Trump's strategy of bypassing the media raises 'danger signs'

Donald Trump’s team is able to control the media now more than ever, say media analysts, preventing reporters from pressing him on issues and on his sometimes contradictory positions.

The way the U.S. president-elect is controlling his message prevents anyone from questioning it

President-elect Donald Trump met with representatives of the New York Times, including publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., on Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016 in New York. (Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times/Associated Press)

"I hope we can all get along," Donald Trump told the room full of journalists on Tuesday, praising the New York Times as a "world jewel" of publishing.

With those fawning words, according to the Times, the president-elect left the boardroom of the newspaper he so recently trashed as "failing," "dishonest" and an "absolute disaster."

Trump tweeted Tuesday morning that he had cancelled the editorial conclave hosted by the Times, which later said it was going ahead after all.

If Trump's hot-and-cold appraisals of the so-called Grey Lady sound confusing, try cracking his communications strategy in the first two weeks of his post-election transition to the White House. 

Now that the campaign is over and Trump is the president-elect, he and his team are able to control the media's access simply by not scheduling any official events for reporters to cover.

On the weekend, Trump fumed on Twitter against the cast of the Broadway musical Hamilton. On Monday, he released a 2½-minute YouTube video laying out goals for his first 100 days in office.

This wielding of social media channels is putting mainstream media players in a bind, says Mike McCurry, the former White House press secretary for Bill Clinton. 

"He's saying, 'I've got some power that you barons in the mainstream media are losing,' and that's direct access to an audience through social media," McCurry said.

McCurry says the message, as Trump sees it is: I can make you pay a price if you're not willing to work with me.

'Danger signs'

Spurning traditional media briefings after an election win further sets Trump apart from his predecessors.

It took George H.W. Bush just one day to convene his first news conference as president-elect in 1988. For Bill Clinton, it was three days after his re-election in 1996. Likewise, Clinton's successor, George W. Bush, waited three days after the Supreme Court ruled in his favour in 2000. And in 2008, Barack Obama took a mere four days.

For Trump, it's been 15 days and counting. Asked by a reporter when a news conference might happen, a Trump transition team spokesman on Tuesday said none have been scheduled.

Doing so would have allowed reporters to press Trump on his sometimes contradictory positions such as why he dropped his vow to jail Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton — an about-face that prompted extreme right-wing website Breitbart to put up the screaming headline "BROKEN PROMISE."

Restricting traditional devices such as press briefings and access for a pool of journalists flashes "danger signs" for David Karpf.

A screengrab of a headline from for a story about Trump saying he may not try to jail Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

The political communications professor at George Washington University worries about the bigger implications of a weakened press corps giving way to a "quasi-state-controlled apparatus" in the U.S.

"If Trump effectively shuts down the White House press corps, and only provides interviews to some amalgamation of and Fox News," he says, "there's a very real risk that within six months to a year we're going to have something that looks like [state-controlled] Russia Today and [former Soviet newspaper] Pravda."

Karpf wants to see journalists engaging in collective action against the press restrictions, banding together to deny him coverage until Trump restores media access.

'One filter'

While it wasn't a news conference, Trump convened an off-the-record meeting with major TV broadcast executives and anchors on Monday at Trump Tower in Manhattan, where the New York real-estate mogul reportedly unloaded on how the networks covered his campaign.

Former president Bill Clinton's White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry answers reporters in a 1995 file photo. (Reuters)

Trump's preferred style is to let his messaging drip through social media. His YouTube videos are a way to speak directly to his supporters

But that's what concerns the Society of Professional Journalists.

"All the information is coming through one filter," says Lynn Walsh, the society's president. "It's Trump's opinion, his angle, his team, without allowing anyone from the outside — whether a journalist or the public — to question it."

It's Trump's opinion, his angle, his team, without allowing anyone from the outside — whether a journalist or the public — to question it.- Lynn Walsh, president, Society of Professional Journalists

White House correspondent Steve Thomma says it's "critical to be able to question Trump now" as he is still making decisions that will set the course of his government for the next four years.

"He's about to make major changes in our government," Thomma said. "There are a lot of questions about each step. If he waits for a long time, we'll barely be able to ask enough about one or two appointments or policies in any depth at all."

Instead, voters get a YouTube link, says Peter Fenn, a Democratic communications consultant in Washington. 

"That's his substitute. 'Here it is. You don't ask me any questions.' He's playing us," Fenn said.

President-elect Donald Trump walks past a crowd as he leaves the New York Times building following the meeting, Tuesday. (Mark Lennihan/Associated Press)

News of the $25-million US Trump University fraud settlement on Friday was quickly bumped by Trump himself, who the next day lambasted the cast of Hamilton for making a political appeal to vice-president-elect Mike Pence following a show Pence attended.

"It's a one-day story about Trump University and a four-day story about Hamilton. I mean, come on," Fenn said.

To suggest there's something unseemly about the press doing its job — that, to me, is the troubling part.- Leonard Steinhorn, political communications professor, American University

Social media was the cornerstone of Trump's successful election campaign. Until that formula no longer suits his needs, expect Trump's press evasion and direct-to-the-masses communication strategy to be "the new normal in an expanded media ecosystem," warns Leonard Steinhorn, a professor of political communications at American University in Washington, D.C.

Voters in 1992 might have tuned into The Arsenio Hall Show to catch Bill Clinton playing the saxophone on TV and making his case for the presidency.

"Those were the indirect ways to reach people back then," Steinhorn says.

Trump is likely to hold out for as long as he can, Steinhorn says. While a president's desire to control his messaging as much as possible isn't necessarily concerning, Trump's disregard for the Fourth Estate as a pillar of democracy is.

"To suggest there's something unseemly about the press doing its job — that, to me, is the troubling part."


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong


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