Editorial: President, people need the press

Published 9:36 am Monday, January 16, 2017

There was some hope as President-elect Donald Trump started his first press conference that he would come to understand the need for reasonable media relations.

In the early parts of the press conference, he complimented some of the media for the restraint shown in running a story on Russian hacking.

But at some point, his temper and lack of patience got the best of him and the result was setting a tone for media relations that some experts are calling the worst in history.

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At the heart of the president elect’s anger was a report BuzzFeed posted on the internet that detailed unsubstantiated allegations about tawdry behavior by Trump in Russian entanglements. Trump accused CNN of the same ethical breaches because they had broken the story, albeit a very different one, without going into lurid details.

Former advisor to four presidents David Gergen, a CNN senior political analyst, has argued Trump at his press conference was “shooting wildly at the wrong targets” when he criticized CNN and called it “fake news.”

Gergen said Trump was right to “complain bitterly” about BuzzFeed’s posting a 35-page unsubstantiated report that alleged the Trump team was in liege with Russians and their hacking of Hillary Clinton’s campaign emails.

The report, by political operatives working for Trump’s opponents, was unsubstantiated. Many news organizations including CNN made that clear. Other mainstream media criticized BuzzFeed for its lack of journalistic integrity.

The report itself had been circulating in various circles before the election and many news organizations had it but did not publish it because they couldn’t confirm any of the details.

The reason CNN went with the story and broke it exclusively is that the network had learned the major intelligence agencies included a two-page summary of the 35 pages of allegations in the official intelligence report on hacking that Trump and President Obama were given last week.

CNN, and other news media, saw this inclusion by intelligence officials as making it more important as a point of investigation than it had been previously. That’s debatable.

The intelligence agencies also said they could not confirm the report’s veracity, and former intelligence officials told the Washington Post that it was highly unusual that the intelligence community would include such an unsubstantiated report in an official intelligence report.

“It would be extraordinary if not unprecedented to bring to the attention of a president and president-elect a private document for which you had no reason to believe the allegations made in it,” Michael Morell, the former deputy director of the CIA and a Clinton supporter, told the Post.

While Gergen called the CNN report a legitimate news story, the fact of the matter is that it was leaked by someone and it’s reasonable to leave open the idea that someone had a political agenda. Welcome to Washington.

Trump fired back at CNN and then during the press conference said he would not be taking questions from the organization as its reporter persisted. It became a shouting match unprecedented for a presidential news conference.

Experts like Gergen are now describing Trump’s relationship with the press as one of the worst ever in the history of the country. That can’t be good.

The press represents the will of the people to have information their government might want to keep secret. Like it or not, the press is the only institution in America that can and has a duty to hold public officials accountable. It has power to expose their wrongdoing.

The press has many flaws. There is no doubt about that. But the independent press in America is a critical institution to keeping the enormous power of government in check.

Trump and his people should consider that unless they plan to buy all the networks, newspapers and online sites, they will need the news media to communicate their plans, goals and policies to the people. Citizens have a right to hear and understand how the country is being run from someone other than those running it.

— Mankato Free Press, Jan. 14

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Editorials from newspapers around the state of Minnesota.

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