [LAUGHS] saying negative things, he thinks they are immoral. And, at the same time, he's intensely transactional so the same reporter that he can be browbeating in a public context, he’ll be talking to off the record. So yes, I agree with the fundamental premise that there is a fake element to it, but it all is of a piece with Donald Trump. It’s not so much fake as it is on the continuum of communication.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, this is why Jay Rosen says that journalists need to develop a new lexicon. Journalists, he said, tend to reach for a trusting anodyne phrase like “foreign policy” to describe what Trump is doing when, in fact, it's clear that this president hasn’t actually got a policy. So do you think the media need to start using different vocabulary to present the most accurate picture of what's going on in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?
GLENN THRUSH: Meh! [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Meh, why meh?
GLENN THRUSH: There is a big difference between saying that Donald Trump has a coherent foreign policy versus Donald Trump has a foreign policy that’s cobbled together and, in a lot of instances, borrowed from the staff he empowers, for instance. I mean, there is no more powerful person in this government than Defense Secretary Mattis, no. But I think you have to use these frames. You have to keep him to a standard in which he can be measured against other presidents.
Now, I do agree with Jay that you can't allow President Trump to cloak himself in the dignified adjustments of the presidency, therefore, lending a coherence to his policies that really aren’t there, but I think he needs to be judged on the same scale that we judge everyone else before him, and if we change our language then we change our measurement.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, I think that's a great argument. I wonder if it's a little too facile though. You mentioned James Mattis, for instance. Trump ordered, when he first got there, a plan for dealing with ISIS. Mattis delivered one. People in his office say, as far as they can tell, Trump has never looked at it. If there isn’t a policy or even an effort to create one, haven’t you already, in choosing the word “policy” created an impression that such a thing exists, good, bad or otherwise?
GLENN THRUSH: Listen, we’re in a “show, don’t tell” business here, and, and what you just presented me with was a fact. When you have a fact set that demonstrates that the president doesn't have knowledge or the intellectual curiosity to read a plan that could determine the course of American foreign policy and the fate of American service members that is news and, obviously, how you describe that is important. But it is the fact that leads the analysis. The problem that I have, in general, and this is not a rap on Jay Rosen who I think makes some exceptionally good points, is that when you read sort of the Twitter traffic on our reporting, people get hung up on our characterizations of things. We are far more focused on trying to unearth fact. Yes, our language, particularly when we are first confronted with a new phenomenon, can be pretty imprecise and sometimes could be misleading but everything that we do in terms of covering this administration or any other administration is a process of trying to develop, to steal Jay's language here, a vocabulary on how to describe things. But that vocabulary is determined by fact, and I think it's very important that we focus on the “show” end of this and not the “tell.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. Let me throw another one of his phrases at you, anyway.
GLENN THRUSH: Yeah, great. I love this, by the way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] “The White House said,” he says that very phrase is misleading because it suggests that this administration, like its predecessors, has a unified message. But you know better than anybody else that what you hear depends on who you ask.
GLENN THRUSH: I agree with him 100%. I taught journalism. You never impute a statement to a [LAUGHS] an entity that does not have a beating heart or a pulsing brain. It’s why the passive voice, by the way, is particularly inappropriate for this White House, because almost everything, from the firing of James Comey on down, derives from the actions and decisions of one person. I mean, he says it, that that’s the way he wants to run his White House. We are right now in a very subject-verb-object kind of environment.
And, and more often than not, the subject is the proper noun “Donald Trump.” He’s been looking to get rid of Comey for weeks, watching television and fuming over Comey. People refer this under the broad rubric of “palace intrigue” but the truth of the matter is what you’ve just described, the fact that THE White House doesn't speak with a single voice, necessitates us identifying each individual power player inside this White House, what their position is. Where their influence is at any given time is very important.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You anticipated me by defending the reporting of palace intrigue. The Politico story that I keep referring to quotes several White House reporters, not by name, saying that the Trump team is much more cooperative about palace intrigue stories then they are on actual policy. Shouldn’t that be a red flag?
GLENN THRUSH: Oh, it, it’s more than that. I mean, the reason why this White House has so many palace intrigue stories is because Donald Trump wants those stories out there. The more we’re talking about Jared Kushner versus Steve Bannon, the more we’re talking about – and I just did a story Maggie on Chief of Staff Priebus and how weak he is and what conflicts he's involved in.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The more you write those stories, the more our attention is focused there, rather than on, say –
GLENN THRUSH: Nope, nope, it depends on how you write the story, Brooke. Every single profile that you write in Washington, DC is derivative of the president of the United States. [LAUGHS] Anything you write about the White House, a staffer, is a mini mirror on the president. And if you write your story without an understanding that the only reason that you are writing it is so that your readers can have a better understanding of the way the power flows from the president on down, then you're making a mistake. Everything, everything that we write, at least this is an, an attempt on our part – we’re not always successful – is about telling our readers how this guy governs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
GLENN THRUSH: So when we write about Priebus, I’m not writing about Priebus, I’m writing about the fact that President Trump has chosen a weak chief of staff who he has not empowered to make decisions because this is the way he has chosen to run his government, because he’s comfortable with internal dissent and he feels threatened by any individual whom he deems as too powerful. That’s not a palace intrigue story. That's a story that tells you a lot about Donald Trump.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let me get to another example and have you explain its importance in the same way. Last month, you and Maggie Haberman sat down with the president for a 20-minute Oval Office interview. You were supposed to talk about infrastructure spending. Immediately, he started lobbing charges against Susan Rice.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: a massive, massive story. All over the world, I mean other than The New York Times.
MAGGIE HABERMAN: We’ve written about it twice.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Huh?
MAGGIE HABERMAN: We’ve written about it twice.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Yeah, it’s a bigger story than you know. I think —
MAGGIE HABERMAN: You mean there’s more information that we’re not aware of?
PRESIDENT TRUMP: I think that it’s going to be the biggest story.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In situations like that, how do you keep him on topic, or sometimes is it in your best interest not to do that?
GLENN THRUSH: The answer to that is yes. [LAUGHS]
I think this is what critics tend to miss about what we do. You know, we’re former tabloid reporters from New York and we went in with a very broadsheet mentality to discuss infrastructure. He knows we’re tabloid folks and he knows he can make news anytime. I was annoyed personally by the fact that he chose to use the interview to kind of go off on Susan Rice. We had to report it.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Trump told The New York Times on Wednesday he thinks Rice broke the law by requesting to unmask Trump campaign officials.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: A new evidence-free allegation from President Trump. He told The New York Times that he thinks Susan Rice committed a crime.
GLENN THRUSH: It was in the middle of a news cycle. We couldn't have buried it. That's not our function. That is why he is so effective. He understands the fact that we have a dual function, to break news, to get scoops and to provide insight. We prefer to have those two halves of our being fused seamlessly together. Donald Trump - and this is his, his genius - understands how to cut us in half. He gets between us and our imperatives. That is a very, very sophisticated thing that it does.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How do you combat that?
GLENN THRUSH: You don't invest too much in any one day or any one story. You have to view yourself as telling a story over a longer period of time and you have to view each day as a different day, where you are building upon the lessons and mistakes, frankly, that you’ve made, so that you can cover him in a more meaningful way. And it's a very complicated endeavor, and you have to start with an idea of how you want to cover him. You can’t allow him to determine what you are going to do or be.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I’m really interested in your saying, you know, he gets between your dual roles here. I just think that the biggest threat from this administration is that he fills the ether with so much noise that the forest gets lost in the trees, to use that cliché. People don't know how to respond when he suggests he might be willing to bomb North Korea. For any other president, that would be front-page headlines all the time. The fact that his son-in-law's sister can go and basically sell indulgences in China, all of this stuff, week after week, the wholesale violation of norms on a constant basis seems to bring the whole idea of accountability crashing down on our heads.
GLENN THRUSH: You see, I think the frustration isn't necessarily with Trump that people have. The frustration is the reaction that a certain portion of the population has to Donald Trump, right? I mean, probably the most significant thing that he said during the campaign was, and I’m paraphrasing broadly here, is, I can go into the middle of Fifth Avenue and –
PRESIDENT TRUMP: - and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose any voters, okay? It's like incredible.
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GLENN THRUSH: Yeah, the frustration is that there's a significant portion of the population that doesn't care, frankly, about him violating those norms, and there is a fairly large portion of the population, probably a majority of Americans, who are disgusted by some of the things that he does. The problem is we just have two different sets of standards and a wall between those two.
And, really, one of the statistics last couple of weeks that White House people have been spewing back at us, when we point out that his approval rating’s the lowest in history for a president at this point in his presidency, is that he's retained 96% of his voters from 2016. There are not a pool of persuadables, people who are receptive to some of these criticisms in the news stories about him, at this point.
So those of us who write stories that are not positive towards him, and, you know, we don’t set out to do that but that's often what we do, we’re speaking to an audience that largely wants to hear negative things about Donald Trump. And Fox & Friends [LAUGHS] and, and Breitbart and the Daily Caller, they’re speaking to an audience that wants to hear positive things about the president. We’re essentially two battleships firing at each other, with a very small cohort of people in between.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So if there is a wall between these two groups, the unpersuadables [LAUGHS] and those who are disgusted, how do you breach it? Is there a strategy for breaching it, and do you see that as part of your role?
GLENN THRUSH: Oh, I, I see that as my central role, and I also see that as my biggest frustration. I can't. Look, I’m different than a lot of White House reporters. A lot of White House reporters come out of foreign policy. Some of them have had foreign postings. I covered poverty in New York. I covered child welfare and education, homelessness in New York and housing, particularly. So I come from an environment where you can write stories about atrocious living conditions for people, heartrending stories, and people's opinions are so set on these issues that you’re not going to change any minds.
I feel as if that dynamic has now exploded nationally and that you just have these entrenched mindsets. I don’t know what’s going to change it. And, and I think the question that you asked there I think is the central question of our time because this is unsustainable. This is not really the way this is supposed to work, and I just don't – I, I just don't know what is going to break the logjam, but I have face eventually because I lived through 9/11 and I've lived through the recession, I’ve lived through various crises, I, I tend to think we come together, again, but at the moment I can't quite see how.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Glenn, thank you very much.
GLENN THRUSH: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Glenn Thrush is chief White House political correspondent for The New York Times.
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, finding solutions, really!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media.