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Thursday, December 13 , 2018, 11:13 am | Fair 62º


Peter Funt: Cover Donald Trump with Caution

News media beware.

Covering the Trump administration — in both hard news reporting and opinion writing — will not be as easy as it seems. The low-hanging fruit offered by a White House prone to hyperbole and even recklessness with truth could turn out to be poisonous.

On Saturday, new White House spokesman Sean Spicer was sent into the Brady Briefing Room to scold media about how it reported crowd size at President Donald Trump’s inauguration. On Sunday, Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway sought to defend Spicer by asserting that he had offered “alternative facts.”

Media had a feeding frenzy, ripping Spicer for distorting truth, and then lampooning Conway for suggesting that truth can come in alternative forms.

Spicer’s hot-under-his-ill-fitting-collar presentation drew the most criticism for this sentence: “This was the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe.”

Here’s the thing: it might be true.

While television ratings were lower than for President Barack Obama’s first inaugural, and while there is clear photographic evidence that Trump’s crowd on the Washington Mall was smaller than Obama’s, the vast increase in digital devices and alternative distribution through social media make it virtually certain that this year’s event had the largest total audience ever.

And that’s probably what Conway was alluding to when she blurted out the phrase “alternative facts” without fully explaining herself. To grant her complete benefit of the doubt — which she might not deserve: while there is no such thing as an alternate version of a specific fact, there are alternative ways to use facts to make an argument.

On Monday, Spicer’s first full-blown White House briefing seemed likely to be a blood bath, with reporters eager to confront him about a weekend’s worth of administration puffery. Instead, Spicer was as smooth and effective as anyone who has held the press secretary job and, try though they did, reporters failed to lay a glove on him.\

None of this means a hoot in the larger scheme of things, except that it should serve as a cautionary note for media in the Trump era. The message is threefold.

First, Trump doesn’t want a cordial relationship with the news media. He campaigned against media with the same vigor he used on Democrats, and at the CIA on Saturday said: “I have a running war with the media.They are among the most dishonest human beings on Earth.”

Second, Americans’ trust and confidence in the mass media “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly” has dropped to its lowest level in polling history, according to Gallup.

Third, in light of the above, every misstep by media — especially early in Trump’s term — is magnified. The unfortunate error by Time’s Zeke Miller in erroneously reporting that a bust of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been removed from the Oval Office will be pushed by Trump defenders for months, or until the next media slip comes along.

The news media have a challenge and an opportunity in covering the Trump administration. They must rely less on official handouts and spoon-feeding by White House sources. They must not take the bait when Trump’s people make relatively minor errors, as all administrations do.

Sunday’s story: Trump overreacts to reporting on crowd size, regrettably becomes Monday’s story: Media overreact to Trump’s overreaction.

Instead, media should focus on bigger pictures and dig deeper. The New York Times is leading the way by beefing up its White House coverage at a cost it says is $5 million above the current budget.

Covering the most unorthodox presidency in history won’t be any easier than it was covering the most maverick presidential campaign, when many in media came up short.

Americans depend on news media now more than ever — even if most of them, according to polls, don’t seem to realize it.

Peter Funt is a writer, speaker and author of the book, Cautiously Optimistic. He is syndicated by Cagle Cartoons and can be contacted at www.candidcamera.com. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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