The "Serenity Prayer," popular with 12-step recovery programs, must be taped up liberally around the White House press office. How else could press secretary Sean Spicer and his team possibly cope with the agitation wrought by Donald Trump's lack of communications sobriety?
"God," the prayer begins, "grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change." For Spicer, Kellyanne Conway, and anyone else charged with interpreting the president's words, this begins with Trump himself.
We're three weeks into the Trump presidency and it's clear the president won't be changing who he is or how he approaches business. He will continue to crave adulation and affirmation and vent his frustration when he doesn't receive it. From a communications point of view, this means the (often crooked) Twitter cannon is here to stay.
My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by @Nordstrom. She is a great person -- always pushing me to do the right thing! Terrible!— @realDonaldTrump
Another thing that's unlikely to change for Spicer et al is the press's attitude toward Trump. The Washington press corps apparently doesn't understand Trump or his methods, and doesn't care for him or them. But that's the point; the press will never be given a reason to like Trump. The president clearly wants (as does top adviser Steve Bannon) to discredit and marginalize the press, not work with them.
This a new sensation for a press accustomed to being courted as a vital cog in the machinery of government. But they had better accept it and, while they're at it, absorb the remainder of the prayer: "courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."
Regaining the public's trust
For the press, changing the things they can must, above all else, mean regaining the trust of the wider public. The endless fact-checking and expressions of outrage about Trump's actions and breaks with precedent only matter if they are believed. Right now, Americans believe Trump more than they believe the media.
How can the press regain their trusted position in the public debate? A good first step would be to demonstrate the wisdom to know the difference between insiders whining about insiders and insiders showing outsiders how what's happening under Trump is impacting them.
For example, no one but the press cares about how Trump is treating the press, no matter how poorly that might be. Another step would be to recognize that many of the people for whom they proclaim to report actually share the president's views. A third would be to apply the same care and editorial standards to their social media posts as they do to their copy.
The lack of trust in the media — fuelled in part by their partisan tweets and talk show appearances — is certainly helping the White House change what it can, namely, turning the sow's ear of Trump's rashness into the silk purse of press hysteria. Waving a red flag at the press used to be a mistake, now it's a successful strategy.
We've had weeks of it. Trump says something outrageous. The media brays (whether in or out of proportion to the offense). Trump or his team respond indignantly to the coverage. More braying. Trump and his team point to the braying press and say: "they hate us, they're never going to give us a fair shake."
Rules of engagement
Now, every government attempts to frame its relations with the press to its advantage. Stephen Harper certainly changed the rules of engagement with the Parliamentary Press Gallery, but his interest was in limiting what the beast of the press was fed, not in feeding it whatever ridiculous input he could in the hope of producing deranged output, as is the case with Trump.
Of course, the Trump approach can only work when few trust the media. The problem isn't so much fake news, it's the lack of anyone with the credibility to set the record straight. And now there's a White House that is seeking to further muddy the water in the hope that everyone just gives up and chooses not to believe anybody.
- The media keeps getting Donald Trump wrong
The total lack of shame from the president and his White House isn't tempered by a sense of responsibility to the institution, or to convention. They want to burn it all down. They were elected to burn it all down. And creating maximum communications chaos helps them frame the question of trust to their advantage.
The media would do well to re-commit to the basic tenets of journalism. Is the reporting in the public's interest? Or is it another inside baseball nugget (e.g.staffer beefing with another staffer)? Is the reporting sourced as robustly as possible? Or is it an anonymous, easy-to-discredit-as-fake-news grunt with a grudge? And, lastly: dig baby dig. This government is already leaking like a sieve; get out of the White House briefing room and man a shovel.
And remember: It doesn't matter if only the diehards believe Trump. As long as no one believes the Democrats, or Congress as an institution, or the media that reports on it all, it's all the support Trump needs.