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OPED: How to cover Trump? Literally and seriously

Clarence Page
Tribune News Service

Facing the looming realities of President Donald Trump, media outlets have been chewing nervously on an unusual question: How do we cover this guy?

An image of the inauguration of President Donald Trump is displayed behind White House press secretary Sean Spicer as he speaks at the White House, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017, in Washington.  (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Of course, although one would be hard-pressed to name any president who has made the reporter's life easy, none until now have been known to taunt the press — and urge their supporters to join them — as eagerly and unpredictably as Trump has done on Twitter.

But the chilliness in Trump's media relations almost iced over amid reports a few days before his swearing-in that press secretary Sean Spicer was considering pulling news media offices out of the White House.

After reporters put up a howl, Trump said in the friendly confines of "Fox and Friends" he decided not to move the press briefings, even though he still wanted more room to invite more reporters. The reporters, he said in a mocking tone, will "be begging for a much larger room very soon. You watch." Ha, ha.

What anti-media mischief will he try next? He's banned some news organizations from covering him. He has openly praised the idea of loosening libel laws to make it easier to sue media.

He has flouted the norms of regular pool reporting and news conferences. He has herded his traveling reporters into a pen at his rallies and jeered them as "scum," "absolutely dishonest" and other choice Trumpisms, just to thrill the crowd.

Such antics only underscore the goofy relationship between Trump and the media that Salena Zito captured so well in her Trump coverage for The Atlantic: "(The) press takes him literally but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously but not literally."

Zito described an old and vastly underappreciated quirk of human nature. Journalists are conditioned to value facts as closely tied to one's credibility. Trump talks like a stand-up comedian or the family yarn-spinner. He mangles facts in a way that sounds to willing ears like it has touched a deeper truth.

So how, the media community asks itself, should reporters cover the presidency of Donald Trump who, as the Columbia Journalism Review recently observed, operates like a media organization himself?

I think that, despite the new bells and whistles of this digital age, the fundamentals of covering presidents or any other public servant still apply.

One, we should be adversarial without being hostile — even as the newsmaker and his or her followers are calling us "scum" and other unkind things. Sticks and stones may break or bones but we have deadlines to meet.

Two, dodge his dodges. Trump has been promoting his name as a valuable brand across multiple platforms since the 1970s. He is a master of distractions.

Notice how he became agitated over the politics of Broadway's "Hamilton" cast on a day when his angry tweets could take the spotlight away from his $25 million settlement of fraud charges by customers of Trump University.

Notice how his stubborn refusal to take a question from CNN's Jim Acosta in a live news conference took attention away from the big issue in the question: Intelligence chiefs, CNN said, had presented a 35-page dossier to p resident-elect Trump and to President Barack Obama that suggested Russian President Vladimir Putin had gathered compromising information from spying on Trump's visits to Russia.

The media should keep their eyes on the prize. Focus on the story that's most important, not just click-bait for eyeballs on the web.

Three, it is not a "media conspiracy" for reporters to band together in pursuit of accountability from public officials. When a president refuses to take an important question from one reporter, the next reporter should offer up the same question.

Something close to that Sparticus-like uprising occurred in September. When Trump allowed only photographers, not reporters, on his "press" tour of his new Washington, D.C., hotel, major television networks refused to use the pictures or video

That's the spirit. Reporters are not obligated to give any more free publicity to Trump's hotel. Try to limit journos and they tend to turn with increased vigor to potential stories that the newsmaker is least likely to want publicized.

As a former city editor of mine used to bark: Don't get mad, get nosy.

— Clarence Page is a member of the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board. Readers may send him email at