Fox, NYT, WSJ, CNN journalists debate covering Trump at Atlanta Press Club

This was posted on Tuesday, February 21, 2017 by Rodney Ho on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

The Atlanta Press Club panel opened Monday with a video about the Donald Trump presidency and the media cheekily playing The Black Eyed Peas song "Where is the Love?"

Indeed, Trump has not show much love for specific news outlets that dare to cover his moves aggressively. On Friday on Twitter, he called CNN, the New York Times, NBC, ABC, and CBS not just his enemy but 'the enemy of the American People!" Coincidence or not, that's an echo of Vladamir Lenin's "Enemies of the People" essay in 1917.

David Chalian, CNN's political director on the dais, was not amused but takes it as a challenge.

"That tweet went so far beyond media bias," Chalian said. "While no doubt many of Donald Trump's supporters will champion that statement, I think a great swath of majority of the country will see that is not within the bounds of this conversation of the press and its role. It is so out of bounds, I think it's recognizable by a majority of the country as absurd. When he goes that far in what he's trying to do in terms of his relationship with the press, it puts us on a stronger footing with the public to be able to continue to do our jobs."

He later noted that "clearly, there is a strategic initiative inside the Trump administration to undermine the press as an institution." He also believes Trump won through division and has no incentive to change that despite some pat words about uniting the country.

Richard Fausset, a New York Times correspondent, believes this Tweet "undermines the president's ability to go to foreign countries and make the case of a free and open press as one of the great cornerstones of a liberal democracy."

David Lewkowict, a Fox News producer, acknowledges that his outlet is not a typical target of Trump supporters at rallies where "CNN sucks" is a frequent refrain. But he does worry about the safety of journalists in this type of environment if they are viewed as "enemies" and not just people doing their jobs.

Moderator Celeste Headlee asked if prohibiting Trump surrogates from going live on air is a good strategy if they are frequently spouting lies.

Lewkowict of Fox News said no. "It's a challenge of any network at any time," he said. "Our job is to allow them to say what they're saying and fact check them. I can't be the muzzle on Kellyanne Conway or anyone else. The White House will put out what they need. Our jobs as good reporters is to fact check them."

Chalian of CNN is proud how anchor Jake Tapper took Conway to task on many of her assertions. "He is a wonderful example of how to fact check in a live interview situation," Chalian said. "He was constantly questioning her assumptions using facts, using reported truth to push back when she was saying something contrary to that. I think that serves our audience well."

Headlee noted how actual "fake news" sites proliferated during the election season, then saw how the president began using the same phrase to anything he didn't agree with.

Fausset joked that "I've been solving these problems with small batch bourbon." And while he said he has interviewed many Trump supporters with legitimate reasons why they like him, he said at times that "there's something deeply irrational about it. There's nothing we can do about that." He also marveled that Trump follows a conspiracy theorist like Alex Jones, referencing a New York Times story from that morning.

"What do you when you live in a world where people are choosing to embrace irrationalists?"

Headlee pondered how being objective had become political.

"This was happening before Trump," said Cam McWhirter, a political reporter for The Wall Street Journal. "I was in Chattanooga reporting four years ago. I met an elderly couple at a rally who said they hated Obama and gave a bunch of reasons. I was taking notes. Then the man said, 'Obama is a Muslim!' I said, 'Well, I'm hearing what you're saying that you don't like the president. But in fact, he's not a Muslim. He goes to this church.' 'He's a liar!' I just realized there's nothing I could do. If I had flown President Obama to my side and had him bring his minister and we sat with him for an hour, he still wouldn't have believed me. There are people that we meet on the job who aren't going to believe a fact."

This led to Headlee wondering if Americans are suffering from a lack of civics knowledge, about basics checks and balances and how the government operates.

"I'm not here to solve America's problems," said Chalian. "Part of our mission in our reporting is to educate our audiences about the system when it comes to government. The systems and processes that are supposed to work in a certain way."

Fausset said as the world has become more complicated, busy Americans have less time or energy to take in the nuances. "How am I supposed to understand TPP?" he said. "How do you take a position on an issue? It opens up a lane for people who have beautiful monosyllabic solutions and are great entertainers too. They can give you an answer that makes sense. But a lot of times, life is messier than that... I suffer from that problem as well."

Headlee asked whether Trump's maligning of certain media outlets is hurting them. CNN did a survey after the election and found their brand is as healthy as ever. Its fans remain its fans and in fact, the network has gained viewers. Chalian said it's similar to how people hate Congress in general but like their particular Representative or Senator. People may have a dim view of media as a whole but trust whatever outlets they choose to read or watch or listen to.

He also said he believes CNN and many media outlets didn't miss the enthusiasm for Trump. He felt they under-estimated the apathy of Clinton supporters.

I am a board member of the Atlanta Press Club.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

About the Author

Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.