Press sweats over covering Trump

How open or closed will the Trump administration be? How the next president treats the performance dashboards will be instructive.

How do you solve a problem like The Don-ald?
How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?
How do you find the word that means The Don-ald?
A flibbertijibbet! A will-o’-the wisp! A clown!

With apologies to The Sound of Music fans, the altered lyrics provide a close approximation for the fear, trepidation, dread, worry and uncertainty of the press over the coming Trump administration.

To wit: National Public Radio posts what it calls a widget counting the days since Trump gave a press conference, together with the number of tweets he sent in that period. The Hill joins in. The New York Times believes the super-rich, somehow empowered by Trump, are laying the groundwork for a legal assault on the media. This essay from a Nieman Reports asks how Jewish media should cover Trump when antisemites are also apparently attracted to him. MSNBC wonders, “How far Trump will take his war on the media? That’s the general media, with its political biases running across the spectrum.

What about the specialized, business-to-business media like Federal News Radio? I write about this because so many feds — and friends outside of government, for that matter — have been asking, how are you going to cover this administration?

My simple answer: Like all the ones before it.

I was invited to talk to a small group of trade publication editors the other night at an agreeable bar in D.C. In B2B, your audience cares about professional or technical topics. Legislation and federal policies interest these outlets insofar as they affect their readers’ professional interests.

The editors’ questions to me included this: “Analyses have shown that Trump has an unusual relationship with the truth. Given that … should we assume most information that’s released is slanted to meet Administration objectives?”

My answer: Of course you should. And that assumption applies to every administration.

In our case, we cover the government itself. Our main interest is policies that affect federal employees, or how agencies translate policies into programs. We leave it to others to decide whether anything from the Affordable Care Act to legislation on employee pension contributions is good or bad.

I have no idea how open or closed the Trump administration will be. To their credit, the last two administrations have published report cards and performance dashboards with what seem to be accurate data on topics such as how long it takes security clearances to go through. Or how late and over budget IT projects are. They don’t tell everything, but how Trump treats these information channels will be instructive.

My experience is that openness, tight message control and outright secrecy all exist together in the government. If you live on handouts, coverage is easy. Ferreting out information from reams of data and cultivating sources is harder.

Under President Bill Clinton, career civil servants seemed less leashed, more able to talk about policies and programs without running every little question up and down a politically-oriented public affairs machine. The Obama administration has been more command-and-control over anything remotely political. The Bush crowd started out that way but seemed to ease up towards the end.

Some agencies welcome coverage. Others don’t answer repeated phone calls and emails. Some are eager to talk about certain topics, but rule out others. Some officials are fine with answering questions, but hesitant to do broadcast interviews.

My answer to the B2B editors and to anyone else who asked how to cover the Trump administration is simple. Play it straight. Let them run a few plays and see what we’re dealing with.

Maybe what’s troubling many in the general media is they let their political prejudices hang out there, thinking the coast was clear. They went to bed planning to cover a Hillary Clinton administration that many appeared to hope for. They woke up to Donald Trump.

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