A Challenging Four Years for the Media

| Walter Pincus
Walter Pincus
Columnist, The Cipher Brief

Don’t be fooled that there is a new Donald Trump now that he is president-elect.

As I have written before, this Trump presidency is going to test our democratic institutions, not just Congress and the Judiciary, but also the so-called mainstream media that in the past was referred to as the Fourth Estate.

We should all learn a lesson from the New York Times interview with Trump last Tuesday and the undeserved, rose-colored stories it generated.

“Trump, in Interview, Moderates Views but Defies Conventions” was the headline of the newspaper’s main story, but a close reading of the actual transcript of the hour-long interview showed me all Trump did was moderate his language.

His views on several key issues – torture, the Clintons, climate change — all harshly put during the campaign, remained much the same.

Take waterboarding for example. The first paragraph or lead of the Times story had Trump “expressing doubt about the value of torturing terrorism suspects.”

The transcript of the Times interview tells a different story, and doesn’t show Trump backing away from his campaign statements supporting waterboarding if elected.

Trump did tell the Times he was “impressed” when retired Marine General James Mattis, a top prospect for Defense Secretary, told him he had “’never found it [waterboarding] to be useful.’ He [Mattis] said, ‘I’ve always found, give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I do better with that than I do with torture.’”

But the Times story left out that after Trump said he was “very impressed by that [Mattis’] answer,” Trump immediately added, “I’m not saying it changed my mind.” 

He then said, “Look, we have people that are chopping off heads and drowning people in steel cages and we’re not allowed to waterboard.”

Ironically, when the Times transcript was first released, Trump was quoted saying Mattis’ answer “changed my man” rather than “changed my mind,” although it now has been corrected.

Another thing the Times left out was Trump saying that although he was impressed by Mattis’ answer, when it came to waterboarding, he was going to be “guided” by the American people.

What Trump told the Times was, “if it’s so important to the American people [meaning waterboarding], I would go for it. I would be guided by that.”

I should remind readers that a Reuters poll in the U.S. last March found that two-thirds of Americans in that poll agreed that torture can be justified “against suspected terrorists to obtain information about terrorism.” Only 15 percent said it should never be used.

Trump “dropping his vow to jail Hillary Clinton” was another bit of moderation the Times story concluded from its interview.

As he has often said since the night he claimed victory, Trump told the Times, “I don’t want to hurt the Clintons. I really don’t. She went through a lot, and suffered greatly in many different ways. And I am not looking to hurt them at all.”

Trump emphasized more than once, “I think we have to get the focus of the country into looking forward.”

But then a Times editor asked directly, “So you’re definitively taking that off the table? The investigation?”  Trump’s answer was “No.” When the editor immediately followed up and specified the FBI investigation “about the emails and the [Clinton] Foundation,” Trump again responded, “No, no, but it’s just not something that I feel strongly about.”

He then changed the subject to things he said he did feel strongly about, such as health care and immigration.

Clinton was brought up a second time with the question, “Did you mean both the email investigation and the foundation investigation — you will not pursue either one of those?”

Trump this time said, “Yeah, look, you know we’ll have people that do things, but my inclination would be, for whatever power I have on the matter, is to say let’s go forward.”

On Sunday, Kellyanne Conway, a senior adviser to the President-elect, made clear on ABC’s This Week there would be no interference with any Clinton inquiries. When questioned whether Trump was asking the FBI or the Justice Department to stand down investigations of Clinton, Conway responded crisply, “No, he’s not.”

If that weren’t clear enough, incoming White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus told Fox News Sunday that it would be the Justice Department’s call “if the Attorney General and the Congress find evidence that would indicate that something needs to happen” when it comes to the Clinton emails or the Clinton Foundation.

When it came to climate change, the Times news story had Trump “pledging to have an open mind about climate change,” and during the interview he repeatedly said, “I do have an open mind.”

However, at one point he noted, “You know the hottest day ever was in 1890-something, 98. You know, you can make lots of cases for different views. I have a totally open mind.” He also pointed out, “It’s a very complex subject. I’m not sure anybody is ever going to really know” the cause of climate change.

The Times story picked up Trump’s statement that “Clean air is vitally important. Clean water, crystal clean water is vitally important.” But the story did not include Trump tying the climate change issue to regulations that make industries reduce pollution but that make American companies noncompetitive in the world markets.

Times columnist Tom Friedman, who raised the climate change issue with Trump during the Q&A session, noted in his column about the meeting that when asked if he thought climate change is caused by human activity Trump answered, “There is some [linkage to human activity], something. It depends on how much.”

Trump then went on to say, “It also depends on how much it’s going to cost our companies. You have to understand, our companies are noncompetitive right now.” To me, that means what Trump may do about climate change and regulations relating to clean air and water will depend on how much “it’s going to cost our companies.”

Priebus on Fox News Sunday put it quite differently. Asked about the Times interpretation of Trump on climate change, Priebus said Trump will “have an open mind about it but he has his default position, which most of it [climate change] is a bunch of bunk, but he’ll have an open mind and listen to people.”

The mainstream media in the past has played an important role in monitoring government and explaining issues to the American people. Trump has shown he can have an equal if not greater influence by delivering his own version of the truth directly to his roughly 30 million followers on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

He has had “an army of digital soldiers…citizen journalists,” as retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn put it in a November 12 speech to the Young America’s Foundation. Flynn, Trump’s designated National Security Adviser, described one individual with 650,000 followers on Twitter as a huge “influencer” because he generated, at one point during the campaign, 35 million viewers for a talk Trump gave on Periscope, a streaming video service.

This means, like it or not, the mainstream media is in a domestic fight for the minds if not the hearts of the American people. More than ever before, journalists will have to be tough and accurate in their coverage of government, and particularly the White House.

It’s going to be a challenging four years.

The Author is Walter Pincus

Walter Pincus is a Columnist and the Senior National Security Reporter at The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics from nuclear weapons to politics.  In 2002, he and a team of Post reporters won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. He also won an Emmy in 1981 and the 2010 Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy.  He can be reached at [email protected]

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