Reporters should throttle back on the indignation whenever they feel they are not getting the respect they think they deserve from people in power. I remember a British colleague reacting when an EU official declined to answer a question he had popped in a press conference. “C’est un outrage,” he roared, rhyming it with boot and barge. The only outrageous thing was his French.
Self-importance is a special peril for hacks too long inside bubbles of power. We forget which side of the fence we’re on. I confess to smiling a little at an Esquire scoop in January revealing that Team Trump was pondering evicting reporters from the White House press room. (It used to be a swimming pool.) No such cosiness is afforded by Downing Street yet there’s no shortage of strenuous reporting of what the Prime Minister gets up to. It might have done them good.
But there’s a difference between putting an uppity press in its place and trying to subvert them entirely. That is the peril for politicians and they fall foul of it all the time. Naturally enough, they find the intrusions of the press tiresome, even threatening, and imagine the best strategy is simply to ignore them. If Hillary Clinton could possibly have avoided dealing with reporters during last year’s campaign, even when they were on the same plane as her, she would have.
But any strategy of sidelining the press or otherwise hoodwinking them is always ill-advised, at least if you’re in a country with a free press, which, best we can tell, is still the case in the United States. It will always backfire. The preferred approach is to engage with the press, treat them like sentient beings, not fools and not merely the enemy. Yes, there will be skirmishes and some will leave you bruised. But in the end, combative, intelligent symbiosis is what works best.
Methinks the Trump gang haven’t got this particular memo. Clinton may have made her mistakes, above all missing the opportunity to go through the media to neutralise the whole email fandango before it was too late. But as Secretary of State, she perfectly understood the usefulness of having a group of well-informed diplomatic reporters following her million-mile peregrinations. Never were they more vital than when she was engaged in some nail-biting negotiation with a foreign power or visiting an unfriendly one. Ask John Kerry about that too.
Few have been on that beat longer than Andrea Mitchell of NBC and MSNBC. Call her a member of the uppity class if you like, but she knows her stuff. And there she was last week being hustled out of a photo-op with Rex Tillerson, the new Secretary of State, and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkinon because she had had the temerity to shout out a question about Chinese threats of retaliation for the anti-missile defences deployed by the US in South Korea.
She had to shout, because there had by then not been a single occasion at which Tillerson had taken questions from the press. Still, the Washington Trumpets reacted with predictable scorn. Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, meanwhile, accused Ms Mitchell of having been “unruly” at the event. Unruly, Mr O’Reilly? You’re probably still surprised that women can vote, let alone do jobs and get paid for them.
Now Tillerson is embarking on a highly sensitive tour of Asia this week, apparently without taking a single US-based reporter with him. This is something that no Secretary of State has done since before the days of Henry Kissinger. The explanation given by Sean Spicer, the White House spokesman, is that the Secretary of State is merely being frugal. No reporters means a smaller plane.
That is insulting talk from a man whose boss thinks taking the presidential 747 to Mar-a-Lago every other weekend reflects public thrift. Still, Tillerson is a beginner. He hasn’t grasped that going to countries like China without your own press corps allows your hosts to define the visit. Nor has he got that there may be some public interest in America knowing at least the general gist of discussions he will have in the region about the dictator of Pyongyang as he moves inexorably towards a war-footing with any country within the range of his sputtering missiles.
With his years as spokesman for Republicans on Capitol Hill Spicer is far from naive about the art of press relations. That isn’t to say he’s particularly good at it. But his often embarrassing performance at the podium in the aforementioned press room has less to do with him and more with his boss. Spicey is sent out there daily to parrot words from a president whose disdain for the press is as ambitious as his hair. Remember when he was forced to insist that half the country’s populace had come to watch the inauguration? Not to take anything away from Melissa McCarthy, but he was fodder for easy parody from day one.
The only reason Tillerson thinks he can get away with screening off the press is because his boss has gone much further. We are “scum”. We are the “enemy of the people”. He is obsessed with us but feels compelled to denigrate us often before dawn. He circumvents us with his Twitter expectorations. He calls out reporters from CNN by name. He took one look at the invitation for the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner and chucked it in the bin. Seats in the press room, meanwhile, are increasingly given to purveyors of right-wing fake news for the sole reason that their lies help to undermine the real reporting efforts of everyone else.
Clap, clap, clap, the Trumpets go. But in the end, this is dumb politics for Trump as it is for Tillerson. These people underestimate the reporters who are already demonstrating their ability to rise to the occasion not least by setting a ball rolling on possible Trump campaign footsie with Russia that won’t now stop for months however much Trump would like it to.
Mitchell, meanwhile, could have reacted like my friend all those years ago in Brussels with a crusty fit of, yes, outrage. Instead - and to her credit - she made light of her removal from the Tillerson photo-op, with a tweaked sign-off from her daily segment on MSNBC the next day. “And that does it for this 'unruly' edition of 'Andrea Mitchell Reports,’” she joked.