It’s been a rough year for Kyle Pope.
Pope, the editor of Columbia Journalism Review, began the year mansplaining the rules of the road for relating to the press to President Trump, declared 10 days in May to have been the best such period in the history of journalism, then finished the year admitting White House journalism was broken and that the president essentially controlled the media narrative and outlets were powerless to do anything about it.
“What’s amazing is that we continue to cover all of it, again and again,” Pope wrote this week. “Often, the strategy seems to be to simply give Trump the forum in hopes, in hopes that he’ll pay us back by saying something outrageous enough to win us clicks or viewers. If the mission a year ago was to keep Trump from leading us around by the nose, I’m afraid we have failed.”
The plan definitely was not for Trump to lead the press around by the nose. In a piece three days before Trump was inaugurated, Pope laid out what he saw as guidelines “to clarify how we see the relationship between your administration and the American press corps.”
There would be no honeymoon.
“It will come as no surprise to you that we see the relationship as strained,” the piece says right up front.
Access was preferable but not critical; reporters would find ways to attack the administration regardless of any constraints it might place on them. Off-the-record ground rules would be set by the press, not the administration. We’ll present your point of view but not if we perceive your spokespeople to be liars.
We believe in objective truth, we obsess over details, we’ll set higher standards for ourselves than ever before, and we’ll work together to defend reporters from your attacks and help each other get the scoops on your administration, Pope told the president.
He also reminded Trump he would be in office, at most, eight years, but they had been here since the dawn of the republic and would be here when he left. “You have forced us to rethink the most fundamental questions about who we are and what we are here for. For that, we are most grateful.”
Then, the press had what Pope called its finest hour – 10 days in May when every day seemed to bring another salvo in the war of scoops between the New York Times and Washington Post. Vanity Fair called it the “last great newspaper war;” Pope called it “an astonishing show of enterprise and scoops.”
Sally Yates testifies one day. James Comey is fired the next. Trump meets with Russian diplomats in the Oval Office the day after. Trump tweets that Comey better hope there are no tapes of their meetings in the White House. A few days later, Robert Mueller is appointed special counsel.
“But then something happened, and the political press corps lost its steam,” Pope declared this week. “We find ourselves today in a news environment where the narratives are established, and the days’ Trump coverage seems largely in service of reinforcing (for the left) or debunking (the right) that narrative. We say this, the president says that, we’re at an impasse.”
Pope suspects burnout both from the sheer number of issues Trump has dealt with and from the frustration of seeing so little impact from their relentless assault on the president. “Journalists aren’t supposed to pay attention to the effect of their stories – do the piece and let the chips fall – but we’re all human, and a certain demoralization has sunk in,” Pope wrote.
He still doesn’t get it.
“I think the answer likely lies in the seams between more conventional approaches to reporting: I want to see more first-person pieces by reporters on the trail, some oral histories, some theoretical what-ifs. This is an extraordinary moment, and it requires a new, proactive urgency to tell the story of this presidency as we see it, rather than fall into the swirl of familiar tropes and outrages.”