February 21, 2017—Dafna Linzer, managing editor of politics for NBC News and MSNBC, shared insights about covering the 2016 campaign and the Trump administration. Below are some highlights from the conversation, as well as the full audio recording.
President Trump’s media viewing habits
“We never got the sense that anyone who occupied the Oval Office was watching Morning Joe or the Today Show in real time, and that’s certainly changed. If you’re trying to have impact, be heard by the president, you have a much better shot now than you had before…We’ll have somebody on the Today Show doing a fact check or making a point, and the president will tweet something that is clearly in response to what he’s just heard on air.”
Why the President’s tweets are newsworthy
I hear people say we shouldn’t report on his tweets. I strongly disagree with that.
“You’re getting a very unfiltered look at the president and hearing from him directly…I hear people say we shouldn’t report on his tweets. I strongly disagree with that. I believe that what the president tweets is U.S. policy—it is extremely important to cover.”
“Very thoughtful, calibrated messaging…because of the implications for policy, because of the implications for alliances, for all of the reasons that you would very carefully think through a statement for the president of the United States—that is just completely gone.”
How the press corps will have to adapt
“Presidents generally govern the way they campaign…There’s a little bit of free-wheeling that we haven’t seen in a long time that could catch reporters who are used to a certain standard operating procedure, regardless of who the president is.”
“Yesterday, the president was at Mar-a-Lago. There was a pool spray, which in TV speak is a very clean shot of the president seated or in a meeting, just a ‘for the record’ moment. It’s very unusual for presidents to speak…and the president announces to the tiny little pool there that he has chosen a new national security adviser, and here he is.”
“We had the same thing happen last week…there was a pool spray, it was 11:15 in the morning… and the president is the one who announces that he is holding a news conference in the East Room in 45 minutes…the White House press corps, the political press corps, is going to have to get used to it quickly. That is going to be a very different tempo than they’re used to.”
The necessity and limitations of anonymous sourcing
“Anonymous sources are never the ideal. Of course you want everything on the record, who doesn’t. But Michael Flynn may very well have been the national security adviser this morning if the vice president didn’t find out from The Washington Post…that he had actually been the subject of a DOJ warning because he wasn’t straightforward with the vice president…there are just stories that you simply cannot get on the record.”
“I started as a print reporter, and it’s much easier to tell a story in print [with] anonymous sources. There are different stories that you can tell, as opposed to what I have really come to cherish, which is broadcast reporting that is really not about the tell but about the show. Getting people to be able to say things on the record is important for that medium, and that audience expects it. Coming to have that respect for what different journalistic mediums offer and the kinds of ways they are able to tell stories is important.”
The DC establishment and challenges for the new administration
That successful campaign message, which is railing against official Washington, can make things difficult once you’re in office.
“One of the difficulties that the Trump administration is having early on as a result of the railing [against the DC establishment] is that they’re having a hard time staffing up. Because a lot of people in official Washington were against his candidacy and Trump believes in loyalty, for those who weren’t with him, or who spoke out aggressively against him, especially after he won the nomination, there is no place for them in the administration. If there is no place in the administration for the establishment who are part of the national security apparatus, policy or think tank folks, that makes it very difficult.”
“The White House had complained about the speed with which their nominees are being confirmed. They have nominated very few people. There are no deputies in departments who have been nominated, there’s no deputy secretary of state. There are just a lot of holes at the moment. That successful campaign message, which is railing against official Washington, can make things difficult once you’re in office.”
Audience and reporter burnout
“I worry so much about fatigue. I worry about audience, reader—and when I say that, I mean voter—fatigue. Americans were very engaged in this election. Despite what happened on Election Day with voter turnout, they were very engaged in the issues, and I really, truly hope they stay engaged in the issues.”
“I definitely worry about fatigue with our reporters, although man, they’re jazzed, they’ve got a great story…I’ve said this to my colleagues—I don’t know why half of them went into journalism, but if not for this, than for what.”
Is Trump at war with the news media?
I worry about sowing doubt in the minds of voters about the information they’re getting…I think that rhetoric is dangerous for us as a country.
“I don’t like to hear ‘there’s a war between the Trump administration and journalists.’ We’re not at war with the White House…the president called a news organization I work with, our colleagues, our competitors, the enemy of the American people. It’s not navel-gazing for me to mention it. I worry about trying to diminish institutions in our country across the board. I worry about sowing doubt in the minds of voters about the information they’re getting…I think that rhetoric is dangerous for us as a country.”
Article by Nilagia McCoy of the Shorenstein Center.